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

 Name
 Email Address
 Subject
 Comments:



          ---------------------------------------------------------
       [ 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. 🙃

Advertisement

Memorabilia box reveals another funny item and story…

I lived in rural Maui back when there was zero bus service and you had to have a car to get anywhere (though we did moderately well for local area access on bicycles via back roads and pineapple fields).  The fact that it is an island made out of the slopes of two mountains (one of which is 10,000′ tall!) meant a lot of steep rides though, so like any teenager in a rural location in those days, a car was a significant desire. 🙂

My first automobile was a Chevy Love truck that I purchased when I was 14-1/2 – six months before I could get a permit and license to drive.  $250 and we had to tow it from a neighbor’s yard because it didn’t run.  It was in terrible shape. He’d stopped driving it several years prior because the back of the truck was so rusted out that his dogs’ legs were falling through and the water in the puddles in the unpaved road to our group of houses was splashing up into the cab through the giant rust holes.  Truly an amazing vehicle! 😛
The back tires were extra wide for some reason, but that just made it seem cooler to a teenager 🙂  It looked something like this, but with a ton of rust holes:

CHEVY-LUV_Truck.jpg

Of course I was stoked to get it and spent the next 6 months getting it running, putting plywood down in the floor of the truck bed, and so on.  Had to get the rust ground off the brakes by a machine shop (raw metal sitting == rust build up fast in Hawaii), clean out the mildew, etc and so on.

The deal with my parents was that if I drove myself and my sister to school (no school buses to the schools we were in) then they’d pay the car insurance and just enough gas money to go those miles.  The truck maintenance and gas for any other trips was on me.

I got my permit at 15, and two weeks later my license (minimum required waiting time).  The muffler was pretty rusted out and so it sounded a bit like a crop duster when I pressed the gas pedal (i.e., loud and “frappy”).  It also wouldn’t idle so I had to keep tapping the gas pedal at stop lights and stop signs to keep the motor from dying; other teens thought I wanted to race (ha!).

During some periods it wouldn’t start reliably.  Since I had to push start it pretty regularly I parked it up an embankment that let me roll it down towards the house and hopefully get it to start before it reached the front deck (yikes!).  Some periods I’d start it first and then run inside to take my shower before driving to school so that I wouldn’t have to take a second shower after getting all greasy getting it running.

Anyway, at one point I decided to make a stencil out of legal size file folders (only stiff card stock I had access to for free :)) and spray paint a logo on the side of the doors to embrace the crappiness of the truck.  So I made one that evoked the circular state logo that was on the side of government trucks.

I just found the stencil in my mementoes box and without further ado or story telling, here it is:

IMG_8357 small for web.JPG

🙂 Apropos, for it truly was a rusted hulk that should have been scrapped.  But got me around the island for maybe a year before I upgraded to a $750 car that was less rusted and more reliable – though it burned almost a quart of oil a week and a went through about a quart of transmission fluid every two days until I took the transmission out and got it rebuilt.  (So bad for the environment – we were so clueless back then!  <sigh>).

15th Birthday Poem from Dad’s grandmother

Looking through my memento boxes for things for my dad (Geek’s grandfather)’s memorial service and found this poem my grandmother wrote me for my 15th birthday.  She was a great grandmother.

15th birthday poem from Granny Bee.png

 

It references our relation to Daniel Boone, and the large ranch on the coast of California that our family owned for many generations and that my dad (Boone) grew up on.

10 year old Geek explains why he does what his parents ask…

Posted this on Twitter but then realized that goes away and this is funny enough I wanted to keep it around.

IMG_2935 name obscured web

 

 

In case his 10-year-old writing is hard to read,

“I have to do what my parents tell me because they are insane and their doctor told me to humor them.”

😛

None of us remembered this but it was found during our move and gave us all a laugh.  Creative rationalization.

 

Grandpa exclaims at pace of technology…

When I showed Geek’s grandpa this link and exclaimed how wild the pace of technology was he replied:

Yea, quite wild…but, just imagine MY view of “future tech”…old as I am now, I well recall when our phone at the ranch had a crank that called an operator up in Jenner.  You would tell her whom you wanted to call and she would insert a plug into her board that made the connection!

I well remember when, in 1948 (I was 7), my Dad brought home one of the first TV sets in Mill Valley, if not THE first. He had gone to work for Chronicle Broadcasting in SF…Channel 4, and they had given him one so he could familiarize himself with the new media. It had a screen the shape of an ocilliscope and the image was greenish.  I recall watching the movie serial of Last of the Mohicans (released for movie theaters).  On Saturday about 20 neighborhood kids would gather to watch the new fangled TV…

When at Stanford the only computer on campus was in a dedicated BUILDING, which it occupied entirely.  Punch cards gave it the instructions and the engineering students who were allowed to use it proudly carried bundles of punch cards prominently in their shirt pockets.

The first Texas Instruments calculators came out in my Junior year and cost $400…they could add, subtract and multiply only. The other big development that year, at least in the Arch department, was the Rapidograph pen.

Your grandmother began life in horse drawn vehicles, rode behind steam engines, saw the beginning of passenger air travel, saw the arrival of radio and TV, watched a man walk on the moon, and watched over
my shoulder as I learned how to run my first little Mac….talk about a transition in one lifetime!!!

Crazy stuff,…..totally crazy.