In the 1960’s TV series Green Acres, the main character “Oliver”, who is from New York, buys a farm in the country. Whenever he wants to use the phone he has to climb to the top of the utility pole. His wife, played by Eva Gabor, can’t run more than one electric device at a time without tripping a breaker. These were the technological obstacles to living in the country in 1967. Today we have more obstacles, and more opportunities, as homesteaders.
Before my homesteading days, I was Vice President of Information Technology for a marketing company. I rose through the ranks of technology from the fax machine up through the server room and into the executive suite. My hope here is to open a window on how to find the right technology for some common homestead issues.
Rural Cell Phone Service
Cell phone service is getting better in the country, but it still isn’t perfect. Before you sign that next cell phone contract you may want to consider what will work best for your homestead. The promises made in commercials for “coverage” and “fast internet” access may not be true for your particular location. When I say “particular” location, I really mean it.
When we bought our homestead, our family used AT&T. They say their coverage covers “95%” of America, or something similar. What’s true about AT&T is that their coverage covers 95% (or whatever) of Americans, not America. The difference is that they have great coverage in densely populated areas and not as great in the sparsely populated areas.
It turned out that AT&T had great cell phone service up until we turned down the dirt road that led to our homestead—which is in a valley. By the time we got to our actual home, we were holding our phones up above our heads but still got no signal. If we drove up to the blacktop we had signal… down at the homestead, none.
We switched cell phone service to Verizon. Verizon also says that they cover 95% (or whatever) of America, which for them is closer to being true. Verizon has better coverage in rural areas than AT&T, but that doesn’t mean the service is the latest and greatest. We switched to Verizon because we could receive a good signal in our valley. We did not get the fastest advertised download speeds. The speed is fine, just not the current (at the time) 4G LTE. It was more 3G.
Recommendation for Rural Cell Phone Service
Check with your neighbors before committing to a long-term contract. If you can have someone with the type of service you are considering come to your piece of land and make sure it works, even better.
Different cell phones have different antennae in them. If you have a weak signal at your location, make sure you get a cell phone that has a good antenna. If you can test it in your location, even better. Find a friend who has one and invite them over for coffee cake or some homebrew.
Getting Cell Service into the House
Many homesteads have metal buildings (mobile homes or RV’s) or buildings with metal roofs. This can seriously affect your ability to get a good signal inside your home. If that’s the case for you, there is tech that you can buy to overcome that issue.
In my case, we could get a lesser cell signal outside and no cell signal at all inside the mobile home. This is a real problem since our business is dependent on people being able to call us on our cell phones.
For us, the solution was a cell signal repeater, also called a phone signal booster. These normally come in a kit with an outside antenna plus some cables and a transmitter that you put inside your house. This kit will capture the signal from outside and bring it into your house, amplified!
In my case, I put up a 30-foot tower outside my home and installed the antenna on top of that. It is a directional antenna, so you point it at the most powerful signal for your carrier. This does take some installation, but anyone with general handyman skills can accomplish the task.
Rural Internet Service
Getting internet service can be a little tougher in some areas. In the city, internet service is everywhere; it’s fast and easy to get installed. In the country, it can be a little more difficult.
There are basically four ways to get internet to someone: over a phone line, over a cable, through satellite, and finally through a radio signal. The farther you are away from civilization, the less likely phone line and cable service will be available to you. That’s because these signals need to be boosted regularly along their route. The farther out you are the less like the phone company will have a booster nearby.
When it comes to “through the air” service the one that comes to mind first is Satellite Internet Service. The one that comes most to mind as of this writing is HughesNet. Other options are Viasat (formerly Excede), and a few others. DishTV says that they provide internet satellite service, but they are just reselling another provider’s service.
What’s the deal with Satellite Internet Service?
Satellite internet service is kind of expensive, not super fast, and they limit how much you can download in a month. Finally, like your satellite TV, your service is affected by heavy rain showers. That’s because the dish itself can’t shed the water fast enough. There are varied services. I used Excede for a couple of years.
I need to use the internet for my business, so cost is less of an issue for me. I signed on for Excede’s most expensive service. I paid about $150 per month for 12 Mbs with a 50 MB limit (for fast service). After I used 50 MB for the month I still got service, but it was very slow.
If you don’t understand this, that’s fine. 12 Mbs is the speed… 12 megabits per second. Most city internet services are 100 megabits per second to 1,000 megabits per second. 12 Mbs is fast enough to watch YouTube videos or Netflix, but it might need to “buffer”, or catch up, from time to time. Having multiple people watch videos on separate devices at the same time is more problematic.
Finally, there is a direct signal wireless internet service. I have access to one of these. They are generally local companies. Mine charges $50 per month for 5 Mbs service with no usage limits. This is slower than satellite, but it’s cheaper and it has no limits. So, I ditched my satellite for the wireless service.
Then I went and talked them into doubling my speed for more money. Since these are local companies that provide this type of wireless service, there aren’t many employees. I talked to the “tech guy” who actually does the equipment work. I asked him if I could get faster service for more money. After a couple of discussions, he doubled my service from 5 Mbs to 10 Mbs for an additional $15 per month.
Recommendations for Rural Internet Service
If you can get a “wired broadband” service through your phone or cable provider, that is best. Next, I would look for a local provider that doesn’t use satellite. 10 Mbs from a local wireless provider will be more consistent and a better deal than 12 Mbs from a satellite provider. If you have to get satellite service, I would consider that only as a last option.
The Cell Phone Option: Is your cell phone signal good enough? If you feel like the internet on your cell phone is good enough then consider turning your cell phone into a “wireless hub.” For a while, I actually used a dedicated wireless hub from Verizon. These devices do exist and they are an option. I have used them. It might be an option if you have a good cell signal, but no good internet options.
The most common question I would get when I ran the computer department for a corporation was, “What computer should I buy for my home use?” To which I would ask, “What are you using it for?” The answer was, invariably, “Not much.”
What do you use your home computer for? If you are a teenager, the answer is games and the internet for videos. They generally use their phone for everything else. If you are a middle-aged person, then the answer is probably just the internet. News, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon (lots of Amazon), Facebook, Pinterest, looking at your bank and bill-paying websites… what else? Probably not much. You might write some documents, use a spreadsheet (probably not), or mess with music or video editing.
After showing the person asking me what computer to buy that they didn’t need a big, expensive computer, I would tell them what cheap computer to buy. It was all they needed. They would invariably go buy a giant, expensive computer because “it would last longer.” But, no, it won’t.
90% of people using a laptop today for personal use should buy a Chromebook. They are cheap. They work great. Everything is stored “in the cloud” so you can’t lose it. You don’t have to do “upgrades” or “updates.” And, most importantly, you get out from under the Windows 10 umbrella.
People generally spend $595 for a Windows laptop that is bloated up with software you don’t need and will never use. It constantly asks for updates and sticks its fingers in everything that you do. You don’t need any of it. You get viruses that you can’t get rid of. The system runs slower and slower until you think it’s broken and you buy a new one.
If you have more money, then you spend $995 for a Mac; way more for software, et cetera… and all the same things apply—just not as quickly.
I’m writing this on a Lenovo Chromebook C330. It cost $250. It turns on instantly. I can turn it into a tablet reader. It has a touch screen. It’s easy! I’m writing this article using Google Docs. No software required! No virus protection required. No annoying updates and problems.
I have a printer that I bought years ago. It has a wireless connection (they all do these days). I told my Chromebook to find my printer. It did and I printed. No drivers, no disks, no software. Easy. I plugged my Chromebook in to charge for about 40 minutes over 24 hours ago. I have used it as much as possible since then. Internet, videos, movies, writing, email, et cetera. It still doesn’t need to be charged—and won’t until this evening.
The only downside to a Chromebook is that they need an internet connection to work. Here’s a question: what would you do with your laptop if you had no internet connection? The answer is probably, “put it down and get my phone.”
What about Internet Privacy?
I use Google for everything. I store my documents and pictures there. I use Facebook for everything. I store my pictures there and post everything I do. People are very worried about privacy. I’ll put your mind at ease… you have none. Seriously, if the government wants to track you, they can. If they want your files and pictures and bank accounts, they already have them. They don’t need a warrant, they can just buy the information from the service providers (or from others who buy the information from the service providers.) “But they can’t follow a person without a warrant.” They aren’t following a person’s activity. They are following a “device’s” activity. They don’t need to see what “Jane Doe” is doing, just her phone and her internet activities.
So don’t worry. You are already plugged in. If you are using a service “for free” then that only means that YOU ARE THE PRODUCT. You are the thing that the companies are selling. That’s why they can give you free email, search engines, social media, and the like. I have a business as a dog trainer. I get my customers from Google. I pay Google about $500 per month to do that. It’s the biggest bill I have. So, come on in… the water’s fine!
Homesteading doesn’t mean unplugging. As a matter of fact, it’s easier to homestead now that the internet and online services are so easy to use. You can see the grandkids from 1,000 miles away. You can do your work and stay in touch with the things that make your homesteading life possible. In order to do that, you need to be connected. Hopefully, this information helps you know how to connect in ways that are useful and cost effective for you.