Bus conversion trip – accessing the internet on the road in 1997

Some may remember stories of the bus conversion of a 1980s transit bus (Gillig Phantom, if you’re into that sort of thing) I did (with some help) and how our family (Geek was only a year old! my how time flies…) lived in it for about 8 months traveling about 25,000 miles around the continental United States.

During this period Dad worked remotely for a client programming a Mac application. But a bit of research will show you that while WiFi – which we all take for granted now – had been invented some 10 years earlier Lucent hadn’t been able to get anyone to adopt it and it wasn’t actually available on a consumer computer until Apple launched the iBook at NY MacWorld in 1999.

Oh, but WiFi is so passé now in the 2020s, we have 5G digital wireless on the cellular network! 🙂 Oh the dream of digital transmission on the cellular network was alive in 1997, but it was mostly just that a dream. Digital cell service was just starting to roll out and I think AT&T had 12 towers in big cities. I had to buy a special Nokia phone that was analog but also supported digital cellular connection. And a booster that had to be connected to the car to get enough power to push the signal. And the highest speed I ever got was 1200 baud despite the advertised 2400 maximum (pretty sure I’m remembering that right) – and that was parked directly under one of the few digital towers in the country 🙂

Here’s an excerpt I just found on my computer (which prompted this post) of a Bulletin Board System post I found on the “Bus Conversion News Board” from January 1999 which makes it clear that even nearly two years later it was still a challenge to get online from the road:

            Re: Wireless Internet, Cheap (relatively), nationwide

       [ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Bus Conversions News Board ]

Posted by Ed Carroll on January 17, 1999 at 18:22:25 PST:

In Reply to: Wireless Internet, Cheap (relatively), nationwide posted by Joe Solbrig on January 17, 1999 at 15:32:17 PST:

Thanks for the info Joe. Sounds like something a lot of us would be
interested in. A couple of questions though: 1. Do I understand you
correctly that if we connect up with this service then AT&T becomes our
regular ISP for unlimited connect time via wireless connection for only $60
per month regardless of our location? (Does that mean worldwide or just the
lower 48?) And 2. You mentioned a $100 "Pocketnet phone". Does that $60
monthly fee allow any voice communication from this "Pocketnet phone" to
friends on a regular land line phone?

: Hello again folks,

: I'm back, thanks to CDPD service from ATT wireless.

: There now is a way to connect to the internet wirelessly, nationwide and
for less than an arm and a leg.

: It takes a bit of looking around to actually get the information on this,

: "CDPD" and "Wireless" are data-broadcasting standards that uses the
cellular radio bands. ATT has used it for things like meter-reading and
stuff for a while. The problem is they traditionally charged per data
transmission and this made the service too expensive. However, recently,
they started a "nationwide unlimited" service which gives unlimited data at
a set price of $60/month. You have to buy a special connection equipment
also (request a "pocketnet phone" for $100 plus the connection kit for
another $100. The special CDPD moderm ).

: This is a business service, so it's best to say you're in business. Aren't we all ;). Also, you have to deal with the ATT office via phone and fax. But they're quite patient.
: They ran no credit check and started my service without my having paid for the equipment (which is good, given the delay my mail gets sometime).

: So all you full-timers, check it out!!

: Joe


Follow Ups:


Post a Followup

 Email Address

       [ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Bus Conversions News Board ]

Makes the kind of speed and service we can get now pretty amazing in contrast, eh?

So, how did I upload my source code, pull down shared source, get my email, and otherwise work remotely from a 40′ transit (city) bus as we drove around the country for 8 months?

Two techniques I figured out:

1. Most businesses have a fax machine and that’s often the only analog line in the office (the rest were part of the business PBX digital phone system). So I’d ask to borrow that line and since most didn’t need their fax machine online all the time, they’d often let me. Some hotels had a business communications area off the lobby that you could access without having a room if you acted confident and carried a laptop briefcase (and didn’t look too shaggy :)).

2. This gizmo:

A “fancy” for the time portable acoustic coupler.

What is this? How is it used? It’s an Acoustic Coupler and it’s used to connect to a POTS telephone, like this:

Yah, that’s an “antique” rotary phone and you can see the acoustic coupler held against the handset with the integrated velcro strap. This is literally a physical connection between the speaker on the acoustic coupler and the microphone on the phone handset and the microphone on the acoustic coupler and the speaker on the handset. So primitive!

And yet, it worked. Well, assuming I could find a payphone that hadn’t had beer poured on it and wasn’t trashed from being pounded against the side of the phone booth in frustration, etc.

My strategy was to find the largest bank of payphones – yah, they made them in rows, something like this:

“Toronto payphones covered with graffiti and notices. Telephone books are contained in weatherproof holders hanging from the bottom of each phone.” — wikipedia
Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

but I’d look for at least 5 and 8 or 10 was a better bet. I’d take my laptop and a folding camp chair and start at one end and work my way down the bank of pay phones until I found one that could connect at 9600 baud or better (14.4 was rarely possible, and 28.8 was a challenge) and hold the connection long enough to upload/download etc.

You’d use a calling card in case you had to call long-distance to get an access point (phone number that would answer and connect you to the internet) and you had to program all that stuff into modem dial string so it would call the calling card billing number, put in your calling card number and pin, and then dial the closest access point number.

Fun times!

Anyway, it was either this or the Iridium satellite phone service which was $25K for the antenna/phone unit and $4/minute for pretty slow data (I don’t remember but it wasn’t 9600 baud even, IIRC). My clients weren’t paying me that kind of money 😀

So, next time you open your smartphone and surf the web, or work remotely off of a wifi or you cellular hotspot – be thankful at the freedom we have now and laugh at how primitive working remotely was back in 1997. 🙃


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