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The Travels of Bucket List Bessie

John & Pat go fulltime in an RV

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full-time rving

More RV Internet Geekery, Router Envy, Verizon’s “Un-Limits”

Being retired means I now have the time to seriously geek out.  After having finished rushing around to get our house ready to sell, we’re now faced with a long wait for the closure process for the sale. Whenever I’m faced with a long period in which I have nothing to do, Pat should immediately confiscate my credit cards, because that’s when I’m tempted to do recreational shopping – you know, the kind where you don’t really do have to do it right now, but you “may as well get it done.”

As a case in point, we moved into a long-term hotel for the duration of our sale, and “free wifi” was advertised. What they didn’t tell us is that the free wifi is so abysmally slow (I suspect deliberately, just so they can tout it as free without paying for decent bandwidth, but Extended Stay America is not likely to read this so no changes are expected) that even just checking your email takes minutes instead of seconds. To get “the faster version” you have to pay $15 per week extra. Rather than play this game of bait-and-switch, and since we’ll be here for up to two months, I decided to channel that money into buying what will become our IT suite once we move into our motorhome.

So off to the Verizon store we went. Verizon has the best rep among RV’ers for having a network that covers more rural countryside in the U.S. than its competitors, and it also re-instituted an “unlimited” (reason for the quotes later) data plan, which admittedly costs more but will provide us with the sort of service we were used to with our home-based cable modem. We ended up buying two smartphones and a dedicated mifi hotspot called a “Jetpack”, all of which share the unlimited plan. Our thinking was that the mifi can handle all the RV-based clients – laptops, tablets (both of which we have one apiece) and various RV system sensors – while the phones are for our pockets when we’re away from the RV and can also be used as surrogate hotspots by turning on their tethering functions.

We tried this RV setup in our hotel room using the jetpack as a sort of router/hotspot, both of our tablets, Pat’s all-in-one PC and my laptop, and it sorta/kinda worked. One frequently used client device from our our old home LAN is an 8-terabyte NAS (Network Hard Drive). We use it for keeping soft scans of important documents, lots of videos, music, ebooks and a complete set of all of our family photos. In essence, it’s our “cloud” that we will be taking on the road. Although it can function in a pinch connected via wifi with the inclusion of a wifi adapter plugged into the back, it really likes an ethernet connection to a router to be effective. The 6620L jetpack fails in this regard, having only one micro USB connection. I tried the wifi approach but the result was slow and wonky.

So I chose the Pepwave Surf Soho Mk3 router for this task, and I couldn’t have picked a better device at any price. At $199 it’s not cheap, but it has every feature I needed to run Internet in a mobile platform like an RV:

1. It has a “USB WAN” port in back that connects to the USB port on the jetpack for a USB-tethered Internet signal. The jetpack’s wifi transceiver instantly became unnecessary after I found out how well the Surf Soho worked with the jetpack, so I turned it off and I roll with just USB tethering now. Speed checks in urban Columbia Md. produce results in the 15-25 gigabit range.

2. The “Mk3” part indicates that the SOHO was upgraded to the latest wrinkle in wifi protocols, called 802.11ac, which the 6620L jetpack doesn’t have, enabling much faster speeds to our tablets and wifi-connected laptop.

3. It has the ability to act as a wifi bridge at the same time that it’s tethered to the jetpack, so that it can take a campground’s Wifi signal (when we’re in Verizon dropout zones) and rebroadcast the wifi to all of our devices. This avoids having to reset all of our client devices to the campground’s wifi settings. This doesn’t mean that we can do online banking or other hacker-jackpot activities over an untrusted wifi hotspot. We will still have to find a Verizon 3G/4G signal somewhere for that.

4. The SOHO includes “Automatic Failover,” which allows me to set up a priority scheme covering items 1 and 3 above, so that the jetpack’s USB comes first, but if our RV is in a Verizon blind spot, the campground’s wifi (few of which are really that good but most fulltimers will tell you that, every now and then, you hit a nugget) automatically kicks in as the first choice without being told to.

5. It includes a complete suite of firewall and event logging software for times when we use a campground’s “untrusted” wifi signal.

Back of the Soho router, with 802.11AC paddle antennae, USB WAN input and ethernet outlets
802.11ac paddle antennae and USB WAN input make the SOHO a good fit for a mobile operation like an RV or boat.

In general I found the Surf Soho plugged all of the holes that were apparent by trying to use the jetpack as a hotspot and rudimentary router, and all three devices were small enough to fit in a 4″ x 9″ footprint suitable for installation in an RV’s interior cabinet.

Jetpack, NAS and router, small enough to RV with and complete enough to handle anything on the road
Jetpack, NAS and wifi router. Small enough for an RV storage shelf and able to handle anything on the road.

When is Unlimited not really Unlimited?

One wrinkle in Verizon’s Unlimited plan is the limit that they place on a device’s “unlimited” activity. After 10 gigabytes of monthly activity (22GB for the phones) the jetpack becomes “deprioritized” on Verizon’s network. Verizon says that this isn’t necessarily “throttling” because it doesn’t just chop your bandwidth when you hit the threshhold. Instead, if anybody new logs onto the network in your vicinity after you’ve hit your threshhold, they assume priority and you take a backseat, possibly with enough bandwidth to keep streaming video but not at the rates that the new guy is getting.

In practice in an urban area I’ve found that my speeds didn’t suffer all that much, and my jetpack’s usage numbers just passed 60 gigabytes 3 weeks into March. I still watch Youtube videos without getting buffered.  Of course it may be a different story when we get to the boonies, as Columbia is a fairly upscale city with newer infrastructure. We’ll see as the year wears on.

Trial Run continued

We’ve been at the KOA in Durham, Maine for two days, and the learning experiences are piling up.  We’ve had enough experience with this RV (30-foot Cruise America rental class-C) to start to realize the good and the bad, about Cruise America, this particular RV, and our own decision-making process.

mainecamp

The good:  This RV has the ubiquitous Ford F53/V10 362HP chassis/engine combination common to most gas-powered RVs, and I have no complaints about the power and driveability.   Granted, we weren’t towing a vehicle as Pat decided to follow me in our Honda Civic, so it remains to be seen how hard it is to tow with this thing, but I was favorably impressed at acceleration, even on inclines.   The engine likes to rev but doesn’t seem to do so with effort.  Even though the temperature was in the high 80’s, the dash A/C kept the whole coach cool and we only ran the generator for the roof A/C, due to high daytime temps on the East Coast this week, when we stopped.   Cruise America added a sticker recommending that users keep the transmission in Tow/Haul mode “for increased fuel economy.”  This means that the engine winds out a bit more and helps brake the coach on downhill runs, much like a car with the overdrive turned off.  We tried it in both modes (Tow/Haul on/off) and preferred leaving it on.

The bad:  I’m going to itemize this just to arrange my thoughts.

1. Small holding tanks.  We made a choice when we reached the KOA. We could have set up in a treeless field and gotten a full hookup, or we could opt for a forested site with water and electric only. We chose the latter, and this brought with it a chance to try out the holding tank capacity of this rental RV.   We like showers, so we didn’t stint on water usage.  This means that we need to leave our site periodically to hit the dump station before returning to re-setup in the site.   Most experienced RV’ers would put this in the PITA dept. but since we need the practice, it affords us the opportunity to work on our tank-dumping skills at least a couple of times before we leave at the end of this week.

2. No slideouts.  Big negative here.  While I’m sure many folks like their class B’s with no slideouts, that’s not the way we roll, and we really like the added room that slideouts give us.  Next time we’ll be renting from a company that features coaches with at least one slideout.

3. No leveling.  Our woodsy campsite is not level, and slopes downward toward the driver’s side of the RV.  For coaches with leveling, this is solved with the push of a button.  We had to improvise, and fortunately our nearby nephew owns a sawmill and provided us with a wooden solution to raise the low side of the coach.  Another reference to renting from a different company here.

4. Fit and finish.  Our RV had 30K miles on it, and had passed through many hands on the way to our temporary stewardship.  Cruise America says “the renter is responsible for all damages”.  We did a walk-around inspection and noted the obvious imperfections, but after two days we’re still occasionally discovering something that didn’t make the list we gave the guy when we left, like roof vent screens that hang askew, roof and stove vents that scream when turned on due to tortured bearings, a bathroom sink faucet with a missing aerator that causes water to gush all over the countertop, Note to self: every switch, every vent, pretty much everything with a button: check.

5. Flimsy house construction.   In order to keep the weight down and increase driveability (see “Good” above), the house construction is very flimsy, with walls less than 1/4″ thick.  This isn’t enough wood to give bite to things like trim staples in corner moldings, screws for brackets to hold doors open, etc.  Aside from the obvious mechanical issues of maintaining the powertrain, this adds a lot of man-hours to just keeping the coach interior in shape not to lose our deposit.

All in all, so far this trip has been a great one for seeing the dirty little details of RV stewardship.  Every day it seems I learn something I didn’t know.   More as the week rolls on.

Our First Trial Run

Pat and I really wanted to visit our nephew and his family in Maine, and we decided to turn it into a dry run for our RV retirement. We’re renting a Cruise America Class C RV in Hartford Connecticut and driving it the rest of the way to Durham, Maine, to the KOA campground where we’ll spend a week getting reacquainted with our family diaspora and checking out the black fly population.

Lessons learned so far:
1. Don’t ever, ever drive the I-95 corridor on a weekday, and possibly at any time.  Even avoiding NYC at rush hour by taking 287 thru the catskills added 2 hours to the trip.  Road construction, rush hour traffic thru Philadelphia and bottlenecks like the Tappan Zee bridge over the Hudson River all contributed to our 9PM arrival at our hotel in Hartford.  On the return trip we plan on cutting West from Hartford to Scranton and down to home via Harrisburg PA. Much nicer drive.

2. New York State roads are as bad on the eastern end as they are on the western end of the state, where Pat’s family (and all of my previous NY driving experience) hails from.  We didn’t even need a sign to tell us when we crossed over from New Jersey; my lower lumbar region suddenly got into that New York state of mind as I did the giant pothole slalom.  It disappeared nicely after we got into Connecticut.

We’re overnighting in Hartford and picking up the coach at 9AM tomorrow for the 3-hour journey to our destination.

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