Off-the-Grid Internet

I spend two hours hunting for a solution.

I have two books that need to be written this summer: my Mac OS X VQS revision for Leopard and my annual mystery book (which I can’t talk about until September). In order to write them, I not only need my computers, but access to the Internet. That means I need to work in my office all summer.

Or does it?

One of the things I did last year when I had to buy new test mules — the computers I run software on when I write about the software — was to replace my desktop PC and Mac with laptops. The idea was to make my office more portable, so I could work somewhere other than in my office at home. Both laptops have wireless cards in them, so they communicate wirelessly with any wireless network. But neither have any other Internet access solution. In other words, they rely on being able to access a network to get on the Internet.

But nowadays, there are Internet solutions that don’t require wires. So, theoretically, I should be able to get the computers on the Internet in a place where wires don’t go.

Like our place at Howard Mesa, which is entirely off-the-grid.

Now if you’re not familiar with the phrase off-the-grid, it’s pretty simple. It means that it has no access to any kind of publicly accessible utilities, such as electricity, telephone, water, gas, or cable television. People who live off-the-grid have to provide for their own utilities.

Our camping shed at Howard Mesa has a solar electricity system with two solar panels, four batteries, and an inverter, providing AC and DC power. (We have a 1000-watt gas-powered generator to provide additional power when we need it, but we haven’t needed it yet.) We have 2100 gallons of water storage and haul water to it with a borrowed 450-gallon tank that fits in the back of a pickup truck. We have a propane tank that’s serviced by a local gas provider. We use cell phones. We don’t have television, although I suspect that we could pick up a signal with a standard TV antenna.

I had heard a rumor that an ISP provided wireless Internet access from an antenna on top of Bill Williams Mountain, which is about 15 miles south of our place. We can clearly see the mountain from our shed — which is a good thing, since line-of-sight visibility is required. The only problem is, I didn’t know the name of the company that provided service from that location.

I started with the Williams, AZ Chamber of Commerce. The way I see it, if a company offers a service in Williams, the CofC should know about it. Right?

Wrong. The guy who answered the phone was too new in Williams to know about it. He asked someone else and she said that she tried the service but couldn’t access it. She said Qwest provided it.

So I spent at least 30 minutes tracking down a phone number at Qwest to ask about it. Of course, they didn’t have any service at my address and obviously knew nothing about wireless from Bill Williams Mountain.

I tried the other two ISPs listed on the Williams CofC Web site. Neither of them provided wireless service.

Maybe the antenna on Bill Williams Mountain was a myth.

I went to the Verizon Wireless Web site. I am a Verizon subscriber and my phone works okay up at Howard Mesa. (Not great; just okay.) What solutions did they have?

They had a good solution. Actually, a few that would work. The one I liked was the USB “modem” that made it possible for any USB-compatible computer to access the Internet with Verizon service. It would cost me $129 (after rebate) to buy with a 2-year contract and then $59/month in addition to my existing Verizon plan. Ouch! That was a lot more than I wanted to spend, but the benefit is that it would work on either laptop — or even my desktop machine — in a Verizon service area. Verizon has excellent service in Arizona, so it looked like a very workable situation.

On a whim, I sent an e-mail message to Bluewire, which provides wireless Internet service to my house in Wickenburg. (We’re beyond fiber-optic cable or cable television, so we need wireless access.) Did they know of any similar provider in the Williams area? I got my answer an hour after posting the message. They didn’t know of any provider up there, but why not try the WISP Directory?

So I surfed on over and got on the Arizona page with a few clicks. Bluewire was listed (of course), along with one called CommSPEED, based in Prescott Valley, AZ (and Iowa, if you can believe that). I called. And guess what? They had the antenna on top of Bill Williams Mountain!

While it isn’t clear whether I’m within range of the antenna, they’re willing to come up to Howard Mesa to check it out. If all goes well, the install cost is $49 and there’s a 3-month startup special for 512Kbps access for only $29/month. After that, it goes to $39/month. But get this: they can put my account “on vacation” when I’m not there, so I don’t have to pay when I’m not at Howard Mesa. So I can use it all summer, go “on vacation” and turn it back on during months I’m up there.

I signed up for an account. With luck, I’ll be able to meet with them some this month to see if I’m within range and, if so, they’ll set me up.

Otherwise, I’ll be going with the costly but effective Verizon plan.

Updates to come.

13 thoughts on “Off-the-Grid Internet

  1. Hello –

    You have three options for “wireless” Internet north of Williams. You found two – Wireless from Bill Williams & Cellular. Satellite is the one you missed.

    1) Satellite – Wild Blue,, Directway or many others.

    2) Wireless off of Bill Williams – CommSpeed or Niles Radio (out of Flagstaff).

    3) Cellular Providers – Verizon, Sprint, etc…

    They all have different speeds and costs depending on what your looking for.

    I worked for many ISPs in the area for years and I don’t think CommSpeed can get to Howard Mesa. It is at least an 18 to 20 miles shot. I’d be curious if they can.

    Good Luck.

  2. Actually, I didn’t miss that one. I just forgot to write about it in the article. Wild Blue seemed to offer the better deal — better than Dish, anyway. But the entrance fee of $199 for setup and $50/month was a bit steep for a vacation place.

    Thanks for mentioning Niles Radio — I’ll check it out.

    Do you live up near Howard Mesa?

  3. Hi there. I’ve been traveling for the past year, and currently in the Prescott area. Using Verizon’s data card service myself. Just to let you know, very functional. Not sure what your phone registers where you are, but the EVDO coverage in Prescott is great (their high speed). I’ll be interested to see what you go with.

    And like the cost quoted by Verizon, I’m doing $59 per month, but it’s my only internet connection I use now.

  4. Maria,

    If Commspeed does not work out, I have a Verizon card you are welcome to borrow to see if the speed is suitable.It needs an express card slot, so it will work with a Macbook Pro, but not a Macbook. Back east I was near a broadband area, but not in it, so I was on National Access with reasonable speed. They had a two week trial program at the time which allowed a no hassle return if performance was unsatisfactory. Interestingly, they also assured me, but not in writing, that when I moved here if the service was unsatisfactory they would let me out of my contract. Here in Wickenburg the speed on National Access is little better than dial-up and, you guessed it, “A contract is a contract, sir.”

    Have you checked out They are quite knowledgable in the world of EVDO.

  5. I am disabled and spend time in hospitals , relatives caring for me , then go home at times . Been on dial up but with the info out there . I am going to go to a t mobile pay as you go phone as it will be with me always for saftey and costs about 150 a year if you use it sparingly and buy the required min for the gold plan 1000 minitutes for $100 bucks . Phone comes from their website or if you impatient Walmart but the best card 1000 miniutes is at their site only .

    I can use landlines elsewhere with enjoy prepaid at 1.9 cents for long distance ? This is not a off grid solution . However moving around like I do you all have me talked into a Verizon or Sprint card so I have transportable everywhere access that fits my nomadic existance as cable broadband requires contracts in one place usually .

    I have to be driven to the Doctor and my driver gave me a computor with Sprint PCS access the other day while we were traveling down the hiway . It worked at 70 mph down the road with no trouble he said it was $63 bucks a month. I am sold its expensive but I figure with 20 bucks for dial up currently and 25 for the phone plus long distance charges were in the ball park if I disconect my land line . I trade stocks for extra money and to think i can go to my favorite fishing hole and still conect …what a world is all i can say . I hear you can even get broadband tv now so you off griders with money are in tall cotton . I really like the off grid mentality and self suficiency theme being chronically ill and a one time backwoods long distance hiker that can no longer particpate causes me pain beyond comprehension . It was nice to read your comments and learn . I am 48 m and single if any single f off gridders are out their looking for a email and MSN card friend . Isolation is no fun genuine people only please I am not looking for anything but a plutonic freindship – just a nice patient friend to chat , play cards and maybe meet one day .I broke my neck and back and am in serious pain and just sit quietely all day every day . Its sad but the best I can do .

  6. How did Blue Wire/ CommSPEED work for you? I’m getting set to buy a lap top and some internet service at our “off the grid” place 60 miles east of Flag.

  7. Bluewire/CommSPEED didn’t work at all for me. They supposedly sent a guy up to our place and he checked to see if we were in range of their antenna. We weren’t. So they wouldn’t install it.

    My solution came with my Palm Treo, purchased back in May from Verizon. I signed up for Internet access via the phone. When I need to, I use Bluetooth for my computer to connect to the Internet using the phone’s access. It works in most — but not all — places where the phone works. This past week, for example, I used it at the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell (Page, AZ), but it wouldn’t work in Monument Valley.

    You can read more here:

    Or try searching this blog for “Treo bluetooth internet” for other articles about my experiences with this.

    • HughesNet is not a viable solution for me. My understanding is that it does not support Mac OS. In addition, people I know who have used it claim that the speeds are not as fast as advertised and it doesn’t work well in rainy or cloudy weather. In fact, everyone I’ve spoken to who has used it says that it pretty much sucks.

      The solution I came up with is a Verizon MyFi device. It’s faster than HughesNet and many other similar options and completely portable. It’s also cheaper. Another option would be to enable a Hotspot on my Verizon iPhone (or the Android phone I would have purchased if the iPhone hadn’t come to Verizon). This service is equally reliable, although I wouldn’t be able to talk on the phone while using the Internet — which is the main reason I went with the MyFi.

      My dilemma is solved.

    • I’m not aware of any of the specifics, but I’m pretty confident that there is a way to “backup” (or at least a selected quantity of) the internet for offline viewing? Let me know how cuz I don’t… Lol…

    • Do you know how much content is on the Internet? And how much of it is generated dynamically based on access to databases? This blog is just an example.

      Sure, you can save content to disk for viewing offline, but how much do you think you’ll be able to store? And you do realize that you have to know WHAT you want to store before you can store it.

      Simply said, to access the Internet you need to have an Internet connection. So if your definition of “off the grid” means no connection at all to anything, accessing the internet while “off the grid” is not possible.

      In my article, I refer to “off the grid” as being in a home that’s not connected to water, electricity, gas, or wired telephone service. All of that is either hauled up to the site, created onsite, or provided wirelessly.

What do you think?