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Get connected in the middle of nowhere

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IN THE WOODS — I am in the middle of a family camping trip in an RV and am rapidly becoming an expert on how to connect to the Internet in the middle of nowhere.

Well, honestly, today most campgrounds are pretty high-tech compared even to last year. Many cater to full-time RV'ers, who use e-mail and cell phones to connect to friends and family around the world.

My initial thought was to use my cell phone for e-mail access on this trip, but so far that has been an exercise in frustration. First I had to find the correct cable; my cellular provider generously offered to sell me one for $100; I settled on one from a local electronics superstore for $49 because it was made by Belkin, the best cable-making company in the free world. I have seen them online for as little as $9, but not the Belkin brand.

So far, this has rarely worked. The few times I have been able to connect, the speed has been either 4,600 bits per second or 9,600 bits per second, a far cry from a usable speed. Your modem likely operates near 53,000 bits per second for comparison.)

Even when I managed to make a connection, I lost the connection consistently after only two or three minutes of access. Of course, the cellular network wasn't intended for decent data transmission, so that leaves us "land-lines" to use.

Of all the campgrounds we've stayed in this trip, all but one has had "data ports" in the camping center that let people make local calls for free. The trick is knowing what local access numbers are available.

Before you leave, print out the access numbers for the cities you may be visiting so you have them on-hand. The national providers like America Online and MSN offer such lists on their Web sites or you can make a toll-free call on the data port line and it will download the latest numbers for the area code you select.

Just remember to stick in the appropriate prefix, such as "9", before the system dials to update your address book.

If you have only a local Internet Service Provider, you can call and ask if there are other numbers you can use; some have partnerships in other cities or offer toll-free dial-in access for a surcharge. Otherwise, you will be forced to make a long-distance call to access your ISP. If that is the case, consider pre-paid phone cards from Sam's Club or Costco at about 4 cents a minute with no monthly fee.

If you are stuck using only a pay phone, your options are really limited. I bought a pair of acoustic couplers that attach to a pay phone receiver, much like those that came with my original TRS-80 Model 100, the mainstay portable computer for journalists. Honestly, the only time these will come in handy is as an absolute last-resort communication, as in "send the helicopters now . . . the rebels are advancing our base." You are lucky to get any consistent connection there these days.

One option is to use a Web mail application for your e-mail. Those, like Hotmail and Yahoo mail, let you read and send mail from any browser anywhere. If you don't regularly use such a service, which is free, you can set up your "real" e-mail account to automatically forward your mail to Hotmail while you are gone. Or you can ask your ISP if they offer a Web-mail option; many do.

You can stop at any Kinko's location or Internet cafe to read your mail then . . . your options are pretty open. Just try to avoid those e-mail kiosks at airports or tourist traps . . . they are amazingly overpriced for what they offer, which is very, very slow access for a high per-minute charge.

And remember if you are traveling overseas to get a "modem saver" tester and all the adapters you need before you go.

WEEKLY WEB WONDER: The best site I've found for travel supplies for a laptop is the Road Warrior www.warrior.com


James Derk is new media editor for The Evansville Courier & Press. His e-mail address is jderk@evansville.net.