Posted by: lrrp | November 9, 2004

Wi-Fi Gets Rolling by Cathy Booth Thomas

For mobile nomads, an RV park with wireless access is a godsend. Better even than the pool

The sun is still an orange ball low on the horizon, and the air is cool under the oak trees at the Austin Lone Star RV Resort. The birds are chirping merrily, but Kara Cox, 19, is oblivious to the unfolding beauty of the day. She’s inside her Gulf Stream trailer, still in her pajamas, a week’s worth of clothes on the floor, playing in the 3-D virtual world of EverQuest via a wireless connection to the Web. “She’s on it four hours a day,” says husband Jesse, 22, with an indulgent laugh–and with no exaggeration at all, he swears. “They call it EverCrack for a reason.”

At the other end of the park, retirees Joyce and Pat Busbee haven’t had breakfast yet, but the 70-year-old patriarch already has his Sony Vaio revved up, ready to research a new motor home to replace the couple’s luxury 40-ft. Country Coach. “It’s the best thing since sliced bread,” jokes Joyce, referring to the wireless service, not her 12-ft. living room, full-size tub or double-door fridge. Nice amenities, but after two years on the road, they most cherish the spontaneous instant messages sent via the Internet from their 10-year-old granddaughter in California. That wasn’t always possible before wi-fi. It used to be that they would wait for cheap evening rates on their mobile phone and then dial online through a cellular modem. Now the messages zip freely back and forth. “She writes ‘Grandpa?’, and I write back, ‘Hi, Peanut.’ I love that,” says Pat.

In America’s heartland, geeks and grandparents and good ole boys alike are signing up for wi-fi access in the last place you would expect: RV parks. Whether they pull up in $10,000 campers or $300,000 McMansions on wheels, the nation’s mobile nomads are using 802.11b, the wireless Web standard, to work and play, to bank, to check their stock portfolios or just to stay in touch with loved ones from the road. Ditch those old stereotypes about RV parks, says Eric Stumberg, co-founder of the start-up TengoInternet, based in Austin, Texas, which supplies wireless connections 30 times the speed of dial-up to RV denizens from Florida to Arizona. “These are the real road warriors, living in a coach, carrying cell phones and computers, connecting wirelessly.”

In fact, the RV crowd is increasingly plugged in. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association found that of 7 million households with RVs, 16% access the Internet on the road. And although the majority of the nation’s 16,000 RV grounds still don’t offer wireless access, scores of parks–from the Kampground of America in Kissimmee, Fla., near Disney World, to Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Estes Park, Colo.–are installing the systems. KOA, which launched KOA Konnect in April, plans to offer wireless Internet access in 500 campgrounds and RV parks, charging a flat $19.95 a month, which is about average. Virginia-based LinkSpot offers a $5.95-a-day service in 30 East Coast parks, while TengoInternet supplies 28 RV parks from Florida to Arizona at prices ranging from $5 a day to $105 for three months.

The services have lured a faithful band of rolling wi-fi addicts. Consider Barney and Carol Norton, who pull up to their Lone Star campsite shortly before noon in a new Nissan Xterra–bought after a week of research done (you guessed it) wirelessly online. For the Nortons, quality Internet access was a job necessity. “We can live anywhere. The only thing I require is high-speed access. I’d do without a phone for it,” says Barney, 45, a tech engineer who uses his iPaq handheld to check on his clients. He and wife Carol, 40, moved to Austin for her new job in tech support. Sitting at the dining-room table of their camper at night, they have been researching cars and perusing the real estate listings on Carol’s Dell notebook. After a week, they had the car and were close to buying a house. Not a moment too soon, says Carol, glancing around their cramped quarters.

Down the gravel road, past the fruitless pear trees and the hedges of glossy photinia, is Sherry and Bob Baugh’s “fifth wheel,” a trailer pulled by a truck so massive it inspires fear. The Baughs keep their wi-fi connection open all day long so they can get real-time stock quotes on a desktop Compaq. Bob, 57, a former transport manager, reports that coal companies are paying good dividends, while Sherry, a former medical technician in her 50s, has her eye on some Wal-Mart stock. Wi-fi sure beats the days when they would pay up to $70 to have a phone line installed–plus the monthly charges for Web access–vs. a flat $30 a month for wireless. “We always look at amenities in parks, but now we’ve included wireless access,” says Bob, who reveals Sherry’s secret late-night vice: playing cards online after he’s gone to bed.

When you chat with folks about wi-fi at an RV park, one of the things you notice right away is how few of them ever surf outside at their picnic tables. The RV crowd tends to be escapees from the North who are searching for sunshine–which, incidentally, plays havoc with visibility on computer screens. Surfing the Web, even wirelessly, is mostly an indoor sport (photo ops aside). Dave Aurard, for instance, has a Dell desktop set up inside his massive Gulf Stream, right behind the front passenger seat, which does a 180 to serve as the computer throne too. The little blue antenna for wireless access is stuck inconspicuously to the window to catch the wi-fi signal from an antenna next door–above the park’s family shower facility.

Aurard, a balding Buddha of a guy who was a heating and air-conditioning contractor in Michigan before he kissed cold winters goodbye, usually goes online around midday, after he’s served a hearty breakfast of pancakes and eggs to the hordes at the RV park. The 67-year-old cook is a “work camper,” who pays his way by doing jobs around the park. Though he rarely uses his wireless connection to surf for recipes (he’s got the $9.99 rib-eye-and-baked-potato dinner down pat, thanks), he needs it to order medicine for his diabetes and catch up with his camping-club buddies–the Michiana Hoodlums–back home. “Land lines are too slow,” he says.

Going wireless in an RV park is not without problems, of course. “It’s not yet plug and play,” admits Stumberg, 36, who co-founded his company two years ago, after a lonely trip to Mexico when he came to appreciate two words in Spanish: Tengo Internet (translation: We’ve got Internet). At the RV park, Mac users report having the easiest time going wireless, and Microsoft XP works dandy too, while Millennium is nearly useless. Tight living quarters can play havoc with reception. Microwaving lunch while surfing wirelessly is a sure way to get disconnected. To keep out snoops and unwanted software, many RVers have installed a firewall and virus protection. Amazingly, nearly half arrive equipped with a wireless card, the park’s managers say.

In fact, wi-fi in an RV park tends to attract more users than the pool. When Kara and Jesse Cox moved from wireless Waxahachie, Texas, to Austin so Jesse could finish his last semester at the University of Texas, the first thing they did after pulling up in their 28-ft. mobile home was hook up the electricity and charge the computer (which Jesse, a physics major, built himself). EverQuest came even before the water connection. “Our lives are on that computer,” admits Jesse. “Being young, we have to have our Internet.” Although he kids Kara about her gaming addiction, he spends a fair amount of time on the sofabed in front of the computer. “He just has more homework to do,” she says. Yes, he does that wirelessly too.

As the day winds down at the Lone Star, steaks go on the grill, the wine bottles come out, and everybody has logged off. Well, almost everybody. Carol Norton was up late researching mortgage rates. And Jesse and Kara? The door to their rig was closed, but the sounds of battle were undeniable. Yup, says Jesse with an embarrassed laugh. “We were playing EverQuest.”


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