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.
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.