Anyone who's in IT or is just interested in technology knows all about frustration. Whether it's the one computer in an identically configured lot that inexplicably never works right, the Windows Update that never installs properly or the user who routinely finds new malware, we've all been there. But in this hyper-connected world in which we live, there is perhaps nothing more frustrating than an unreliable, balky, or just plain worthless Internet connection.
I know, I know. First world problems, right? Yes, but not really: As we race forward into what Microsoft calls the "mobile first, cloud first" era, the one big assumption we're making is that we're all interconnected. But as readers and others often remind me, that's not always true. Not even close.
Sequestered away in the fiber-connected suburbs of Boston, complaints about connectivity often seem a bit forced to me. After all, I have my choice of several 50 Mbps or better services at very competitive prices. But fortunately for you, I get out of the house sometimes. And when I do, I get an earful from those who aren't sold on this cloud-based infrastructure I'm always trumpeting. More important, I often get caught up in my own personal connectivity nightmares, which is always a nice reminder about how tenuous this new world can be.
Case in point. As I write this from a perfectly reasonable-looking business class hotel in Quebec City, my devices and I should be enmeshed in a reliable, always-on wireless network. But we're not. Between my wife and me—this is a personal trip inspired by the kids being away at camp—we have about every type of device imaginable: A Surface Pro 3 and a Windows-based laptop, an iPad, two Android handsets, two Windows Phones, and a Kindle. None of them can get online from the room. At all.
Checking with the calendar to make sure it's really 2014, I complained. And complained. And complained. And I discovered two things. "Free Wi-Fi" doesn't necessarily mean "in your room." And the reason this hotel was so reasonably priced is that it's undergoing a restoration, and part of that renewal will one day involve updating a wireless service that seems to date back to the time of Samuel de Champlain.
Which is to say, the Wi-Fi does work. But only in the lobby.
Now that is indeed a first world problem, I get it. But like many of you, I rely on the Internet. Not in a "what's the weather going to be like tomorrow" way, but in a more pervasive, "I actually need this connection to get work done" kind of way. So while it's mildly irritating that my smart phone-based photos of Chateau Frontenac aren't being backed up automatically on a regular basis, I have more pressing issues than that. For example, how am I going to post this article?
I'm going to sit in the lobby like a dufus, that's how.
But it's not just traveling that's the issue. (Though I'm nervous about a three-week home swap coming up next month in Barcelona as well, for what I assume are obvious reasons. I'll try not to obsess.) In many places around the world, fast and reliable Internet access is still a dream. I regularly hear from certain types of readers who aren't impressed with "mobile first, cloud first." Australians remind me that Internet access in that country is still often metered, expensive and slow, for example, and I recall from my trip to New Zealand a few years back that a single truck line on the floor of the Pacific Ocean is all that keeps that country from turning, almost literally, into Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Looking a bit closer to (my) home, I was visiting a local user group recently and got into a curiously heated discussion with one of the technology trainers at the educational institution in which the meeting was being held. This place is right on the border between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and as such, it has curious connectivity issues and few good provider choices. Over the border in Rhode Island, there are some high-speed fiber optic choices that they cannot access (though they'd be all set if they could just move the building about 250 feet). But here in Massachusetts, their choices amounted to something akin to "Comcast. And Comcast. And we're not paying Comcast to backup Comcast."
He explained to me that this connection was simply too slow to use in a cloud-centric way in which all of their users kept documents and other data in the cloud and then synced what they needed to their PCs and devices. Part of the issue was the initial upload, I guess, but part of it was also that this way of working was so foreign and unclear to their students that it would simply be a support nightmare. He wasn't too happy about any of this, but the basic picture was that they were training tomorrow's IT workers, and these guys were starting out in a pretty bad place.
I get it, I really do, and while it didn't take this week's silliness in Quebec to paint the picture any more clearly, it certainly helps frame the discussion. I'm thinking that we need a national push here in the US, and regional, even global pushes elsewhere, to make pervasive Internet connectivity a meaningful part of our common infrastructure, something like a utility. I realize that not everyone on Earth has access to shelter, food, water, electricity or other basic needs, and that pushing a connectivity agenda makes me seem a little out of touch to some. But I don't write about those issues, I write about technology. And in the tech sphere, this is a pressing issue.
Things are getting better of course. Back in 2007, when I took the first iPhone to Europe, there were reports of people getting box-sized paper bills from their international travels to the tune of several thousand dollars or more. Today, there are many more—and less expensive—options. There are calling, text, and data plans from T-Mobile that don't charge extra for international usage, and the EU is working to make country-to-country Internet access within that region less expensive for their citizens. These are all important steps. But they're just steps.
If you're reading this, I made it to the lobby. But seriously, there's gotta be a better way.