I'm on the road a lot, so much so that I've never been able to write one of these columns from home. If you need to connect to the Internet when you're away from home, all it takes is a little equipment, a bit of planning, and some extra cash. The goal is a SLIP or PPP connection at your fingertips wherever you might go.
A good road warrior has all the right toys. Start with your notebook computer. Forget color displays, huge hard disks, and super-fast CPUs. All you're doing is inviting theft and becoming next year's chiropractic poster child. When you buy a computer, think cheap, light, and simple. Old Toshiba 1100s cost about $100 and can stand up to Soviet-style baggage handlers. Macintosh PowerBook 100s cost a little more and also work great. Every extra feature on your laptop adds weight, cost, and reduces battery life. Remember: Your goal is to stay online longer, not to have the fastest Solitaire platform on the airplane.
There is one place to splurge, however: your modem! Get a fast one and don't worry about how much it costs. Aim for V.34, which can theoretically achieve speeds of 28.8 Kbps and higher. Of course, you'll never get a connection at that speed, but you probably will be able to go 50 percent faster than a 14.4-Kbps (V.32bis) model. Don't cut corners here; a few extra dollars go a long way. I use Multitech modems, although I've had good success with Microcom, Practical Peripherals, and U.S. Robotics as well. Expect to pay between $200 and $400 for a good V.34 modem.
Your laptop should be lightweight because you've also got to carry accessories. An extension cord, extra battery, and screwdriver are all absolutely necessary. Telephone gadgets also are important, and you can pick up most of what you need at any Radio Shack. An RJ-11 extension cord--15 feet or more--is a good start, along with a 2-to-1 RJ-11 adapter. I also carry a cord with an RJ-11 on one end and two alligator clips on the other, perfect for those particularly recalcitrant hotel and airport phone systems.
If you've got a cellular phone, call ORA Electronics (818-772-2700) and get one of its cellular/data links, which lets you connect your modem to almost any cellular phone for truly portable data transfer. I usually connect at 2.4 or 9.6 Kbps, although a friend swears he connects at 14.4 Kbps every time using the same equipment.
For overseas travel, make sure your notebook doesn't require a voltage converter, and take a lightweight plug adapter. In fact, take two because they're easy to lose. Connecting to European and Asian telephone systems can be a particular challenge. Standard modems will work on phone systems around the world; it's the wiring that is the biggest problem. Keep your alligator clips ready or call TeleAdapt (408-370-5105).
When you've assembled your traveling office, you don't have to put it in one of those imitation (or real) leather cases you see in the back of magazines. You can lower theft appeal and save money by going to a sporting goods store and getting a canvas briefcase or backpack.
Now that you've got the gear, you've got to find a way to make the connection between wherever you are and the Internet. Be warned: This is going to cost money. You may have signed up with bargin.basement.net for $20 a month at home, but you're not going to get that kind of a deal while roaming around.
To figure out your best strategy for staying in touch, you should balance cost, convenience, and performance. At the very high end, you have fantastic convenience and incredibly high cost by just calling long distance to reach your normal connection. Normal long-distance service charged to a calling card is between $16 and $20 an hour, depending on what time of day you call and which vendor you use. The Big Three (AT&T, MCI, and Sprint) all have a wide variety of calling plans that can save you 10 percent to 20 percent off normal rates. All you have to do is shop around and find the best deal.
Don't ever call directly from a hotel phone without using a calling card. Hotels love long-distance telephone calls because they can sell a minute of calling time (something they pay 15 or 20 cents for) at a 100 percent to 200 percent markup. You can get a calling-card number easily from your home long-distance carrier, your local telephone carrier, and many credit card companies.
You can reach an AT&T operator by dialing 10-ATT-00, an MCI operator by dialing 10-222-00, or a Sprint operator by dialing 10-333-00 from almost any telephone. If you're on a phone that doesn't let you do that, dial (800) 321-0288 for AT&T, (800) 877-8000 for Sprint, or (800) 674-7000 for MCI.
Beware the low and sleazy market for "discount" long distance. Generally, discount long-distance services only have a price edge in a specialized market (such as "people who call from Los Angeles to San Diego"). These services end up costing more when you travel a great deal.
You can increase your convenience at almost no cost by getting a personal 800 number. Any of the long-distance carriers will give you one for about $5 a month, which rings on the phone of your choice. Dial (800) OPUS-998 and it rings on the Opus One modem pool. You don't have to own the phone number it rings on.
If you'd like, you can get a toll-free number that rings on your Internet provider's incoming modem phone number without its permission or knowledge. For data calls, you want to get a toll-free number that requires a password or PIN before it will grant access. A password eliminates accidental (and purposeful!) wrong numbers and gives some assurance that you're only paying for your own calls.
Toll-free service using 800 numbers isn't any cheaper than normal calling-card rates, but it is a lot simpler to dial. Some hotels that surcharge credit card calls don't bother to do so for 800 numbers. It's also easier to find a phone line that will let you dial a toll-free number.
There are drawbacks, however. My experience has shown that toll-free calls provide lower-quality data connections with longer latencies than do simple long-distance calls. Nevertheless, toll-free is my connection of choice because it's so simple. Try calling AT&T at (800) 222-0400, MCI at (800) 444-2222 for Private and Preferred 800 services, or Sprint at (800) 877-4000 for Residential 800 service.
Reach Out 'round the World
If you really want to save money, you might be able to shift the burden of your connection to the network itself. After all, the Internet stretches to most of the world, so you should be able to connect with a local phone call, right?
Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy. Because the Internet is really a network of networks, there's no structure in place to give you universal access. However, a few of the largest Internet service providers are putting in enough access points (called POPs, or Points of Presence) to cover most parts of the United States and Canada.
There are only three networks that have the clout to provide access in hundreds of locations. MCI's network (originally called Tymnet), Sprint's network (originally Telenet), and CompuServe, which doesn't have a major telecommunications company behind it. All have the access points and infrastructure to bring you SLIP/PPP access all over the world. Two of these Big Three already have joined the fray. Sprint has been in the Internet service business the longest and charges about $10 per hour for access from the United States. CompuServe's prices start at $9.95 per month.
CompuServe's plan is especially interesting because it has acquired Spry, publishers of Internet in a Box and a technology leader in the Internet access business. This isn't because Spry has especially good software, but because it was the first company to realize that TCP/IP applications are important to commercial success, not the underlying networking software. Spry's innovative thinking combined with the relatively lean CompuServe network will make for an interesting product. Try calling CompuServe at (800) 848-8980 to learn more.
Larger providers such as Alternet, Delphi, Netcom, and PSI provide fairly inexpensive service throughout much of the United States, but not to all areas. Regional providers like Panix in New York, Software Tool and Die in Boston, and the Well in San Francisco also offer low rates. You can open an account before you travel or, if you travel frequently, maintain a yearly account. (See Entry Level for tips on finding providers.)
Traveler's Phone Kit
(Radio Shack parts, less than $15)
Joel Snyder (email@example.com) is a senior partner at Opus One, specializing in telecommunications and information technology.
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