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RV Travel and Satellite Internet

by Don Bradner

Being able to use the internet while traveling matters a lot to many RVers. Until a couple of years ago, that meant taking your laptop into an RV park office, or the laundry or rec room, and using a dataport to make a phone call to a dialup ISP.

Now the number of ways to get online is increasing everyday. WiFi hotspots are being added to RV Parks, and to truck stops. Cellular services are adding higher-speed, lower-cost data access. This article looks at a less-common choice, which is mobile, two-way, satellite access.

Satellite is one of the more expensive ways to connect to the internet, but it is also the only way that will work virtually anywhere you travel. For many of us, "working everywhere" is very important, so only satellite will suffice both now, and for any forseeable future.

For satellite connections you have two choices, and two ways for doing it.

The two satellite choices are Starband and HughesNet (formerly Direcway), the two ways are automatic mount, and tripod or other manually pointed mount .

A couple of years ago we expected that HughesNet would begin to shut down people who moved without authorization, and Starband always did. Now that the issue of authorized/unauthorized has become pretty much moot through indifference on the part of HughesNet, and Starband actively courting at least some users, the differences become centered on cost vs convenience. The good tripod sellers will tell you about the rules, and that there is a theoretical possibility that you can be shut down for moving. Individual consumers will need to decide for themselves if the extremely tiny risk (my opinion!) is acceptable or not.

There are several manufacturers, at the moment, of authorized automatic mounts, including C-Com's iNetVu, Ground Control MSS, DTI DirecStar, and the Motosat Datastorm. The Datastorm has been around the longest, and the vast majority that you will see on RVs are Datastorms using HughesNet (which is what I have, and why I started this site). I have an obvious bias towards the Datastorm, so you may want to visit the links at the bottom to balance my comments here.

The Datastorm is a standard .74 meter (with .98 and 1.2 meter sizes available at higher cost) HughesNet dish mounted on a substantial aluminum plate, with geared motors moving the dish in each of three axes (elevation, azimuth, and skew). The dish electronics include tilt sensors, and GPS to aid in locating the satellite. Control of the dish used to be done with a Windows-based PC running Datastorm software. The current Datastorm controller communicates directly with the modem, and no control computer is required. Typical cost for a Datastorm is $5000-$5500 including installation, with typical monthly account fees of $79 (business level service).

The other dishes are very similar to the Datastorm, with variations in drive systems plus cosmetic differences. Prices are similar.

Manual mounts commonly use surveyor-type tripods. Each vendor has developed proprietary methods of making the setup and adjustment as easy as possible. Prices vary between about $1300 and $2000, with monthly service ranging from $59-$79, depending on service level.

The choice between manual and automatic is primarily a choice of cost versus convenience.

A manual mount must be transported somehow, and these are not small units. They must be assembled and disassembled before and after each use. They can take quite awhile to point, because pointing is much more precise than it is for TV. Because of the large "sail" area of the dish they can be very hard to deploy or keep deployed in windy conditions. On the plus side, they can be moved to work around trees or other obstructions when a permanently mounted dish would otherwise be blocked.

An automatic mount can be deployed in minutes (the Datastorm averages 3 to 4 minutes) with no intervention by the user. Its mount is fine with the dish deployed in up to 60mph winds, and many users have exceeded that without problems. Cost is the main negative, including both initial and monthly costs, with the other consideration being the need to park where trees will not interfere with line-of-sight.

Travel patterns and internet usage needs therefore matter a lot in the choice of tripod vs automatic mounts. I tend to spend about 6 months per year traveling, and that travel is typically about 4 days per week with a couple of stays of 2 or 3 days. I need connectivity, and will routinely put the dish up to check e-mail at a rest or meal stop. I've yet to meet a tripoder who will go through the deployment aggravation to do that! For someone who travels much less, with long stays between moves, a tripod mount can be a viable choice.

Links to the companies mentioned with automatic mounts:
Motosat Datastorm
C-Com iNetVu
Ground Control MSS
DTI DirecStar

Some examples of companies who provde tripod equipment:
Maxwell Satellite
Dustyfoot
Business Web Support
RovingInternet
www.orbitalenterprises.net.

More dealers, primarily for the Datastorm, can be found in the Dealers link at the top of this page.

There is extensive discussion of all forms of mobile satellite internet to be found in the forums here at DatastormUsers.com. Your participation and comments are welcome. A second recommendation, particularly for tripod information, is the Yahoo group RVInternetBySatellite.



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