Internet now not just a luxury, but a necessity

Mobile, cellular Internet is usually a luxury. If you bought your laptop in the past year, you may well have a built-in cellular modem. Even if you don’t, you can easily buy an add-in card to provide you with Internet almost anywhere you get a cell phone signal. But the add-in card will cost you at least $100, and the service charge also usually costs $100 per month. The service isn’t tremendously fast or reliable, and generally works best outside.

But sometimes cellular Internet access isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. I will be going on a community-service trip to Ghana over spring break, during which I’ll be responsible for setting up a 13-laptop computer lab. The site is very rural, and Internet connectivity may well prove to be a problem. The town is supposedly being wired with DSL this month, but timing estimates in Africa are largely unreliable — not that they’re particularly accurate here, either. Oddly, I have learned the region definitely has CDMA Internet access, which is the system Verizon and Sprint use. There will likely also be local GSM access — T-Mobile’s and AT&T Wireless’s technology — which is almost exclusively the standard in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Still, in the interest of being internationally prepared (in case I need mobile data in Ghana to set up or run the lab), I purchased two used phones for roughly $50 a piece on eBay that have quadband (international) EDGE (high-speed data) support, much like most recent BlackBerries and the iPhone.

I have confirmed that both the used phones will tether (provide data access) to my laptop, assuming I pay for the right plan, either here or abroad. Ideally, if we don’t find a better option before then, I could run the Ghana lab through either of these two cell phones. Whichever one I don’t use, I will use for data access on my laptop when I return.

Increasingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that Internet “anywhere” is becoming more and more of a necessity, and cannot simply be a luxury. I’m not just talking about the times when “yale wireless” fails you, or there’s no WiFi at all in the area — like the Yale Daily News newsroom. BlackBerry users will tell you just how convenient having e-mail at your fingertips anytime and anywhere can be.

But high costs for cellular data access inhibit the possibility of greater productivity. If every cell phone in every person’s pocket had unlimited data access and could tether to your laptop, we could all have the instantaneous Facebook, e-mail and Internet access that is currently limited to only iPhone, BlackBerry and high-end smartphone users who pay for specific plans.

We need a mobile broadband revolution and democratization, and we need it soon. Widespread BlackBerry and iPhone use has helped alleviate the problem, but it has not eliminated it altogether. I cannot even begin to imagine the multitude of new inventions that entrepreneurs would come up with if everyone had cheap, fast, handheld Internet access.

Chinese businessmen have discovered an interesting solution to their need for mobile Internet. On Feb. 18, the New York Times ran a fascinating article on the number of iPhones that have made the return trip to China, where they are not legally sold because of Apple’s collapsed negotiations with China Mobile. Small shops in vast Chinese street markets unlock the phones for businessmen so they can be used on the local cellular networks for a fee of only $20. According to the article, of the 3.7 million iPhones sold, only 2.3 million are legally registered on networks in Europe and the United States. Consequently, it is entirely conceivable that the remaining 1.4 million are operating beyond Apple’s control on other networks.

As much as I would like to make the jump to an iPhone too, I would hate to make the huge investment only to find that a newer revision with faster Internet (HSDPA) had been released. My current cell phone is capable of receiving broadband Internet access and has the requisite browser software to do a pretty bang-up job of accessing the Internet, but Verizon would still charge me $45 a month for EVDO access, which I refuse to pay. Sprint offers a $15 dollar add-on package for unlimited data, but even though Verizon and Sprint use the same CDMA and EVDO technology, it is impossible to convert a Verizon phone into a Sprint phone, as far as I can tell. As for T-Mobile, the Sidekick all-you-can-eat data plan costs a mere $30, while unlimited Internet for any other phone starts at $40. AT&T Wireless and Verizon are the only two providers with solid coverage in the Northeast, but I will rule out Verizon on the grounds of cost.

The cheapest solution I have found thus far is AT&T’s MediaMax plan that costs a mere $30 a month for unlimited data and voice plan. This plan assumes you have a Cingular phone, for which the contract has run out, or your own unlocked GSM phone. I took the latter route, and as far as I can tell, it’s the best solution to our dire need for a mobile broadband revolution.

Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on Wednesdays.

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