To Stream or Not to Stream

Here’s another technology post about a topic about which I’m in over my head, but here goes anyway. It’s part of full-time RV living that may seem strange to the uninitiated.

We camp to get away from the world, right? So why do we work so hard—buying gadgets and tracking data use—to stay connected? I’m not sure of the answer. So I’ll tick off my list of how and why we connect.

Wifi versus Cell Connectivity

This picture is my bedside table in the Airstream, with my phone, kindle, earbuds, and watch all vying for juice (plus sleep meds and cream for itchy bug bites: no electricity required, and the battery pack for the tiny lights I have strung above the bed).

One of the first concepts I had to learn on the road is the difference between cell use and Wifi use. Yeah, I knew what that was before, but on the road I got a crash-course in what happens when you let slip an awareness of which service you’re using when.

So we have the following sources of both:

  • Tracy’s phone on Verizon (cell and hotspot for wifi)
  • A stand-alone hotspot device on Verizon
  • My phone on AT&T (cell and hotspot)
  • My iPad with what we’d thought was an unlimited AT&T plan (cell and hotspot)
  • The truck used to be an AT&T hotspot, but my iPad worked so well while we’re traveling that I cancelled that one.

At some campsites we get good cell coverage from one service but not the other. So whichever one of us is cell-deprived uses the hotspot that’s getting signal. If you’re borrowing someone else’s signal though, don’t forget you’re connected. The consequence: Tracy changing his phone’s hotspot password and thus denying me access. That’s some serious defense move. Sadly—necessary to drive the point home for me.

No More Cloud

My Apple products like to grab on to his hotspot like a teat and suck all his data dry. In this new world of rare Wifi connections, it took me ages to figure out how to:

  • turn off auto-updating to operating systems and apps,
  • turn off auto-downloading of podcast episodes and Spotify playlists,
  • turn off cloud back-ups for all devices, and
  • select only the most crucial data I want synced across devices (contacts, passwords, calendars) and disable syncing of the rest.

This has been really difficult for me because of my many Apple devices and how I am used to them all communicating together. It also proves Tracy’s view that Apples are made as push-button systems for people who don’t know what they’re doing, and they infuriate him because of how difficult it is for him to get behind the scenes of any app or even the operating system to do anything other than follow Apple’s instructions blindly.

But Apple versus the world is a different post; this is about our connectivity.

Music by the ABCs

So here’s the grand total or our audio system.

I used to have a living-room stereo system and old-school amplifier and equalizer and huge speakers. Then Tracy introduced me to the digital, whole-house Sonos system.

Now we have one baby speaker, connected to our phones via bluetooth. But seriously, when are we free to blast music loudly? Rarely, due to camping neighbors. And when we’re totally in nature, we’re not so inclined to blast. So this little speaker suits. (We do have speakers inside the trailer, which I address below.)

Without wifi though, listening to music gets a little tricky. When I do have wifi I’ll download albums and playlists from Spotify (and Tracy and I own a lot of music that we’ve purchased).

But I miss the streaming life. I miss having music pop up that I haven’t heard before, or that I haven’t thought of in ages. And I get weary of DJing the sound track of our life on the road.

So here’s our temporary solution that’s entertaining us to no end.

Each day, the first time one of us boots up music for us both, we consult where we are in the alphabet in this “game.” Let’s say we’re at C. We brainstorm all the artists we can think of whose last names start C or bands that start C. We debate the pros and cons of those bands, pick one, and then listen to that band only all day. (And we debate if an artist’s star name counts or the artist’s real name, plus where exactly the band name starts … it’s all fun, believe me.)

Successes so far include the Allman Brothers (they were our A band; I re-fell in love with Eat a Peach) and Eileen Jewel (she was a J). A failure: Willie Nelson (he was an N). We had good intentions with Willy, but after only one album, we sorely wishes we’d picked The National.


Most evenings we’re outside, reading our books or playing cards, but almost always listening to music (downloaded when we’re without wifi; streamed when we’re with wifi or with good cell coverage and enough data still on one of our plans). But when it’s cold or our neighbors are obnoxious, we head inside to watch something on our little TV.

Here are the challenges with video. We can download video to our phones (and my ipad) via Netflix and Amazon, but only Tracy can view the Netflix downloads on the TV (he daisychains his phone to his computer to the TV). Amazon prevents both of us from moving the video to the TV, so I watch some Amazon on my phone (Star Trek at night when I can’t sleep), and, when we’re lucky, we stream it to the TV. But in places like here in the Keys, so many other people are streaming in the evenings that the cell towers get overloaded and streaming becomes impossible.

So we watch the handful of DVDs we bought from that pawn shop near my old office in Frederick right when we left. They have saved our sanity some nights when its storming outside and we’ve played a million games of cards and are sick of our books.

The Mega Antenna

Which leads me to our latest tech toy: the Mega Antenna.

(Note all water, server, and electric connections we have on the “road side” of the trailer. We spend our time outside on the “curb side.” This is how almost all trailers work.)

Okay, so the mega antenna is Tracy’s purchase from back when we were close to Gainesville, but only here in the Keys have we been able to put it to use.

The long outtdoor antenna is directional: you point it at your source of signal (here both AT&T and Verizon are on the same tower, so we point at that tower).

The signal is transferred through a wire into a booster we have inside the trailer up above the DVD player, and from there to an internal antenna that transmits the signal inside the trailer.

In effect, we’re grabbing cell signal using a tall antenna, then moving it into the trailer and boosting it throughout the trailer.

Now, to get cell signal, instead of having to walk outside to weird places like the entrance to a state park or the edge of a lake as we used to have to do, we only need to sit inside the trailer. And, if you open the trailer door, you can catch some of it even from the tent.

The large outside antenna collapses to six feet, which is just enough to get it in the bed of the truck. And Tracy bought these strong suction cups (made to transport heavy glass panes) to keep the antenna attached to the trailer even in strong winds.

And it works! As evidenced by me being able to post this today, despite the wind blowing my AT&T signal around so much that my phone can’t pick it up.

A bummer is that other people have cottoned on to this baby.

I wish I’d taken a photo of a woman standing right here at the nose of our truck yesterday, using her phone for maybe an hour. Yes, we’re in a community with some shared space. But inches from our trailer is not shared space. To top off her audacity, Tracy saw her once take notes from her phone onto paper, on the truck hood.

Chances are she’ll do it again, and I’ll grab a picture. That’s for a grumpy post about how people disregard basic campground etiquette sometimes, but I’ll hold off on grinchiness for now.

To Connect or Disconnect to the Outside World

Clearly we go to a lot of trouble and expense to be able to stay connected. And yet we’re not as connected as most campers in campgrounds who have satellite dishes for their TVs, plus TVs outside their campers so they don’t miss a beat.

At campsites where we have no hope of wifi and not enough cell signal from either of our providers to grab even with the mega antenna, we make the most of a reprieve.

Quiet, even silence, is supposed to be so good for one’s psyche.

Oh how I rely on my phone calls with friends and family, though! And chatting with Finn. And weekly trivia with the Donner Party trivia team from Frederick. And Happy Hour with our former neighbors and friends.

I don’t miss the news, and in fact I struggle with how often to check my NYTimes app when the shit hits the fan, as it has the whole time we’ve been on the road. (Tracy does read the full paper at least once a day.)

But having left literally all our friends and family behind, I do miss the personal connections. So, welcome to our lives, Mega Antenna! And never shall ye enter our lives, portable TV satellite, no matter how many times we have to watch our handful of pawnshop DVDs.

Only here at the end did I address my initial question of why we work so hard to stay connected. Maybe that’s the personal stuff that’s not suited for a travel blog. It’s called Finn, Heather, Lucy, Susan, Bob, Ben, the trivia team, Esther, Karen, Karen, you friends here.

6 thoughts to “To Stream or Not to Stream”

  1. Super fascinating from top to bottom. V cool. Hilarious story about folk piggybacking on your cell tower.

    1. Thanks, Eric! We decided if someone starts to use the hood of the truck again as their desk, we’ll press the truck panic button and run out pretending they set off the alarm. 🙂

      1. I like this idea a lot, please make sure you are taking a video when you push the button. Our local library has free wifi and there’s often people sitting around outside it after hours taking advantage, it brings home how precious connectivity is and how access to it isn’t particularly equal.

        Personally I find that when I know I should have access and I don’t for whatever reason it drives me a bit wild, but the moment there’s no signal I just relax and get on with life. You’re right it’s like a reprieve!

        Tracey on Apple reminds me of the IT guys (always guys!) at Uni who hated my Mac and the issues I had sometimes trying to get it to talk to the weird systems they’d set up. They hated it because they couldn’t get under the hood and tinker and install code or whatever they wanted to. But the stuff they designed was clunky and a pain in the arse to use on any system and the only reason it existed was that the Uni was a captive audience. It would never have flown in the real world. There was one guy who was their Mac expert, Geraint, and he was pretty good but I had to listen to him complain about Macs endlessly and about how I should get a PC, for the privilege of getting my computer onto the system. It was a high price to pay 😀 not to mention how often they effed up peoples’ PCs with their ‘tinkering’. A lot of people wouldn’t let them near their personal computers. Ah the good old days… Anyways, all that is a very long way of telling you to stand firm with your Apple stuff 👩🏻‍💻

  2. That antenna is awesome – does/did Tracy ever hold an amateur radio license? – listening to the world at night on ten meters might be right up his alley, maybe yours too 🙂