As National Geographic’s Digital Nomad, it’s my job to be connected—all the time. While on assignment, I have tweeted from all seven continents, from the middle of the ocean, from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and from the of inside King Tut’s Tomb. How do I do it? It’s not always easy, but after a few years and a hundred odd countries, this is what I’ve learned:
- Hotels: Before checking into any hotel room, I always open my phone or laptop settings and see if I can pick up a strong signal. If I foresee problems, I request a room with or next to a router. Though they are beautiful, old and elaborate European buildings made from stone are often the very worst for Wi-Fi connectivity. I have been known to check out of a hotel because the Wi-Fi is too slow or non-existent.
- Airports: I believe in free Wi-Fi and hope that someday it will become the norm. Already in the United States and Europe, several major airports offer free Wi-Fi, though the quality of connection ranges from ok to exceptionally bad. That is why I have an account with Boingo, which I use in every airport I travel through. It’s always reliable and strong. When all else fails (often in farflung foreign airports), I find the business class lounge with the strongest connection, bum the password off someone, and then camp outside the doorway, blogging away.
- Airplanes: More and more airlines are offering in-flight Wi-Fi, which is a trend I am highly in favor of. Unfortunately, having a present signal in the cabin does not equal high functionality. In my experience, I might be able to send out a few tweets and have a very stilted in-flight Facebook conversation, but forget trying to send or receive large images.
- Cafés: Gone are the days of “internet cafés” per se—Now we just expect all cafés to have internet and lots of it. When I need to upload blog posts, images, or video, I will camp out at a (quiet) café and let the strong Wi-Fi pour right over me. But like hotels, I will open my laptop, log on to the network and try out their upload speed before placing my order.
- Ask & Receive: The success of my job depends on being able to gain access to private Wi-Fi networks in restaurants, bars, offices, gas stations, and even peoples’ homes. “Please” works wonders.
- These things change all the time, but for the record, these are a few countries where I’ve had good Wi-Fi experiences: Mexico, Russia, Iceland, Argentina, UK, Switzerland, Peru, South Africa, India. And Countries where I’ve had poor Wi-Fi Experiences: Australia, Germany, Tanzania, Tahiti, Ecuador, China, Senegal, Zimbabwe.
Mobile & Cellular
Up High & Down Low: Freestanding cell phone towers range in height from about 50 feet all the way up to 600—something to consider when you are testing the limits of connectivity. In spite of current FAA regulations, it is possible to transmit cellular message from an airplane, which I often do. I tend to lose service at around 1,500 feet above the ground, though you can pick up signals at much higher altitudes. If I am deep within a coalmine (or in a basement, or under a pyramid), I align my phone with a shaft of natural light, indicating a channel to the surface. Normally, if you hold your phone at the right angle, you can pick up a signal from above and tweet away. Some subway systems have access points in the tunnels, and nearly all will have service in the stations.
- Dead Zones: Thank goodness some parts of the world are still untouched by communications technology, right? When I find myself off the grid, I enjoy it, but when I really need to connect, I simply hike to the closest road or up the nearest hill. Going “up” is good. In emergencies, I have climbed trees or gotten up on the roof and been able to transmit.
- Service Providers: I do not advocate one cellular network over another. For example, even though I use AT&T, I find that Verizon works much better in remote parts of the United States and Canada—for me, I use whatever works best in the most places, which changes month by month.
- International: When I’m outside of the United States, I activate my AT&T international roaming plan. Presently, the maximum data package they offer is 800 MB for $120, which is a lot of data, but not enough for conspicuous consumption. To conserve data, I switch off any apps and functions that I am not using (especially email or Facebook). Apps like Tumblr and Instagram can suck up huge amounts of your data. Often, when traveling internationally, I only use 3G to transmit to Twitter, and I reduce images to the minimal size.
- Local Networks: I travel with a few unlocked backup last generation iPhones which I use with local chips in countries that are not covered by my international roaming plan (like South Africa of Zimbabwe). This is a much cheaper option and lets you pay as you go. (Surprising yet true, some less-developed countries often have much more comprehensive cellular networks than North America and Europe.)
- Accessing Internet with 3G: In Africa and India, I often use cellular USB dongles that plug into my laptop and let me to use the internet via the local 3G network. These are miracle-workers that get me online in the remotest of places. How did I blog from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (At 19,300 ft)? With an AirTel dongle connecting through a faraway cell tower in neighboring Kenya.
- Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots are terrific and growing in capacity. These are especially useful if you’re traveling in a car or changing camp from night to night.
- Satellite technology is rapidly advancing to the point of being very accessible to everyday users. The downside of data transmission by satellite is that a split-second disconnection may cause you to lose everything and have to start over again. On occasion I have uploaded a video by satellite only after 3 or 4 attempts at 6 hours apiece.
- Getting a Strong Signal: Lean which satellites you’re most likely to connect with. Equatorial satellites are tricky when you are traveling in the polar regions because you are connecting at a very sharp angle. If you’re behind any mountains (even if you can’t see them), it can block your signal. Flat, open spaces are best for satellites, which is why I love deserts and prairies. Weather is also critical—the clearer the better.
- Portable Systems: If I am traveling to extremely remote places (Australian Outback, Sahara Desert, Siberia), I might take a portable satellite system with me. These are most effective in good weather and can transmit at speeds up to 500 kb/s, although I remember one time it took me 4 hours to upload a single image from a sailboat over the Great Barrier Reef.
- Satellite Phones: Every few months (it seems), a smaller, stronger, and more affordable satellite phone is released onto the market. These are great for emergency voice calls, and still improving when it comes to data functionality. For conventional satellite phones, I set up Twitter’s “text-to-tweet” function which allows me to send text messages from the sat phone that automatically publish as text-only tweets on Twitter.
- Access Points: To use Twitter at full capacity, I use satellite phone access points (like this one by Iridium) which creates a Wi-Fi hotspot from which I can tweet and upload photos (and sometimes blog) from my iPhone. This is not as easy as it might sound and I have found it to be a complex process. It can also become rather expensive when you start counting the minutes it takes.
- On Ships: Shipboard Satellite Internet comes with a fixed bandwidth, which means that it is limited. Whenever I upload videos or images from aboard the National Geographic Explorer, I wait until well-past midnight when all other passengers are asleep. Having maximum bandwidth to myself is imperative when sending anything over a few megabytes. Some of my one or two minute YouTube videos can take an entire night to upload when I’m out at sea.
There Is Always A Way
- Above all, never give up hope. I have spent up to 4 hours trying to send a single tweet from the field—and finally made it. When a tweet doesn’t go through, I keep sending it, over and over, until it does. Sometimes Twitter posts the tweet but doesn’t show you (which explains my repeat tweets).
- Be persistent and innovative. When it comes to connectivity, never accept the status quo. Whenever someone tells me “there really is no signal out here”, I take it as a challenge to find a way to transmit—and I always do. At the same time, never let the ongoing search for a signal compete with enjoying the place where you’re traveling. Telling the story is always secondary to living the story.