24/7 Internot Everywhere (The Irony of Ubiquity)

Over the past few years, I have lived in five residences across four countries and had to contract a new Internet connection seven times (not including temporary visits of less than one month). Whether dial-up or broadband, wired or wireless, in all these cases, a reliable, highspeed, 24/7 Internet connection was seen by all parties involved (myself, the ISP, and the poor guy on the other end of the phone taking the brunt of my frustration) as an obvious necessity.

The very model of a modern nomad, with my trusty and ever-expanding store of network cables, wireless adapters, wifi keys, modems and routers of both generic and branded variety, and a selection of US-UK-EU power and telephone jack adapters, I hop border to border, ready to hook up at a moment's notice. Instead of the ease of plugging in and logging on, year upon year I have to buy or rent new hardware (Sorry, your equipment isn't compatible unless it has our logo on it, but we'll send you one for a small monthly surcharge. And it only takes 10 weeks to get from our factory somewhere in Asia to your front door ...). I've dealt with the ensuing connection fees and waiting periods with more than a little poise. On occasion, I went several weeks without Internet. I mean, honestly.

With ubiquitous, mobile connectivity touted as a universal pleasure and prerequisite to life in general, it should be a snap to hook up whenever, wherever. On holiday? Moving house? Fieldwork? On the lamb? Nope, sorry, tough luck.

There are a number of reasons why getting a terrestrial or mobile Internet connection from place to place isn't so easy (prohibitively outrageous prices, anyone?), but I won't go into them all. Today my sole pet peeve is the service contract.

I completed my fieldwork in mid-January and am currently writing my thesis at a third location, away from the field but also away from my university. This has interrupted my precious writing-up time as I attempt to find not only a flat to live in, but some way to connect to what is ironically the scarcest ubiquitous commodity I know of. (In the time that this post has been in draft limbo, I've now completed both of the aforementioned tasks. Which is to say, everything but finishing my thesis).

But let me start at the beginning. I detest contracts. Purvey of lawyers and con artists, with their twisted phraseology and ulterior motive; if there wasn't some sort of awkward beauty in that, I'd never sign one. Alas, we cannot escape the world of property and responsibility. I am, of course, referring to those of you who have run out of ways to extend your doctoral program and who now have to try to make an honest living. Don't worry - there's always academia, where you can, well ... twist words with thinly veiled ulterior motive*.

My original hatred of the service contract was sparked way back when I believed that beepers were the ultimate technological advancement (with the exception of pagers). You did too, admit it. It didn't take long for the novelty to wear off, but my 2-year service contract wore on and on, the cancellation fees equivalent to paying off the entire contract in full. Whether in the late nineties or today, we might be wireless, but strings are still attached.

The Internet, telephones, and wireless networking mean so much to us all because they supposedly break down geographical boundaries and enable instantaneous connections to information and to each other. Take, for instance, the mobile phone - the most pure and quintessential symbol of anytime-anywhere communication, perpetual connectivity and limitless movement. The practical reality is sadly lacking, and even sinister in its irony.

The mobile phone industry in Europe and the US, at least, has diversified enough so that temporary residents can acquire a pay-as-you-go or prepaid service and thereby avoid being tied in to a service contract. The penalty they - myself included- pay for the flexibility of not being forced to reside in one place for an extended period of time (pardon me, I didn't realize that was a crime) are usually: higher per minute rates for calls, connection fees, no package deals or bonus services, more expensive handsets and/or handsets with limited functionality, limited to no access to data transfer or media downloads, bare bones customer service, and the silent social stigma of being a mobile plebeian. But you can come and go as you please, with no contracts to cancel.

I have several SIM Cards for prepaid networks in the UK, US and mainland Europe. For travel within Europe, they're fast and easy to use - just pop in the appropriate SIM for whatever country you're in, switch it on and hope for coverage. I've always had reliable service. The phone in question has to be unlocked, but that is fairly simple procedure these days. Some of the major networks and providers support roaming to neighboring countries (additional charges apply), while the lesser companies (read: cheaper because they piggyback off the infrastructure of the major networks) don't, so the signal drops out a convenient 30 seconds over either side of a border. I often like to "phone home" (the US), though it might as well be another planet: a scorching 2 Euros a minute from my current provider in Germany; a sinfully cheap 5 cents a minute from my old provider in Spain (with a 25 cent per call connection fee that sounded extortionate at the time).

Has mobile communication made the world a theoretically smaller place? No doubt. But the premium gets passed on. I'm not even talking about communicating from the more remote regions of the earth where anthropologists generally spend their time. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, I'm spoiled rotten for communicative choice. Getting that technological divide sorted out is another issue entirely, and one that I'm not so qualified to fume over.

The shining beacon in the poverty-stricken anthropology PhD student's communication world is Skype. Free calls. Free-ish. If you have Internet access.

And thus we arrive back at the source of my frustration: 24-month service contracts.

My problem with the service contract is, quite simply, that it takes the aforementioned potentialities of freedom and renders them null and void by shackling users to a territoriality that just shouldn't exist in the world of mobile and wireless communication. To sign a contract, you must have a permanent address; to have a fixed address you must have official (legal) residency. You must have a bank account to have the fees debited from. You must plan to live in said location for the duration of the contract or pay disproportionately large fees to cancel your service. The contracts that I have come across have had a duration of either 12, 18 or 24 months.

Let's compare. The average academic year is 9-10 months long. The minimum let/lease period for a privately owned apartment in many places is 6 months, with one month's cancellation notice thereafter. From my experience, the average set-up window for a new ISP is 2 weeks to 2 months from request for service to initiation of connection and contract. Advance notice of disconnection before the contract expires is not accepted as fair termination. Are we noticing some incongruities here?

I need the Internet. Not just because it makes for visually appealing and impressively diverse procrastination techniques in between paragraphs of my thesis, but because it is my primary research tool for culling academic (and semi-academic) sources to sustain my research. I like to keep up with news and events (I've never personally owned a television), and quite a sizeable part of my current ethnographic work has an online component of a time-sensitive nature. I realize that "need" is a strong word, so I concede that I could physically survive without the Internet, but to reduce life to pure survival is to render the PhD itself laughably inane and undo whatever frame of reference prompted my taking the time to write this.

To put it simply, for my short stay of 6 months, the predominance of 24-month service contracts has prevented me from acquiring an ADSL connection at home. This being the age of 3G mobile broadband replete with shiny paraphernalia to ooh and aah at, I was determined to find an alternative. Since this post has been sitting in my draft folder, I have acquired a 3G/HSDPA USB modem provided by O2. Basically, it's a glorified pen drive/voiceless mobile phone with a SIM Card inside. (Because I needed another SIM Card). It's sleek and palm-sized, a mini replica of something from Star Trek, and connects me at lightening speeds of up to - wait for it now - 210KB/sec download; 180KB/sec upload. Yes, that says KB. A PDF downloads at the astonishing rate of 19KB/sec, and Open Office took 3 hours. The packaging it came in, and the connection manager software hibernating on my desktop, insist that the speed is a whopping 7200KB/sec downlink. Please.

A lot of cities throughout the world are committed to installing free wifi networks for their residents. I think that's great. I haven't had the pleasure of living in one of these. Wifi networks are more widely available, however, to contract subscribers of terrestrial Internet services, but as we have discovered, that privilege is restricted to mostly permanent residents. Ironically, the tools of transience are only available to those tethered to the ground, with contracts, stable salaries, and monthly bills - the outdated indicators of a level of stability these technologies should afford us to finally be rid of.

The popular argument is that home is no longer a humble abode nestled between four solid walls; it is anywhere where there is an Internet connection. In many ways, I'm inclined to agree with that. An apartment, house or room I rent never really feels like somewhere I can settle into without having the web at my fingertips. Even when I was living out of my suitcase in a hotel in a foreign city for 5 weeks, I felt reasonably comfortable knowing that I had access to 24/7 wifi. What makes me feel increasingly uncomfortable, however, is the thought that I need to be anchored to some physical permanence embodied in a fixed address to fulfill my requirement for impermanence.

The service contract, bane of my existence, needs a hefty overhaul. I'm willing to pay monthly fees, abide by fair usage policies, even fork over my hard-earned student loan money for a connection fee. But 24 months? I can't even predict what I'm going to have for breakfast tomorrow, let alone where I'll be living in 3, 6 or 12 months' time. We're consistently being told that it's becoming faster and easier to skip around the world with abandon, yet I find myself being tied to little patches of land, forced to pay pizzu to the technology mafiosi. Have I slept through the future or something?

* joke.


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