HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VIII – Surfing (the Web) in Hawaii

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VIII – Surfing (the Web) in Hawaii

Internet access is the biggest challenge for an off-the-grid user. Without telephone “land-lines” for DSL, or CATV cables for high-speed connectivity, you will have to accept a somewhat slower service. And when you’re off the grid, speed is very much a function of money.

The least expensive option is to get internet access from a cell-phone provider, which will sell you a small modem to plug into your computer’s USB port, and a “plan” that’s scaled by hours of usage. If you go with the same carrier as for your phone, there may be a discount; but in general, adding internet access will approximately double your monthly cell-phone bill. Internet speed over a cellular network is faster than dial-up; but unless your land is close to multiple cell-phone towers, that speed will not be much faster than dial-up.

If you don’t need to be on-line frequently or for long stretches of time, cell phone connectivity is a bargain – and there’s a big bonus in going this route: When you travel, you’ll never have to look for – or pay for – a “wi-fi hotspot.”  This is very convenient in airports, and will save you money in hotels where high-speed internet, whether wired or wireless, is a pricy extra on your bill.

In short, wherever you can get cell phone service, anywhere in the country, you can also do your emailing, and browse the Web. But for your home-based computer, away from urban centers, you may find it frustratingly slow. And only one computer at a time can get on line that way: you can’t connect a “router” (see below) to a cell phone modem.

For that, you need something different. There are local companies on the Big Island that offer internet access through microwave antennas. Their monthly fees are higher than for cell phone connectivity, and you may have to buy (rather than lease) the antenna. But microwave speeds are higher than cell phone speeds. To get microwave services, however, your house must be on a direct line-of-sight with one of their antenna towers. A technician will have to go out to your place to verify that you can, in fact, get on their network.

From most places on the island, however, it is much easier to see the sky than to see a tower. So, a satellite internet service, such as StarBand, may be easier to obtain. The speed of satellite connectivity does not equal but it does approach that of DSL or cable, close enough that most users will not feel frustrated. Monthly fees are comparable to those for microwave service: but the initial cost may be higher, since you will probably have to buy the antenna. And that antenna will be bigger than the antenna for satellite TV, because it not only has to receive signals, it has to transmit them too. The dish and its installation may cost as much as $2,000.

Besides higher speeds, though, the big advantage of going with either a microwave or a satellite connection is that you can use a wireless router to set up a private “local-area network” (LAN), through which anyone in a 50-100-foot radius can log on, do email or surf the Web. That is, you can get on line not only from your desk but from your lanai, bedroom, back yard . . . from pretty much wherever you wish.

There is a great sense of satisfaction in knowing, as you browse the Web, talk on your cell phone, contemplate your solar panels, and drink your rainwater . . . that you are unfettered, bound by no wires to the matrix of utilities in which everyone else resides. Off-the-grid you are, as nearly as possible, independent and free.

At this off-the-grid house, the small dish on the roof is for television reception. The big dish - bigger because it has to transmit as well as receive - is for internet service, and rests on the ground. Both dishes face the southeastern sky.
At this off-the-grid house, the small dish on the roof is for television reception. The big dish - bigger because it has to transmit as well as receive - is for internet service, and rests on the ground. Both dishes face the southeastern sky.

This concludes my eight-part series about living off-the-grid. With all of these options for water, electricity and telecommunications, there is no need to give up any modern conveniences. You can live off-the-grid here.

But the question I originally posed was “Could you . . . ?” And the answer boils down to this: You certainly could – but only if you are willing to do for yourself what others have always done for you, and will accept responsibility for things you have previously taken for granted.

View Other Posts in the “Could You Live Off-the-Grid?” Series

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VII: Staying In Touch

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VII: Staying In Touch

Once you have secured water and electricity, and can keep the temperature comfortable in your off-the-grid house, you can start thinking about what most people also consider key ingredients of civilized life: telephone, television and internet.

Obviously, you can not have a “land-line” if you are off the grid. But you may already have a cellular phone, and market research shows that more and more people – in younger demographics, especially – are now using their cell phone as their only phone.

All the major carriers (e.g. Verizon, AT&T, etc.) are here on the Big Island. Their coverage areas overlap, and reception is generally very good. If you are contemplating buying a particular piece of land, you will want to make and receive a cell-phone call while you’re checking the place out. There are only a few “dead” zones on the island, most noticeably at the bottom of the three gulches along the Hamakua Coast; but it’s not likely that you’ll be living down there.

Cell phones are very reliable, and there are many (some folks would say “too many”) choices of equipment. You can have anything from a simple voice-only phone to a phone with a camera – even a video camera – to something like a Blackberry that gives you almost as much power as a laptop computer, to do email and browse the Web (about which, more next time). A client of mine, who needs to constantly hack down ginger and other weeds around his stream, found it necessary – after a little mishap – to get a cell phone that is waterproof!

The only disadvantage to having a cell phone as your only phone is that you don’t get listed in local telephone directories – they are published by the land-line phone companies – though you could, if your business needs the exposure, buy a listing in one of the “yellow-pages” directories and include your cell phone number there. Otherwise, if someone wants to phone you, they will need to know your number already, or acquire it some other way – perhaps by a “Google” search.

Satellite TV is very popular in Hawaii, even where cable TV is available and convenient. Both Dish Network and DirecTV  are offered here, and their rates are competitive. The only technical requirement is that the bowl-shaped antenna must be able to “see” its affiliated satellite(s) in the southeastern sky, with no hills or trees blocking the way. Typically, it’s about two feet in diameter, and doesn’t weigh much, so it is usually mounted right on the house (or can be pole mounted, cemented in the ground).

TV Satellite: Roof Mounted
TV Satellite: Roof Mounted
TV Satellite: Pole Mounted, Cemented in Ground
TV Satellite: Pole Mounted, Cemented in Ground

Like cable services, most satellite services include a digital video recorder (DVR) for recording programs to watch at your convenience. This is especially useful in Hawaii, because we are two hours behind the West Coast and five hours behind the East Coast (three and six, respectively, in the months when the Mainland observes Daylight Saving Time – which Hawaii does not).

Time-specific programs, like sports events, may have ended by the time you are ready to see them, and local broadcasts of national programming, such as PBS documentaries, may not be shown on the same day and time as on Mainland stations.

There are some downsides to satellite TV. Your choice of channels may be limited, compared to cable programming; and although light rain won’t interfere, a really big storm can interrupt your TV reception. Also, since any electronic equipment may fail unexpectedly, you may want to consider getting a DVR that allows you to back up recorded programs on an external hard-disk drive.

TV is passive; the Internet is interactive. I’ll cover internet options next time.

View Other Posts in the “Could You Live Off-the-Grid?” Series