On Road Trip 2009, when wireless met 'wilderness'

CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman set out to be able to get online deep in the Wyoming wilderness. How did he do?

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

On the left is the BGAN mobile satellite modem CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman used to get online from the middle of a national forest in Wyoming during Road Trip 2009. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LAKE GRANBY, Colo.--The question was: is it possible to set up a functional workspace deep in the wilderness?

That's what I set out to do, as one of my last goals of Road Trip 2009. I planned on driving well into the mountains of southern Wyoming to see if I could get some work done far from any modern communications infrastructure.

To that end, I ended up driving south from Rawlins, Wyo., and headed into the Sierra Madre mountains, not far from the Colorado border. However, the campground there that I had intended to try out had been stripped bare of any trees as part of a program to try to manage a pine beetle epidemic that has plagued millions of acres of forest throughout the West.

Hoping for some shade, I abandoned the Sierra Madres and drove east, where not that far away are the Medicine Bow mountains. After trying out a few campgrounds, I settled on a wonderful, small U.S. Forest Service campground called Lincoln Park, where I was able to snag a sweet little shady spot alongside a creek.

The real question, though, was whether it had a clear view of the southeastern sky. That would be crucial for using the Inmarsat BGAN satellite modem I was depending on for getting online. Other parts of my experiment, including being able to print wirelessly with the HP Officejet H470 printer I was testing out (see video below), didn't require any particular kind of location, but if I had any hopes of being able to do research or file stories, let alone photographs, I'd need to be able to get online.

Cell service in the forest?
My first attempts at using the BGAN at Lincoln Park didn't go well. Despite there being a small stand of trees just to the southeast of me, the device seemed to indicate it was getting a strong signal. Strong enough to get online, at least. And at first, it did connect, albeit only enough to run an instant-message application. I couldn't get it to load a Web page, access e-mail, or do anything requiring any real bandwidth.

I was a little panicked because I had a deadline to meet and wasn't sure what to do.

Bemused at seeing a camper pounding away at a computer, a pack of tech gadgets nearby, the campground host came by to see what I was doing. When I told him, and said I was having trouble getting online, he pointed out that only about three miles away was a small bar and grill with Wi-Fi. It was after 9 p.m., so it was closed, but I decided to see if I could grab a little of the place's signal.

It turned out to be called The Place, and while they were closed, I got permission to sit in their parking lot and use their Wi-Fi. So for that first night, I was able to get my story and photos out, despite the frustratingly slow speed of the connection.

When I got back to camp, I was quite tired, so I retired to my tent. I pulled out my iPhone to set an alarm for the morning, and as I did, I noticed it had a signal. Indeed, I was able to make a phone call right from my tent in the middle of the forest. Who knew?

In fact, I was awakened the next morning by the phone ringing, a wholly unexpected development.

Getting BGAN working
Things were a little more relaxed now, as they should be in the woods. But I still had work to do, and assuming that I wasn't going to be able to get the BGAN to work, I drove back to the bar and grill and this time sat down inside and worked for a couple hours. However, this was definitely not what I had wanted out of this experiment.

I went back to the campground and, taking advantage of the cell phone service, I called my contact at Inmarsat to see if there was something I should be doing differently to get the BGAN working. We went through a series of diagnostics, but everything seemed like it was correct. The one thing I should do differently, he said, was try connecting BGAN to my computer while the laptop was shut down.

The advantages of working in the wilderness: stunning views of the Rockies, as seen from Lake Granby, in Colorado. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

I tried that from a picnic table not far from my site--this one had a clear view of the southeastern sky--and voila! There was the Internet. It wasn't as fast as I had hoped, but it worked, and I was able to get done most of what I needed to.

Another part of the experiment was to see if I could make phone calls from the forest using the Iridium 9555A satellite phone I had with me. Frustratingly, this really seemed inconsistent, just as it had been earlier in the trip when I'd tried to use it. I've used Iridium sat phones on previous Road Trips, so I wondered if I was doing something wrong. But I had a very clear view of the southern sky, the antenna was up and the signal seemed to go in and out. I got a call through, but it was not an ideal experience.

Moving on to Colorado
I had wanted to try this mobile office experiment in a couple of different places, so I set out in search of another campground. After a wonderful drive through Rocky Mountain National Park, I ended up on a hilltop at a campground overlooking Granby Lake. Tall Rocky Mountain ranges were visible in every direction, and the lake itself was absolutely stunning.

But true wilderness this was not. For one thing, I had four bars of Verizon's EV-DO signal. That meant that I could sit at my campsite and work without having to deal with any potential BGAN problems. Not that I had any when I tried out BGAN again, just to make sure I really knew what I was doing with it.

Still, I was fully off the grid. Well, as off the grid as you can be and still have enough power to last for a couple of days of rather heavy computing needs. And that meant that at Lake Granby, and in the Wyoming wilderness, I had had to plug my various devices into the Audi Q7 TDI I've been driving on Road Trip to recharge.

Ultimately, though, I'd say that while there were some false starts and some cheats--relying on a bar and grill's Wi-Fi isn't really the same thing as setting up a mobile office in the woods--the experiment was a success. I proved (to myself, at least) that it was possible to work deep in the woods.

And while I'd rather have been relaxing that whole time, I had work to do. But it was nice to be among the trees and creeks and lakes for a few days instead of in motels and on the road.

Click here for the entire Road Trip 2009 package.