|<< Kerik Out for Tax Reasons?||More on Kerik Withdrawal >>|
Any tech junkie who travels extensively is undoubtedly familiar with the pangs of withdrawal suffered when decent Internet access is nowhere to be found. There are many folks like me whose work depends on frequent, reliable access to e-mail and the web. Most of my business communication, in fact, is done by e-mail. Even the voicemail from my home phone gets sent to my e-mail inbox, freeing me from having to constantly call in and check for messages.
In 1993, I signed up for my very first Internet account. It was a Netcom dialup account, and when I called in, I was greeted with a UNIX shell prompt. Mostly, I used Pine, which let me check my e-mail. I never used the portion of the Internet called World Wide Web; it was relatively new at the time. Besides, with e-mail, Gopher, Usenet and FTP, I had everything I needed.
The dialup account was perfect for traveling. I had a list of phone numbers saved on my computer that provided local access in any area code in the country. And since most everything on the Internet was text back then, I never even noticed how slow my 14.4kbps modem was.
For years, I stayed with dialup. But as the web grew in popularity, and graphics-heavy pages made even 56kbps modems seem lethargic, the dialup experience grew frustrating. Having fast Internet access at work made the slowness of my home connection even more apparent.
So in 1999, when a little company called Flashcom offered DSL in my area, I signed up immediately. Well, I tried to anyway, because the install took a total of four months, which may be one of the reasons Flashcom is no longer in business. Frequent outages made me jump ship, and in 2000, I became the happy owner of a Time Warner cable modem. Nearly 5 years later, I’ve never had more than a couple hours of downtime, and that only happens every year or so. I don’t think I’ve had a more satisfying long-term experience as a customer.
But my switch to DSL and eventually cable caused a problem: I no longer had a dialup account to use while traveling. For a while, I kept my Earthlink account for road access, but it was hard to justify the $20/month expense for my occasional usage. When I bought an AirPort wireless base station with a built-in modem, I was able to hook it up to my phone line when I left town. I could call my home number from my laptop, connect to my computer at home, and get to the Internet through the cable modem. It worked, but it meant that anyone calling while I was gone would be greeted with that strange symphony of screeches and static that makes accidental calls to fax machines so pleasurable.
Around the same time, Starbucks started offering T-Mobile WiFi access in many of its stores. The service, called T-Mobile HotSpot, is an expensive $30/month. Nevertheless, given how much time I spend at Starbucks, it was a worthwhile business writeoff. I also knew I could find a Starbucks in just about any city I might visit, so it’d be useful for getting high-speed access on the road. Unfortunately though, while most airports and train stations have Starbucks outlets, none of them seem to have WiFi. So the service wasn’t quite as useful as I’d hoped.
When GSM cellphones started becoming popular in the U.S., I had yet another option for on-the-road Internet access. Many GSM networks provide a data service called GPRS that offers speed similar to that of a 56kbps modem. And if I got a Bluetooth GSM phone, my Apple PowerBook could talk to my cellphone while it was still in my pocket and use it to get online. So I signed up for AT&T Wireless and got a Sony Ericsson T616 phone. My laptop could then get online almost anywhere. I say almost anywhere, because I soon found out that not every area covered by GSM actually had GPRS. Often, connecting via GPRS required several attempts, and once online, it was pretty sluggish. My pleasure was further dampened when I got a bill for $1200 worth of data usage simply for checking e-mail. (AT&T Wireless graciously removed the charges after I agreed to switch to a more expensive plan.)
To make things worse, my AT&T phone never got a great signal in my apartment. And over the last few weeks, I haven’t been able to get any signal at all. So, while the phone was somewhat useful for getting online while traveling, it was almost completely useless as a general business phone. (It was, for a while, my primary business number.) I couldn’t receive calls at home, and I wouldn’t even know whether I got a voicemail unless I took the phone out into the street.
All of this technology was getting pretty expensive and it wasn’t exactly solving the problem, either. I was paying $40/month for a cable modem, $110/month for the AT&T phone and data service, and another $30/month for T-Mobile HotSpot. My online fix was costing me $180/month. And even though some of this was a business expense and didn’t come directly out of my pocket, it was ample evidence that I could no longer remain in denial about my problem: Hi, my name is Evan, and I can’t live without fast Internet access.
So when I saw Glenn Reynolds extolling the virtues of Verizon’s wireless Internet service, I was intrigued. For $80/month, I could get average speeds between 300-500kbps, with burst speeds reaching 2Mbps. That’s a hell of a lot faster than the GPRS service and about as fast as the typical T-Mobile HotSpot connection. It seemed like a plausible substitute—even an improvement—and if it allowed me to ditch those two services, it’d end up saving me $60/month. (I’m not giving up my cable modem; you’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.)
I went to the local Verizon store, picked up an Audiovox PC5220 card and signed up for the service. The PC5220 plugs into the side of my PowerBook, leaving a 1” x 2” plastic protrusion for the antenna. Even though the specs for the card deny that it will work on a Mac, like just about everything else in the Mac world, I plugged it in and it worked immediately. I didn’t have to install any software, configure anything, type in any access codes, nothing. (Apparently, you need the latest version—10.3.6—of Mac OS X to activate the card.) Literally within a minute of plugging the card into my PowerBook, I was online and loving it. It’s fast. Not super-fast, but pleasantly fast.
According to one online bandwidth tester, the Verizon service routinely hits download speeds of 500-800kbps, with around 100-115kpbs on the upload side. That’s better than Verizon promised, and it’s on par with or just slightly slower than your average DSL connection. I also tested it on a recent trip between NYC and Washington, DC. I was able to get online without a problem everywhere I tested it: in DC itself and at a few roadside restaurants in between. Only once was I unable to get onto the broadband network, presumably because there were no towers in that area of southern New Jersey. I was bumped onto the slower, older-generation network, so I wasn’t out of service entirely.
This service, marketed by Verizon under the BroadbandAccess name, is currently available only in a few cities and airports. People in areas not yet covered by the faster BroadbandAccess network will be able to connect on the slower NationalAccess network, which covers most of the continental U.S. In that case, you’ll get speeds that are between 25%-50% faster than a 56kbps modem. That’s certainly not fast, but it’s better than nothing while on the road. However, unless you plan on spending much of your time in areas covered by BroadbandAccess, the service may not be worth the expense, at least not until more of the network is built out.
But for me, BroadbandAccess works great and is even faster than advertised. And since picking up the PC5220 card, AT&T and T-Mobile have gotten their Dear John calls from me. I was a satisfied T-Mobile HotSpot customer for two years and a dissatisfied AT&T customer for just under a year, but new technology has eclipsed them both. Who knows where we’ll be in five years? Blazing-fast wireless Internet blanketing the globe? It’s entirely possible. Someday, I will undoubtedly look back on the Verizon service and the PC5220 card as quaintly archaic, but for now it stands as my favorite new gadget of 2004.