The bandwidth war
Traveling solo in the Airstream Caravel, and now parked in a lovely desert state park, you would think that my thoughts would go to poetic descriptions of the desert flora, or reflections on solitude. But in fact I’ve been thinking about wireless Internet.
Here’s why: the phenomenon of mobile working-class people living in motorhomes and travel trailers has really begun to gain momentum. When we started traveling full time in 2005 and I was working on the magazine, I rarely ran into anyone who was doing the same thing. Part of the reason was that cellular Internet was not so great, with “2G” networks in this country and connectivity so slow that I would find a Panera Bread if I needed to do serious downloading. Campground wi-fi was spotty and indifferently supported by the campgrounds, meaning that usually it didn’t work. Some traveling friends used satellite connections on tripods, and if you’ve ever seen the rigamarole involved in setting one of those up, and then suffered the tedious upload speeds, you can understand that they were really desperate.
A few years later it was an entirely different situation, and now in 2014 we have fairly high-speed cellular all over the country, and with usable signal in places we could only fantasize about a few years ago. A small industry has sprung up to provide us with high-gain antennas, cellular-compatible routers, wi-fi extenders, and signal boosters. Even campground wi-fi has gotten a little better (although still terribly unreliable on the whole). The bottom line is that anybody can get online almost anywhere.
And so we are. Lots of us. The numbers of “knowledge workers” living in RVs and traveling nomadically seems to have skyrocketed. I don’t think anyone really knows how many of us there are, since we are hard to track, but I see them in greater numbers every year. They are easy to spot by their relative youthfulness, the fact that they stay inside most of the working day, and because of the cluster of antennas on the roof. Even people who aren’t reliant on a job have begun to regard Internet connectivity as essential as oxygen, and I see them too, watching Netflix on their laptop at night and using Skype to talk to the grandchildren.
The result is that in many nomad hotspots, the network still sucks. It’s just like 2005 right now in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, in terms of Internet quality, not because of any fault of Verizon or AT&T, or the state park management, but simply because too many people are inundating the network. A few years ago on the 3G network I was flying along, getting work done efficiently because I was the only person in the park who was goofy enough to sit in my trailer on a nice day and work on the laptop. Everyone else was sensibly out on a hike, or touring the park, or starting their campfire. Now a bunch of them are sitting inside their trailers and watching YouTube. The result is that it took three minutes for me to load a simple web page this morning.
I drove over an area just east of Borrego Springs, where the border of the state park and some fortuitous geology have combined to create an ideal free camping spot for mobile workers. Two years ago at this time of year the area had a scattered of RVs, and perhaps a quarter of them were working folk. The rest were just out for vacation, or retired and living cheap off the grid. Today, I found over a dozen RVs out there sporting big rooftop antennas for collecting wi-fi, satellite, cellular signals—and inside, people with laptops, smart cell phones, iPads, etc. Many of those people will report to work on Monday, and they need Internet to do that.
But the network … alas. It just doesn’t have the oomph to reach out there and give everyone high-speed Internet. This has spurred a sort of arms race, because he who has the biggest antenna and booster setup will get a stronger signal and hence more bandwidth. It has also spurred a land grab, because only a few spots exist in that part of the desert that can really get a good line-of-sight view to the cellular tower in Borrego Springs. He who has the highest spot on the ridge gets more signal, too.
When I talked to a few of the people who have been there a while, they were considering relocating to better spots. Keep in mind that all the spots offer the same desert dust, creosote bushes, jackrabbits, and solitude. The only reason to move is to get signal, and moving is a giant pain because they’re already very settled into their spots. They won’t move the rig for something like water (they’d rather pay a day-use fee to use the showers in the state park), but they will move the rig for Internet. So you can see how important it is to them.
Campground managers I have talked to recently tell me that they can’t keep up. Everyone shows up with a computer these days, and often they also have smart phones and tablets, each of which wants to connect to the campground wi-fi. One manager said he had spent $20k in the last month upgrading the campground system and upgraded the data plan to the maximum available, and it still wasn’t enough. So the next step is for campgrounds to start blocking certain services, like streaming video (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc), streaming audio (Skype, iChat, etc). That won’t make customers happy; they see wi-fi as a right. They view blocking as an unfair restriction, like telling you that you can use the campground water for drinking but not for showers.
Meanwhile, I’m back in my 2005 “work-around-the-slow Internet” mode. I’m only doing the bare minimum that I need to do online, because otherwise I’ll be staring at my computer forever. Anything that takes serious bandwidth will get done at dawn, before all the kids start watching cartoons, and before the workers who are operating on east coast time start teleconferencing. The blog doesn’t have pictures (but I’ll get some later). I’m saving a list of things that require high-speed Internet (like big file uploads) and I’ll do those at some public wi-fi spot in town.
Another good trick is to use the smart phone instead of the laptop. Mobile apps are designed for narrow bandwidth, and you can do quite a lot with a tablet or phone. For things like banking, short emails, and social network updates, today’s smart phone apps are definitely a great way to go.
This bandwidth situation reminds me of the constant battle between hardware engineers and software engineers. Ever since computers were invented, software engineers have always wanted to design programming that outstripped the capabilities of the hardware. This spawned a famous saying (at least in computer geek circles): “No matter how clever the hardware boys are, the software boys piss it away.” This is why your new 2013 computer doesn’t boot up faster than your 1998 computer, even though the hardware is nearly 1,000 times faster.
It’s the same with the network. The 4G LTE network I’m using can be up to 30 times faster than the 3G network it replaced, but we’re all using a lot more data than before, too. In 2008 we had a couple of laptops, one of which was rarely used. Now we have six mobile devices and when we are traveling all of them are heavily used. We’re hardly unique in that respect, especially among travelers.
The problem is worsened by the software boys’ relentless attempts to get us to do everything “in the cloud.” This means all of our commonly used applications automatically connect to the Internet to check for updates, download advertisements, and synchronize files. This is frustrating when you are paying for every gigabyte of data, and it slows things down. I make it a mission to find and kill programs that insist on sending large amounts of data without explicit permission. You’d probably be surprised how many there are on your laptop and cell phone.
I don’t expect this problem to get much better. Cellular networks have come a long way, but as they gain, there’s always some new application that will suck up every bit of excess bandwidth plus some. The “arms race” for serious mobile workers will continue.
This trip I’m not going to be a contender in the battle, because I’m in the Caravel and it doesn’t have a rooftop antenna nor a signal booster. It also doesn’t have a solar panel, so I’m limited to what I can do with one little Group 24 battery. When I move to the boondocking spot among all those hard-core mobile workers, my best move will be to go for a hike somewhere in the vast desert where cell signals don’t penetrate anyway. So that’s what I’m going to do … tomorrow.