I admit it, I have to remind myself from time to time that I live and work in the Silicon Valley and so may have an extreme view of Internet access and reliance. My students largely come from engineering or information technology industries, and many work for Fortune 50 technology companies.  This post is the result of a wake up call I received about my assumptions of ubiquitous access to the Internet, and how Internet access in intertwined into how I work (and into much of my commentary in this blog). I'm just returning from 12 days of travel in French Polynesia and Western Australia. Yes, I had access to the Internet every day. Yes, it was even pretty speedy access. However, I didn't get around to doing upload and download speed tests as it was costing me too much per second to take the time. What does it mean to be on the road and cut off from your normal access to the Internet? Pain of a variety of sorts. In a chapter published with my colleagues Greg Northcraft and Mark Fuller (Borgs in the Org?), we talk about being mindful of the access you are likely to have in different situations. There, we were largely concerned with limited access due to security concerns and related constraints when visiting organizations. For example, not having wireless access when you visit a client due to the client's restrictions. Yes, these constraints can be surmounted by having access to the Internet via your cellular provider, but have you checked the price?  While in the US I find plenty of wireless access (free or for the price of a coffee), on this trip wireless was limited and expensive.  Unless you work for one of those Fortune 50 firms and they’re footing the bill, most of us seem to live with being disconnected.  For cellular access, the telecoms want you to buy a separate plan for your computer connection, and largely restrict your ability to tether (having your cell phone's data access serve as a modem for your computer).  $60/month seems to be a going rate for an extra data plan – a little steep for my sporadic use.  Short-term data accounts seem to have gone away, and renting is pricey given you have to ship hardware around. The point is, even though I knew the situation, I was still taken aback at how my disconnection limited my workflow. I had thought carefully about which files to have on my mini laptop, which to have in the “cloud,” and the type of work to schedule for the time away from home. This still didn’t prepare me for networks that were too slow to run Skype for voice calls, the fact that I was too scared to unlock my iPhone and was too cheap to pay for the international roaming plan (especially as I have no idea how much data I would use and the overages are steep), or how much I relied on ubiquitous Internet access to get things done. As I fly home (with a normal 110v plug next to my Qantas seat), I have learned a few things:
  • I need to get my iPhone unlocked or run the numbers to convince myself that the data roaming expense is within reason.
  • Hardcopy is my friend. I had done much travel preparation and had printed out contact numbers, pricing, maps, and the like. I'll do more of it next time.
  • I need to think about how spoiled I am. I am not a marketing expert, so I cannot speak to the ecosystem that drives my normal access to free Internet at coffee houses and the like. It was hard for me to work in a system where daily hotel Internet fees were higher even than in the US. I can generally choke down US$20/day, but not over $30.  (In a pleasant turn of events, I'm posting this from a Comfort Inn with free Internet in my room.)
The broader take away is to keep in mind Internet availability and related bandwidth. We work globally, but the strength of the Internet's capabilities are not universally available to our global colleagues. Here is a link to 2007 statistics on broadband access. Even where we technically have similar access, country network/telecom differences may cut us off at the knees when we travel.  I’ll post this as soon as I have access to the Internet :)