Only in the past year has the promise of nationwide wireless broadband Internet service started coming to full fruition. While the nation's cable and telephone service providers continue to fight for control of the "last mile" of cable leading into customers' households, in order to pump multimedia content in high-definition at furious speeds, the wireless carriers may find themselves holding a trump card, literally: a PC card that embeds a high-speed cellular connectivity device for EV-DO networks, that can receive data from any point within cellular transmitter range at speeds which many consider equivalent to broadband.
All of which led us to ask, "But how well does it work in the woods?" Could one, forseeably, make arrangements to camp out for a week or so in the deep wilderness, while maintaining contact with his work colleagues without wires, but with something approaching a broadband connection? The answer is far less complicated in 2006 than it was in 2005.
Park yourself beside your favorite fishing hole, take in the fresh air and the birds, and keep up with the number of cores in Dell's newest computers.
Last week, I set up shop at a relative's cabin in the wooded hills a few miles from Versailles, Indiana, a quaint, delightful, rural town about an hour's drive from Cincinnati. It isn't exactly secluded from civilization, but judging from the bullfrogs and the buzzards, you might reckon it ain't a sprawling metropolis, either.
Technically, DSL service could have been installed here, since there is a telephone line; but without a decent VHF antenna and with no satellite feed, there's no television here, which for a native Oklahoman like myself is an actual requirement for a decent fishing hole. With the trees reaching up to touch the base of the clouds, and the white noise supplied not by the FM radio but by the buzz of locusts, this was an excellent place for us to try out Verizon Wireless' PC5740 broadband access card and NationalAccess service plan.
The logon process for Verizon's VZAccess software took me back to the frontier days of internetworking, back when people "logged on," kept track of the time they spent online (often with a crude, external timekeeping device), then "logged off" in order to save money. With Verizon's system, though, these worries are eliminated in the sense that you don't have to worry about saving money. The NationalAccess plan currently costs $60/month for US customers, for a service contract that knocks the price of the card itself down to a respectable $100 (rebates may apply here depending upon your location).
Verizon's PC5740 broadband access card, built by Qualcomm - soon to become a country boy's best friend.
Having wireless broadband access is worth the investment for us at TG Publishing, not because we're all wishing we were out fishing, but because we frequently cover conferences and major events using remote equipment, and access to an outgoing network via Ethernet is next to impossible. Recently, organizers of major events have taken to deploying WiFi jammers to prevent spectators from sending news out of an area ahead of the embargo time.
While we certainly want to respect news embargoes (I figured, while I'm telling fish stories, I'd throw that in), whenever such jammers are active and wired Ethernet access is shut down, our lifeline as reporters to the outside world becomes the telephone. Since it's illegal to jam public telephone signals, we realized that making full use of new high-speed, cellular access networks could help keep us in closer communication during major technology events.
But also for professionals who aren't, like us in the Internet journalism field, technology geeks, wireless broadband field access could become a critical resource. Field researchers, archaeologists, geologists, and emergency services workers could make use of EV-DO broadband to maintain critical network connections and VPNs in situations where establishing a physical network uplink would be too costly or too extravagant for such short-term use.
The Grueling Outdoor Survival Test: A First-hand, Eyewitness Account
For me, nothing says returning to one's roots, and rediscovering what really makes a man a man, than broadband Internet access in the wilderness of our country. At this distance from major transmission stations, to call this "broadband" is perhaps to tell a bit of a fish tale. Internet access out here is about as fast as the average speed of DSL access in a congested suburb.
The statistics provided VZAccess recorded my fastest reception speeds at approaching 256 kbps, but averaging something more like 112 kbps. Still, that's faster than by telephone - especially much more so than linking via a USB connection through a cell phone.
Hard at work. But how does he see that screen in bright sunlight?
Even out here, time of day made a huge difference. During the late afternoons, especially around 4 pm Eastern time, reception speeds slowed to a pace that could compel one to stick a lure in the water in-between page refreshes. Fortunately for my career, though, I vigilantly continued. During the slow periods, reception slowed to about 36 kbps, which is right in there with what our ancestors called phone modems.
If there was one headache we encountered during our week-long trial, it was the upload speed, which is about as broad a band as a minnow is fat. At about 3 kbps upload speeds, it often took minutes to upload photographs of respectable size - and in the field, where battery power is critical, you might not always have that many minutes.
With the amount of uploads that normally take place on an average work day, power consumption became an issue, but not a critical one. My Athlon 64-based notebook system runs on about 2:45 minutes of battery power with consistent use, which is admittedly nowhere near optimum.
With the VZAccess card (more specifically, a Qualcomm 3G CDMA card) plugged in, battery life was reduced to about 2:10 minutes. Fortunately, we had plug-in power readily available, but if we were literally in the field, without a nearby automobile or other power generator, time could conceivably have become a precious commodity.
But in our particular circumstance - which was a combination "dry run" for future remote coverage, as well as a welcome change of venue - I managed to maintain the lifeline that keeps our business running smoothly and the news flow nice and even. Coupled with a Verizon cell phone (which, incidentally, drives the card's and service's price down even further), we could conduct our business from almost anywhere.
This dramatically opens up the realm of possibilities for any business whose employees are distributed in far flung locations, or anyplace whose local flavor and lingo prompts you to use phrases like "far flung." With the rapid spread of EV-DO - as well as its competitor, the more Europe-centered HSDPA - the information worker's home address is becoming, for lack of more specifics, the whole of Planet Earth.