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CES 2010: Living in the Past

As I mentioned in my last article (“CES 2010 Day 1: Blending the Future,” 7 January 2010), the coolest thing about being at CES is catching glimpses of the future: seeing the technologies which will become part of the normal landscape of the next generation. So it’s a damn shame how brutally we’re reminded that, by comparison, right now we’re living in the past.

Since Tuesday, getting a reliable Internet connection here has been a massively hit-or-miss endeavor. As I write this, I’m waiting for a balky public hotspot at the Venetian to upload a file to the TidBITS powers-that-be; it’s moving along at a speed I would have considered palatable on my 56K modem in 1993. A separate download, of the security video from the Newark airport (where I was caught up last Sunday), has failed four times so far. The Venetian is a luxury hotel, and I’d assume that in general they have a decent infrastructure here – I appreciate that, unlike every other hotel I’ve visited, they don’t whack you with a $13 daily charge for access. But clearly they’re not even close to being
set up for the bandwidth requirements of this crowd.

It’s not just the Wi-Fi – according to anecdotal reports, iPhones started failing when CES attendees started arriving. We appear to have recreated New York City in microcosm; people who have been happy with service so far are reporting dropped calls and sluggish 3G connections. One Brit, whose iPhone normally lives on another network, was completely befuddled by her experience with roaming on AT&T, remarking, “You’d think they’d know better.”

Compare that with all of the displays here advertising femtocells (private cell phone towers for home use), and the rapidly approaching 4G future. There’s no doubt in my mind that in the future we’ll consider ubiquitous wireless Internet access to be as normal a part of civilization as running water and FM radio. But in the meantime, if you want to carry a Wi-Fi hotspot with you, you’ll have to shell out over $800 a year. The fifty people standing near you, who are each paying $30 a month for cell data, are competing for the same bandwidth and decreasing overall Internet availability. Compare that with a mesh network,
where every new person on the network extends the Wi-Fi range and reliability. Parts of Kenya have a more collaborative Internet infrastructure than we do. Here, it’s ideal to be the only person in a three-block radius trying to get online.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I have any ready solutions to this problem, only the observation that this seems to be a case of free market failure. AT&T and T-Mobile are building out incompatible 3G systems, while Sprint speeds along with 4G. If you’re dissatisfied with your network, you can’t move unless you pay a contract termination fee and invest in entirely different hardware. And consumer complaints get processed through an opaque corporate cost-benefit analysis before they are translated into network improvements.

It seems to me that there is enough money to be made in the always-on networked future to subsidize the investments we’d have to make to achieve it. Yet, it also seems like we don’t have the political infrastructure to realize this. So let’s all enjoy looking forward to living in the future, because it sure looks like it’ll take awhile to get there.

[Jeff Porten is still waiting for his video download to finish, but is feeling better since he figured out how to use curl resume at the Terminal prompt.]

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