Last summer, CNET News.com reporter Daniel Terdiman spent two weeks on the road with a car full of electronic gadgets and the perseverance needed to get even the balkiest of them to work. Whether he was tapping into a truck stop's Wi-Fi, hooking up via EV-DO wireless broadband, or "wardriving"--cruising residential areas trying to identify wireless hot spots--he always found a way to connect with CNET and file stories, blogs, and photo galleries. He discusses his tactics below.
Of all the many great memories I have of the road trip I took last summer, for some twisted reason my favorite might be of trying--and eventually succeeding--to find an Internet connection in Astoria, Oregon.
Astoria is a town of about 10,000 people on the north coast from which you can take the long, majestic Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington state. It's a small town, but not that small. And I thought to myself, only a few days into my journey to find the best science- and tech-related destinations in the Pacific northwest, that it shouldn't be hard to find a good Wi-Fi signal.
I'll be honest: the first thing I did was drive my car to the top of the hill, where truly spectacular houses look down over the town and the Columbia River, and try my hand at wardriving--trying to find an open Wi-Fi connection to latch on to.
I drove each block slowly as my MacBook Pro sniffed for a signal. It didn't work, and because I was on deadline to file a story, I turned to Plan B: finding an Internet cafe.
Ten thousand people live in Astoria, yet I had a hard time finding a place downtown with connectivity on offer. I wandered for several blocks, got a few false leads from locals, then some more promising ones until, finally, salvation: in a little tanning salon on a corner, the opportunity to buy a yummy Italian soda with whipped cream while partaking in a piece of the salon's Wi-Fi.
I guess the reason I fondly think back on that afternoon is that, to the delight of my geek heart, it highlighted a couple of conflicting notions about Wi-Fi--that it is still hard to find in some places, and that you can find it anywhere.
The key point, though, is that even though it took a while for me to connect after I entered Astoria's city limits, I did eventually succeed. What's more, that proved to be the case almost every single time I tried to find a connection during my 3,279-mile trek last summer, despite the fact that some of the towns I visited were really, really small.
Signal search imperatives
You'll likely have similar success on your own road trips. You just have to know what's technologically possible and where to look if what you really need is to check how your eBay bid is faring--and to do it right now.
From a purely technological perspective, there are two things you can do to enhance your connectivity, and they both have to do with cell phone networks.
The first is to subscribe to your carrier's over-the-phone Internet/data service, which allows you to send and receive e-mail and access the Web via your smart phone.
For example, AT&T Wireless offers data plans with either unlimited or by-the-minute Internet connectivity on Treos, BlackBerry handhelds, and other smart phones. Those plans start at $30 a month.
Similarly, Sprint Nextel offers an unlimited-access plan for $60 a month, or 40MB of data usage per month for $40.
Other major carriers offer similar plans. The thing to take into consideration here is that your ability to get online using these mobile data services is dependent on the strength of the cell signal you're getting. In cities and other heavily populated areas, you should be able to connect. Your chances diminish if you're in the middle of a national park, though you might be able to find a signal at high elevations.
Another technology to consider is EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized), a wireless broadband service offered by carriers such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T, and others. This option, usually priced at about $60 a month, allows you to connect to the Internet via an access card that plugs into your laptop. At its best--such as when you're visiting a major city--your access will be comparable to that of a good Wi-Fi connection and will allow you full Internet access.
In less populated areas, the signal won't be as strong. But Verizon Wireless has told me, in advance of the road trip I will be taking this summer to the Southwest, that as long as I'm in cell phone signal range, I will be able to get online.
But let's assume you just want to use someone else's signal, or even someone else's computer. You're still going to have many options.
As noted above, wardriving is still a possibility, though fewer and fewer people are leaving their Wi-Fi signals open these days. There are devices, such as Canary Wireless' Digital Hotspotter 2 (coming in September), that allow you to see whether a network is open, but for the most part, wardriving can mean just prowling around looking for a connection. If you choose this route, keep in mind that not everyone will appreciate use of their Wi-Fi signal without consent.
I will confess that in a small town in Washington state last summer, I filed at least one story and a photo gallery using a signal I found coming from a store. I would have paid for it--honest--but deadline was calling, and the store wasn't open.
Plus, there are plenty of cafes that offer Wi-Fi these days. Even in small towns, this is a growing phenomenon. And if you can't find some charming, funky place that has free Wi-Fi for anyone willing to buy a drink, then there's always Starbucks and its readily available--though pricey--T-Mobile service ($30 a month for unlimited access if you sign up for a year, or $40 a month otherwise; $10 for a full day or $6 an hour).
Another favorite access point of mine is the truck stop.
If you're a seasoned road tripper, then you're no doubt familiar with these only-in-America monsters: seemingly hundreds of trucks lined up, idling overnight as their drivers sleep. Daytime, too, is busy, as truck after truck comes through to fuel up.
And these days, many truck stops also offer Wi-Fi.
The Flying J, for instance. This is one of the country's largest truck-stop chains, and most of its locations offer Wi-Fi for $5 a day, or monthly for $20.
Other chains, too, have Wi-Fi services, though I've heard that some are limited to honest-to-goodness truckers. So check first.
Finally, there's the good, old-fashioned motel. I've found in my various journeys in the last couple of years that you're a lot more likely to find free, strong Wi-Fi in a motel--especially those operated by a chain--than you are in a pricey hotel.
But whatever route you choose, it is hard to imagine your being too far from connectivity. It's true that if you go deep into Yosemite, you're not going to find a good Wi-Fi signal, or even EV-DO access, but short of that, you're almost never going to be out of reach.