Getting Online 1.0

My solar battery pack keeps the Verizon MiFi charged when working outdoors

Reliable Internet is a hard requirement for us. We had originally gone with a Verizon Family Plan (December 2017) over ATT’s comparable plan because Verizon allowed any device to use the data allocated in the plan. We started with a 24GB plan which I quickly consumed and then upgraded to a 32GB plan. A MiFi was my primary connection tool and I had a limited amount of hot spot capacity on my iPhone 7. Seeking good WiFi, typically in coffee shops, was a common occurrence.

In February 2017 we switched to a Verizon Unlimited plan which allows unlimited data usage on each iPhone, 15GB of high-speed data on the MiFi and 15GB of high-speed hot spot usage off of each phone. To date, Verizon coverage has been excellent.

Getting Online 1.1

Up until now Verizon coverage has been flawless. But now in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the mountainous terrain has been affecting coverage. Our friends had great coverage with ATT but we only had a signal on certain hilltops. There was an ATT store in town so we stopped in and picked up a Pay2Go (pre-paid) MiFi device. The coverage was great but I burned through the data too quickly. In lieu of topping it up, I started using some local coffee shops to keep me going until we were back in Verizon country.

Getting Online 1.2

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Satellite Internet coverage in West Texas. (March 2018)

There are generally two areas with little cellular coverage, National Parks and Alaska. We love visiting National Parks and also have plans to visit Alaska so we decided to invest in a satellite Internet system. After touring their facility last November, we chose RVDataSat out of Chesapeake, VA. They offered the best value package for unlimited Internet.

Although RVDataSat had performed Airstream installs of their smallest unit, we felt more comfortable having Airstream perform the hardware work. So, we arranged for the Airstream Factory Serice Center, aka the Mothership to take care of the dish installation and having an RVDataSat technician provide guidance on their equipment. When the hardware work was completed, the RVDataSat technician also took care of the internal wiring and system configuration.

The system works well, beaming a signal to the Galaxy 3C satellite approximately 22,000 miles away sitting over the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific! Download speeds are as expected around 2Mpbs down and 512kbps up. Latency is about 500ms.

Outdoor Office & Internet 2.0

The backdrop is a 10′ x 6′ piece of 80% Aluminet from ShadeClothStore attached to our awning.

When working from anywhere, you learn to be flexible, to adapt, to improvise, and eventually overcome.

At the beginning of the pandemic, knowing that I was going to be even more laptop bound, I decided that it was time to raise the display to a better height. I searched Amazon and settled on this portable unit that was reasonably priced with decent reviews. Changing the angle of the laptop meant that I could no longer use the native keyboard. Another foray down the rabbit hole known as Amazon led me to a compact wired/wireless (Bluetooth) unit. I do touch type and opted for Brown switches for the keys. I also decided to switch to a wireless mouse at the same time. Having tried several Bluetooth mice in the past and not being happy with the motion lag, I opted for a mouse with a dedicated USB receiver. Of course, I ensured that the keyboard and mouse lit up and were color changing!

Several months later, I am quite happy with the stand, mouse, and keyboard. That said, there is one thing I would have done differently, and that is with the keyboard. I had taken for granted how often I use the function keys and would consider a larger keyboard with these at the expense of desktop space. There are a few other keys that have been shifted around like the tilde which is now combined with the escape key. I do really like the keyboard’s ability to pair with three different devices. I have it paired with my primary phone and my admin laptop. The battery life in both devices is reasonable and they also work while plugged in for charging.

As for the Internet, it has been a struggle until now. My primary Internet connection is via my Verizon iPhone 7+ and Jetpack/MiFi. We have an unlimited plan from late 2017, which means that we have 15GB per device for hotspot usage. Camp, here in New Mexico, does have WiFi which is somewhat usable late at night or when the local towers aren’t congested. Our cellular booster did generally help with stability, but I was still regularly getting five to ten-second outages. When much of my work involves remote controlling computers on the other side of the world, this is not helpful! After some particularly unstable connections, I decided that it was time to try something new and ordered a Netgear MIMO antenna that can plug into the Verizon MiFi’s (7730L) antenna ports. The external antenna helped some.

Tethering to the hotspot with the external antenna clipped to my laptop.

The other day, I was alternately working and pulling my hairs out in frustration with the Internet instability and realized that I was running down the battery on the MiFi. The closest USB port was on my laptop. My HP Z Book 14 G2 has four. When I connected it, I was prompted to select the mode, USB charging, Internet access via USB and WiFi or Internet access via USB only. On a whim, I chose the latter, Internet access via USB only. Low and behold, my connection not only improved dramatically but became exceptionally stable!

I can only theorize that my five-year-old laptop’s WiFi may not be up to scratch for the latest Jetpack software update. I don’t recall having these issues previously though my neighbor has confirmed that ATT’s cellular Internet hasn’t been great either. Maybe it is all of the above – convergence. I have since started using the MIMO antenna clipped to my laptop screen on top of the USB connection. While I can get a better signal if I point the antenna North, I’ll have to devise a suitable stand first. In the meantime, I’m counting down the remaining gigabytes allowed for the hotspot. When that runs out, I may try tethering to my phone again. That hasn’t worked in a while though…

UPDATE: I have since figured out that I needed to install iTunes in order to tether my iPhone for Internet access. I now also use an old iPad stand to hold the Netgear antenna and allow it to be oriented for the best signal.

Stay tuned for more!

Article By Sean