Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dilemma of Being Connected

Before the Internet became a part of everyday life, it was easy to compartmentalize it because most of us had to access the Internet via a telephone dial-up connection. As this required one to be connected to a telephone land line,

Internet access required being in a physical location and not mobile.

Eventually, high speed Internet access became available which allowed people to be connected to the Internet all the time. WiFi gave people mobility within the small WiFi "bubbles".

And the WiFi bubbles populated nicely, only in the past few years with people securing them so that passersby couldn't jump on freely.

During this same time, mobile phones continued to be more functional, have longer battery lives, and receive far better geographic coverage.

When mobile phones started having Internet access, the ability for really mobile Internet access became a reality.

All of the major cellular carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint) offer high speed wireless Internet access for personal computers and handheld devices.

At each step along the way, there have been places where people have been out of the reach of modern communications. Some have considered being "disconnected" a benefit and others consider it to be a drawback.

Some of these disconnected places include one's automobile and on airplanes.

But even these disconnected places are no longer disconnected.

I recently saw a ruggedized device that can be put in cars that creates a WiFi hotspot for a half dozen users, say a family on a road trip or business associates on a long drive. A similar device called a MyFi allows up to five people to connect to a portable WiFi hotspot, again using the cellular network to connect.

But there's been one place that's been pretty certain you won't have Internet access: on airplanes.

Lufthansa tried in flight Internet access a few years ago and stopped. But AirCell (www.aircell.com) is one company bringing in flight Internet access is back with new airlines, including Delta, USAirways, American, Virgin America, and AirTran.

I'm taking a flight to California later this week on Delta and I plan on giving in flight Internet service a try. It will be curious to see how well it works with my laptop computer and whether some of the features that require reasonably good Internet access, such as making telephone calls using Skype or watching television shows using Hulu.com will work satisfactorily.

For many people who travel a lot, being on an airplane has been a bit of a respite, if not a frustration to be out of touch for any time at all. I know some who cherish the isolation because they can focus on their work without interruptions; I know others who can't wait until they land to check in with the office, clients, and eBay auctions.

As my trip this week will be with my family, whether I get to use my computer for myself or whether my kids will want it for themselves will depend on how fast the Internet connection is as well as whether there are individual TVs at each seat.

So while airplanes seemed to be one of the last few remaining places on earth without Internet access, I know that some backpackers and explorers still manage to do without the Internet for more than a few days at a time. However, even they - if they really want it - can take satellite Internet devices with them.

Maybe the next step go going without Internet will require leaving Earth, but I've been wanting that since I saw my first rocket launch as a young boy. I guess leaving Earth will be a few years in the future still.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 15 October 2009.
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