Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Bleeding Edge of Wireless

By David G. Young

Washington DC, December 28, 2010 --  

America isn't quite ready for the fully wireless household. If carriers have their way, it never will be.

After three years of bragging to others about my success at cutting the cord of my landline telephone, the time was ripe to try the same thing with my internet access.

The initial experiment proved much easier than I'd thought. After learning the secret term "naked DSL" and insisting to several escalating Verizon customer service representatives that the service option does indeed exist, I cut my monthly phone bill by more than half -- much of it nickel and dime government fees tacked on to the once essential telephone service. My cell phone worked fine for local calls, and Skype worked great for international ones. Most younger Americans now agree, who needs a land line anyway?

So when I moved three months ago, I decided to shut off my DSL service instead of relocating it. My wife already paid $60 per month for T-mobile broadband on her phone, and I had a Sprint "4G" broadband USB stick through work. Both were plenty fast enough to watch Hulu in our old apartment, so we figured we could do the ultimate cable cutting and go fully wireless in our new place -- no cable and no phone line or DSL. We'd save thousands of dollars per year!

Unlike the first cable cut, this one was a dismal failure, as I quickly discovered the downsides to being on the bleeding edge. My Sprint broadband stick fails to connect to the 4G WiMax network that Sprint's maps show fully covers my new block. And falling back to the 3G network gives four bars, but a plodding 200 kbps of download bandwidth. This made Hulu pause every few seconds -- totally ruining the comedic timing on The Office.

Had Sprint limited my bandwidth because I exceeded their 5Gb monthly cap on unlimited access? Nope. My download speed at my office was a healthier 1800 kbps. Too bad I can't watch Hulu at work.

While my wife's T-mobile speed at home clocks in at 4000 kbps, relying on her phone alone presents problems. First, she is often not at home; no wife, no Hulu. Second, because my wife has an Android phone, not a broadband stick, she has to rely on a program called PDANet to get around T-mobile's connection sharing restrictions (T-mobile and other carriers try to charge you a monthly fee for the right to share your phone's broadband connection with your computer.)

Because PDANet only runs on Macintosh and Windows computers, my Linux-based media center is effectively cut off from online video. And its ageing processor isn't fast enough to play back high definition over-the-air recordings without more frequent pauses that similarly kill the jokes on The Big Bang Theory (The analog cable service I'd cut out was analog standard definition.) This made the media center totally obsolete.

What's worse, my media center is connected inline to the living room TV, so this made the TV worthless, too. Until I rewire everything, we can only watch TV on a laptop over the internet on my wife's phone, when she is home, while the big screen in the living room stays dark. This is the epitome of cord-cutting failure.

While there are solutions to each of these problems, they are not free or easy, and the wireless carriers are doing everything they can to throw obstacles in front of others who might follow my example. They are capping monthly downloads, restricting connection sharing, and limiting the delivery speed of websites who don't pay them off under the terms of the FCC's new net neutrality regulations.

Indeed, wireless carriers do not want to sell you a buy once use everywhere broadband service. They want to sell you multiple monthly services. Witness the millions of lemmings who agreed to pay AT&T two separate monthly service charges for internet access on both their iPad and their iPhone. Verizon is drooling at the thought of doing the same thing when it jumps on the Apple bandwagon -- plus hitting you with a third monthly service charge for your home DSL as well. This is not just a bad deal, it is downright abusive.

Regardless of what the carriers want, consumers won't put up with this forever. Sooner or later, more and more folks will be following in my path and having a higher degree of success in the process. The best the wireless and cable companies can hope for is to slow down the process as much as possible.