Thursday, August 24, 2017

Unplugging ... or not

Years ago a friend told me of a mutual friend who had taken a hiking trip out in the mountains somewhere.  "Yeah, they decided to take a cell phone," my friend said.

My immediate reaction was "What's the point? I thought the whole point of going out in the boonies was to get away from phones and such."  My friend explained that the phone was for emergencies, and 911 did work where they were (there was apparently a tower nearby).  I don't think they actually ended up using the cell phone.

As I write this I'm up in the mountains, though still more or less in civilization (different mountains, as it happens).  There is intermittent cell reception ... and wifi throughout the place.  The wifi is also a bit spotty, but not because of reception.  I have a nice clear connection to the wifi, but so does everyone else, and there are a lot of technophiles around.  Nonetheless it seems to be enough to get messages through to the outside world.  And to blog.

There are still significant parts of the world, even the more or less industrialized world, without internet or cell access, but it's shrinking.  Cell phone carriers would prefer to concentrate their resources where people are (I've heard that "we don't cover the cows" or something like that has been a motto, but Google doesn't seem to back me up on that).  This means that most people will be near coverage, but there's also a knock-on effect.

People get used to coverage, so they really notice when it's not there.  If your fun adventure in the backcountry is marred by not being able to call home in the evening, you may well report "poor coverage by my carrier" to your friends.  No one wants to be that carrier, so there's an incentive to build out coverage even in less profitable areas, an incentive that wasn't there in the early days.  There are still plenty of places where you wouldn't reasonably expect to see coverage, but I wouldn't be surprised if this effect has brought coverage to places that wouldn't have it based on a purely local economic analysis.

Having a mobile phone has long since gone from something that can be handy to something that has influenced our habits thoroughly enough to change our expectations.  For many of us, unplugging by traveling out of reach of the web is no longer an easy option.  If you visit your relatives' cabin at the lake, you probably still have bars.  That mountain retreat has connectivity because enough customers wanted it.  The only real way to unplug is to ... well ... not use the web for a while.  Which, come to think of it, shouldn't really have to be a special occasion.

While writing this, I looked up cell coverage in Alaska.  It looks like, not surprisingly, most of the physical area of the state is uncovered, but almost all of the population is.  It would be interesting to know more about the swaths in the interior that are covered.  I'd guess transportation is involved, just as interstates in the lower 48 tend to have towers at fairly regular intervals, even in unpopulated areas.

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