(By, Tom Gonser, 08/2011)

It Started with “Modem Friendly”...

A primary motivation for launching this site in the mid-1990s was the notion that RVers needed a voice to express the interest of traveling RVers in having access to the internet. At the beginning (for those that can remember back that far!) we published an editorial coining a phrase never before used -- “modem friendly” -- and encouraged park owners to provide a phone line so RVers could at least send and receive email. While some RV parks saw this as a potential new revenue source (by charging for access to a phone line that would permit a phone modem connection), in time most parks realized that they could attract more RV guests if they simply offered free access to a phone line. It was all quite primitive, as the “phone line” was usually not a dedicated line, but one of the office phones, or perhaps a phone connection in a laundry room.

And Then Came Wireless...

This all changed when WiFi came to town. Again many RV parks were persuaded by for-profit WiFi providers such as Tengo and others that this promised to be a new revenue stream. Many RV parks signed up with these providers only to recognize that the “new revenue stream” was really going mostly to the outside WiFi service providers, and was not contributing significantly to the RV park’s bottom line. In fact, as soon as the first RV park recognized the potential for offering free WiFi to attract more RVer guests (Fidalgo Bay RV in Anacortes, WA -- under its original ownership), the potential for WiFi as a marketing tool, as opposed to a revenue stream, became increasingly apparent.

Yet in the early days of RV park WiFi offering, the service was usually quite spotty. Often the RV guest had to drag a laptop into an office, laundry room, or public area in order to be within the range of a very weak and slow signal. It was commonplace to find a single Linksys or similar router placed near an office window, which would reach only those few RVs that were parked within the limited range of the signal it broadcast. It seems there were few experts that could design a complete in-park WiFi network that would work reliably, and offer quality service to RV guests. In time that too changed, and RV park owners began to recognize the need to offer WiFi -- and preferably free WiFi -- to be competitive. In the mid 1990’s, when we started this site, the phrase “RVers Online” was almost an oxymoron. Few RVers were among the early adopters of the technologies needed to take advantage of this new thing called “the Internet”.

But how that has changed! As it turns out, internet access is precisely what RVers needed in order both to “stay in touch” with family and friends via email from wherever they traveled; and increasingly they began to discover that banking, investment monitoring, bill paying, and just about anything else could now be done entirely online. In fact many discovered that they could conduct their business activities “on the road”, freeing up a new market niche for the RVing lifestyle.

But where are we now?

At this point there are countless options for creating highly reliable in-park WiFi services. And while most RV park owners still recognize this amenity is best employed as a marketing tool, rather than a separate revenue stream, we seem to be at a new generation of challenges. The major outside vendors that “sell” their WiFi product to RV parks are now often engaged to set up, monitor, and manage the infrastructure that provides the in-park wireless service. In many cases these services are offered as a free amenity to RV guests. In some cases the service is offered on a limited basis (such as one or more days of “free” access), while longer term guests have an option to purchase the service at a reasonably competitive rate -- such as perhaps $30 per month. Yet in far too many parks one still finds that an overnight guest needs to sign up online with the service provider just to check email or perhaps do a few quick internet searches. Compared to a typical $30 per month rate, these charges seem astronomical. We recently stayed at a park that offers the Tengo service -- but unlike many parks that build the cost into the daily rate, this one charges $0.19 per minute for access. That’s nearly $12 per hour, which is entirely unacceptable.

Another feature of this offering is also noteworthy. It is becoming common practice for some outside WiFi providers to keep their costs lower, and their profits higher, by deliberately reducing the download speed of the services they offer. It’s not uncommon to find if you choose to sign up with one of these services a statement in the “fine print” to the effect that “In order to provide fair access for all patrons, if your download usage exceeds certain threshold parameters your download speed will be further reduced so that everyone gets fair access”. In other words, you invited to pay a very high daily rate, but if you use it more than the provider likes, your penalty will be subject to a drastically reduced download speed. It seems likely that many park owners do not really understand the nature of the product they’re permitting these outside vendors to peddle. And as RVers become more sophisticated in selecting RV parks based on a satisfactory WiFi offering, they will again begin making choices that park owners truly need to understand. We believe its time for RVer to unite behind minimum standards for what’s an acceptable WiFi service at an RV park. We believe to meet acceptable standards for offering “Quality RV Wireless Service” a park should conform to these norms:

Proposed Standards:

1. The WiFi signal should reach all RV sites within the park that are represented to offer WiFi reception, and guests should be able to rely on that representation when getting a site assignment.
2. The signal should be reliable 24/7, with a knowledgeable person available to restore the service on short notice should the signal become disabled.
3. The download speed should consistently be not less than 500 KB for “standard” service, and not less than 1 Mbps to qualify as a “Quality” service.
4. Upload speeds should be not less than 250 Kbps.

[Caveat: We understand and appreciate that some RV parks are located in remote areas where online opportunities are primitive and/or limited. With respect to such properties, the standard needs to conform only to the best reasonable available option.]

While we believe these targets for minimum download speeds are reasonable at the present time, we would expect them to be upgraded significantly as the technology continues to mature.

Evolving New Options...

Traditional RV park wireless services aside, there is important evolving technology that RVers need to recognize and understand, as it’s becoming a very competitive option. For some years now it’s been possible to use cell phones to transmit and receive data. But in the past couple of years these technologies have really taken off, and for many RVers now provide the best of the available options. While most major carriers offer excellent coverage in and around urban areas and major interstate highways, some are beginning to offer “3G” coverage even in much more remote areas. Verizon has, in our experience, been the leader here, though others are likely catching up. Verizon and others are now moving to even higher standards with “4G” coverage in urban areas that can offer download speeds as high as 10 MB. While coverage is presently confined to large metropolitan areas where few if any traveling RVers are likely to be found. But within the next two years, expect this technology to spread rapidly, offering high speed cell coverage outside of just major urban centers.

Another nuance to the cell option is the increasing availability of a "tethering" option for data capable cell phones. Many RVers are presently using USB modems that plug directly into a laptop's USB port and provide internet access. The cost of that service is roughtly equivalent to have an additional telephone line -- as indeed it is a separate phone number. However the competition among carriers is now heating up for a much lower cost "tethering" service. This means that your existing cell phone can be connected to your laptop to share its internet connection with your laptop. Not quite as convenient as the tiny separate USB modem, but it does not require a separate phone line and therefore can be offered at a lower cost. This area is still developing, but it's a new option RVers will surely find of interest.

Satellite internet has been available for many years, and offers marginally acceptable download speeds virtually anywhere the dish is not obstructed. However the initial cost of these systems, the comparatively high monthly cost, and the high and often frustrating maintenance of these systems will, in our view, make them a much less attractive option in the future. We’re probably good examples of that trend, in that with comparatively higher speed and lower monthly cost of a Verizon cell connection, we opted to remove the DataStorm internet satellite dish from our own motorhome, and have been well served by the decision to rely instead on the Verizon cell connection.

Even the evolving devices available to enhance the cell data option are providing increased convenience of use. CradlePoint has for some time offered a router into which a cell USB modem can be plugged, with the result that the cellular internet connection can be “broadcast” in and around an RV so that multiple computers and devices (e.g. Ipad, iPhone) can tap into the signal. Most recently new products take this one step further. These devices can pick up either a cell signal or an available wireless signal, and broadcast “the best option” as a far more secure WiFi signal for the RV owner’s personal use. These products at the moment seem to represent the cutting edge of available technology.

With so many new options now available, the RVer that wants to ensure the best possible access to online services while on the road is surely well advised to review the available options, and make the modest investment needed to ensure online access regardless of the nature of offerings at RV parks and campgrounds.

It’s Time to Raise the Bar

That said, the purpose of this commentary is to encourage higher standards at RV parks where WiFi services are offered. It took the concerted effort of RVers to persuade RV parks to offer a phone line in the 1990s. In the first decade of this century, it again required the insistence of RVers on having access to a wireless internet connection in the parks where they would choose to stay. We believe we’re at another crossroads at this point, where the quality of the RV service at RV parks needs to meet certain minimum standards.

Parks are of course free to determine whether they will charge an additional fee for a quality wireless service. If the past is any example, some parks will continue to try to tap into an additional revenue stream, while others will generate additional revenue by attracting more guests to their parks precisely because they’ve included the cost of a quality wireless service in the composition of their daily rate. And as in the past we, as RVers, will vote with our choice of where we’ll choose to stay.

However parks choose to treat with the WiFi issue, we believe that it’s time to raise the bar on the level of WiFi quality RV parks are providing. We think major RV Park Directories such as Trailer Life and Woodalls should be a part of the solution here by reporting not only on whether an RV park offers WiFi, and not only whether a separate fee is charged... We’d like to see these Directories now begin to rate the quality of the WiFi service provided using standards such as we’ve proposed above.