“Reception is just awful out here,” says the woman at the coffee shop counter, the iPhone in her hand rebuffing her repeated attempts to launch the Starbucks app to secure a discount on her iced-Venti-whatever. “I’ve had one signal bar for the last hour.”

“It’s the weather,” the barista promptly (and incorrectly) replies, gesturing to the reluctant smartphone. “There’s a storm coming.”

The customer blinks and looks down at her phone. “Really?” she asks. “Huh.”

No, not really, I think to myself, but I’m too busy trying to connect my laptop to the coffee shop’s WiFi network to offer any insight. In reality, the reception issues are especially bad today because it’s Friday, the day a large percentage of New York City’s teeming millions leaves work early and takes refuge in my rural Long Island hometown. The sudden flood of wireless customers into our small community would pose no problem for a robust, well-built-out wireless network, but that doesn’t exist here. Instead, a combination of high real-estate prices and a pervasive “not in my backyard” mentality has prevented wireless carriers from building enough cell sites (towers) to adequately cover the area.

Oh, and foliage. We’ve got a lot of trees out here. Their leaves mess up RF propagation like whoa.

Pictured: jerks.

So that’s why I’m sitting here trying to get my laptop to play nice with Starbucks’ in-house WiFi network, rather than using my Galaxy S III’s mobile hotpot. Even if I could get enough reception for the hotspot to function, I’d be stuck on my carrier’s EvDO (3G) network, currently unusably slow in its overloaded weekend condition.

I’m not used to this. When I work from the comfortable confines of my Boston office, it’s thanks to a robust broadband internet connection that delivers some pretty intense data rates. Even when I venture outside the cozy comfort of that padded cell, I’m blanketed in expansive 4G coverage from three national carriers, in both LTE and WiMAX flavors. Not even travel on the city’s subways rips me from my bubble of constant connectivity; though underground coverage is far from ubiquitous, I seldom go more than five or six stops without my smartphone beeping that, once again, it’s found a wireless network with which to trade a few megabits.

I don’t say this to boast. The omnipresent availability of communication in my home city is a convenience I enjoy, but it packs so much attractive utility that it’s fast becoming an indispensable part of my daily routine. Like a drug, I’m becoming dependent on the comfort blanket that such connectivity provides. And when I travel to an area not covered by that blanket, my life gets turned upside-down.

“I can’t put my finger on it, but something doesn’t feel right.”

In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing. As any constantly-connected office worker can tell you, it helps to unplug from the grid once in a while. Entire books have been written about the possibly harmful effects of constant dopamine blasts from ceaseless cellphone alerts. And especially for technology writers, it helps to be reminded once in a while that not every corner of the globe is blanketed in high-speed 4G coverage. “Getting some perspective” is an overused phrase, but spending time in marginal coverage areas does exactly that. Life is just different when less of it is spent with eyes glued to a pocket-sized LCD panel. Is it “better,” in a metaphysical sense? Is my chakra cleaner, or do I feel more “centered,” or spiritually fulfilled? Not really, but that’s for another column.

Returning to more-germane matters, time out here in “the boonies” has illustrated to me just how much mobile technology has changed. Of course, wireless phones have always been dependent on a network connection of some kind, but never before have we been able to do as much on our pocket devices, and never before has that reliance on a network been as extreme. Despite massive storage repositories, gigahertz-speed quad-core processors, and as much RAM as some desktops, the smartphones of today are almost totally useless without a network to back them up.

“What’s so hard to understand? ‘No Service’ means the doctor is out. Good luck, chump.”

And unless Brandon Miniman’s idea of an exabyte-enabled future comes to pass – a world fueled by devices featuring absurd amounts of local storage – this trend will continue. Look at the ever-increasing emphasis on “the cloud” and streaming vs. downloading. Even in the face of a (supposed) bandwidth crisis in the United States, the focus continues on how much more work we can offload to the network.

But even those of us who take every precaution to ensure continuity of connectivity can’t always rest easy knowing a digital lifeline will be there. To ensure I could still do my job during my trip to “the country,” I packed three smartphones on two separate networks, each with mobile-hotspot capability; even so, I’ve spent the majority of my time here hopping between public-WiFi clouds just to get work done. Bus and train companies in areas like this extoll the virtues of their “free internet access,” but anyone who’s used their services knows what that’s like. I wrote my speculation piece for the Samsung event in NYC earlier this week (and then my round-up article the following day) on a bus, and I spent the majority of that time looking at screens like these:

I call it “The Collage of Frequent Frustration.”

The easy cop-out is to lambast the cellular providers for their coverage failures, or to take the opposite tack and advocate that we all return to the simplicity of a pre-wireless existence. Both arguments are worth exploring in their own venues, but the interesting thing, to me, is what this situation tells us about the internet in general.

My experience over the past few days has allowed me to compare my 30Mbps mobile life in Boston to my 1.4Mbps existence on eastern Long Island. Some of the internet’s much-praised neutrality is preserved, in that the content is the same: the sites, pages, songs, and movies I (try to) download are identical– but the experience couldn’t be more different. To draw a loose analogy, using the mobile internet here in the country versus using it in the city is akin to taking a different route on a familiar road trip. The house I’m visiting is the same one I always go to, but instead of the usual smooth highway, the road I’m forced to take sends me on a bumpy war hell ride that’s four times as long.

“Best of luck in your web surfing! Love, The Countryside.”

I’ve always been fascinated by -and sometimes frustrated with- the reluctance of many people in my hometown to embrace smartphones. I’ve always attributed that to the older average age of most of the town’s residents, as well as the area’s predominantly blue-collar roots that have never had much use for portable connectivity. Those are powerful factors, but this most recent visit has convinced me that the abysmal network situation might also play a part. If this area’s meager coverage and pitiful data speeds make using the mobile internet an ordeal for someone like me, imagine what a normal person feels like. Making the case for the accessing the web from a mobile device is much harder when the experience is guaranteed to stink.

Is that a good or a bad thing? It’s hard to say. Maybe this is a problem that doesn’t need fixing. Maybe the progress it prevents in this and other small towns is a blessing in disguise, a means of indirectly preserving a simpler way of life. Again, those are metaphysical matters best suited to another venue. But although it’s been limiting -and at times hugely frustrating- the experience of surveying the mobile internet through a duller, blurrier telescope has also been instructive and important. I’d feel differently if I had to deal with it all the time (I’m returning to Boston in a few days), but as a temporary glimpse, it’s offered some valuable perspective. And in between page loads, it’s given me an opportunity to ask the question I often dance around: am I too connected?

I still don’t have an answer more definite than “sometimes,” but maybe there’s more insight to be gained in future visits to distant corners of the mobile internet like this. Until the 4G revolution reaches the boonies, that is.


Do you ever feel too connected? Are you buried in coverage and bandwidth and constant notifications? Or are you confined to a similarly-slow sector of the globe, hopping between WiFi hotspots and loading tweets via an EDGE connection? Tell us your story in the comments below.


Title image source: Steel in the Air


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