Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Talk: How To Protect Yourself and Your Computer Online

This is a talk I recently gave at the Monmouth Senior Center. Nothing earth-shattering for techies, but useful information for the non-techies in town.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cell Phone (EVDO) for Rural Internet Access

The name Western Skies (name of this blog and my consulting company) comes from song "Western Skies" by the late Chris LeDoux where he talks about living out west (Wyoming) rather than in Nashville. Similarly, I choose to live out in the country in Oregon instead of Silicon Valley. On the plus side, I have "watch(ed) an eagle fly" (in town, no less) and listened to "the coyotes call at night." On the minus side, there is no broadband Internet access out here. I've recently switched to Verizon EVDO service, and it's mostly working. This is the first of a series of posts on the subject of using EVDO for our sole Internet service.

Previously, I was using 128Kbit (16 Kbyte) per second ISDN. It cost $85/month, which means it was slow and expensive, but the data amount was unlimited. Also, it was a business service from Qwest, which meant when it went out, they were Johnny on the spot to fix it - they even asked at 9pm if it was OK if they didn't roll a truck until morning or if I needed it fixed that night.

I had been thinking of switching for some time, but Qwest forced my hand when they notified me that they would no longer serve as an ISP for the ISDN line. They still provide ISDN service, but their ISP ( no longer accepts ISDN calls. To add insult to injury, they suggested that I see if DSL was available - if it were, there's no way I'd suffer the indignity of ISDN! I could have changed ISPs, but the ones I found all charged more and/or had usage limits expressed in hours per month (not MB/GB, just hours of connect time).

Since there's no DSL or Cable, the only other contender would be satellite. However, at times, I do a lot of work at the command line via ssh, and the latency of satellite would have been completely impractical. A neighbor of ours has it, and she says she can't even run IM over it very well.

When we first moved out here, there wasn't hardly any cell phone coverage. Mostly our phones just spent their batteries looking for signal. Then, Verizon put up a tower that we can see from our driveway - a pretty clear line-of-sight. Our Sprint cell phones get 4 bars of (roaming) signal, except when they catch wind of 1 bar of Sprint, which they'll chase blindly.

After checking out Verizon's offerings online and talking to a sales rep, I signed up for service and "bought" a UM 175 EVDO modem (free with 2 year contract) at Costco (to save on the activation fee). Verizon offers a 30 day trial, which I figured I'd use to test things out before cancelling the ISDN line. Even though our phones got a strong signal, I wasn't certain that the data signal would work. Of course, you'd think that if a telco bothered to put up a tower (or an antenna on someone's leased tower), they'd provision it with all the latest features (e.g., EVDO), but then again telcos don't always behave rationally.

To make a long story short, it really does seem to work. The bandwidth is much better - I see anywhere from 100KB/sec to 800KBps with 100-300 KBps being common. Not great compared to the fiber in town, but much better than 16KBps. Ping shows the latency being pretty large (150-250ms), but it seemed alright when I tried it over ssh. (I'm no longer working for the client where I was using ssh full-time, so I haven't really put it to a real test.)

However, and this could be huge, the 5GB/month cap is problematic. In theory, our regular email and web surfing fits well within that limit, however that doesn't leave much room for podcasts or video (which I never got into on ISDN, anyway.) The cap works out to ~170MB per day, and many podcast episodes are ~50MB. So, I'm still trying to figure out how to live with the cap - giving up podcasts is not an option.

At some point, I'll post about my experiences setting up the Verizon UM 175 USB modem on a couple of Macs, as well as my new found hobby: Podcast Mule - downloading podcasts (and OS updates) from WiFi access points in town and bringing them home on my laptop.