Falling into a connectivity hole in modern America

“We’re lucky he didn’t shoot us,” my wife said.

This was Friday last, as we were driving across upstate New York.  What happened might constitute a small parable of how badly, how unevenly America currently structures digital infrastructure.

To set the scene: we had just participated in the NYSCIO event, which took place this year in Cooperstown, New York.  Ceredwyn and I had a delightful time, between the conference and the Farmers Museum next door (readers who are baseball fans may mock us for our ignorance).  After it all wrapped up we loaded the car and started driving northeast, towards home.

We began by scooting along Otsego Lake, known to James Fenimore Cooper under the glorious name Glimmerglass.  Ceredwyn drove and I alternated between admiring the water while consulting Google Maps on my Android phone (our itinerary previously cached in the hotel’s rich WiFi).

upstate NY between Cooperstown and Canajoharie

About five miles along the road my phone rang, as a new client needed to plan an event with me.  No problem.  Ceredwyn continued driving as I talked and wrangled a laptop to jot notes.

Two minutes in the call dropped.  This wasn’t a glitch.  My AT&T phone showed zero connectivity in this area.  We drove on along Otsego Lake and the Android phone kept insisting that in this neighborhood it was no longer partaking of the twenty-first century.

I consulted my wife’s smartphone, another Android, but this time drawing from the Verizon network.  It, too, found no network in range…until, a few minutes later and a few miles further north, it did.  I quickly found my client’s number on the AT&T phone, typed it into the Verizon device, and reestablished contact.  I apologized for losing the call, and diplomatically resumed the conversation as Ceredwyn drove north north-east.

Until, a few minutes later, the call became garbled, then lost.

driving upstate NY

Ceredwyn smartly did a 180, turning the car around on the rural road so we could drive back into network range (a version of what I’ve previous called commuting to computing).  The phone soon showed connection bars once again.  Once again I called back the poor client back, apologizing for the second time and trying delicately, again, to bring the conversation back.  As I spoke and listened I imagined seeing the 4g network rain down upon us, surrounded by an arid drought.

What we didn’t imagine was a truck pulling up alongside us, driven by a large and grim-looking man.  I smiled and waved with a free hand, pointing to the phone.  The gentlemen glowered in reply, and snarled a sentence at my wife.  I leaned back in the car, removing myself from the immediate area, letting Ceredwyn do the talking, and keeping my call going as the visitor leaned unsmilingly in.

They went at it for a few minutes.  Ceredwyn beamed and was genial; this fellow muttered, snarled, and frowned; I spoke quietly to the phone, planning with and listening to my (hopefully!) client.  Then the guy started up his vehicle and slowly drove off.  I caught his massive silhouette in the truck’s cab as he turned, followed by a proud United States Marine sticker as the truck departed.

Ceredwyn drove the car forward a bit to another roadside while I finished up.  Done.   “We’re lucky he didn’t shoot us,” she began.

“What was that about?”

She sighed.  “He thought we were casing the place.”

“Ah.  Because we were pulled over and not doing anything?”

“Exactly.  He told me that break-ins had been happening in the area.  Apparently sketchy characters have been seen.  I reassured him that we weren’t criminals.  I’m not sure if he bought it.  He wasn’t happy, and told us to get off his property ASAP.”

And so we did, navigating between no-network shoals and the reefs of angry, huge ex-Marines.  Had the man been armed?  If my pretty, smiling, nice-sounding and sunhat-sporting wife hadn’t been there, how would the guy have treated me, given my dark clothing and plethora of hair?  To what point had our quest for connectivity taken us?

Using the cached Google Maps on my phone, I navigated us further north, where I Tweeted about the experience… but couldn’t, because we once again entered a dead zone.  Following the cache we plowed on, finally hitting the New York Thruway and a sudden return to 4G, because most of that interstate is lined with cell phone towers.

After a good eastward run on that highway we exited to cut northeast, saving miles and time by avoiding the built-up, crowed Schenectady-Albany area.  Once again we lost signal, with AT&T and Verizon taking turns offering zero or single bars as we motored along narrow, local roads.

upstate NY north of Albany

I posted about this to Facebook, and then couldn’t see the results most of the time.

Keep in mind that the location I’m speaking of is a mere three hours from New York City, the world’s finance capital and no slouch in the technology department.  This is New York state, too, one of the most populous and wealthy American states.  In addition the terrain involved is flat or hilly, rather than mountainous or otherwise signal-blocking.

We reached I-87 and again reconnected… for a while.  Because after driving straight north we had to cut due east to head towards home.  My AT&T phone repeatedly fell offline; Ceredwyn’s Verizon was little better.  After a while we hit Vermont and just gave up all connectivity hope until we reached home (where we still don’t have cell phone coverage, but at least have WiFi.  Sort of.  Most of the time.).

I’m writing this post in 2018, years after we began talking about ubiquitous computing and always-on connectivity.  This is a time when people are worried about other people using smartphones too often.  And yet at the same time these networks are shot through with holes, the modern era dropping back to the 20th century with disturbing frequency.

PS: I actually wrote this post over most of a day spent on an Amtrak train, riding south from the Burlington area towards Washington, D.C.  Ironically or not, the train’s WiFi has been lousy.  Maximum speed was about two Mpbs down; minimum has been dialup speed or zero.  Half the time the connection couldn’t handle opening a WordPress editing window.  Once again, America’s “always-on” network shows plenty of holes.

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12 Responses to Falling into a connectivity hole in modern America

  1. Tatiana Goodwin says:

    And worse, imagine this if the two of you were black. Imagine it in Florida, where stand your ground laws have just been shown to cover a man shooting his own dad over a parking space with no consequences. Imagine if she spoke English as a second language with any accent other than American or British.

    You’ve traveled. Does this happen elsewhere anything like it does here?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oh yes. We discussed the racial options and others.
      I’ve experienced better – in Singapore, Australia, and most of Europe.
      Also, worse. Once in Mostar I saw three different and heavily armed police forces follow each other in a 15 minute span.

  2. Mike says:

    I remember losing connectivity several times around Otsego Lake when I was cycling around it. And there are signs on I-87 north of Saratoga Springs warning you of no cellular coverage and there are emergency phones every mile.

  3. Phillip Long says:

    This is life in the deteriorating network world of the USA. It’s making it’s move downward in all kinds of dimensions, from democracy, to healthcare, to network coverage (bandwidth/cost, etc.) to all kinds of measures of economic inequity.

    We have been fortunate to live with GB fiber to the house for the past 4 years (first in Austin, now in C’ville). The company providing us with fiber in C’ville is, ironically, Canadian, going here by the name of Ting. Their network support is located in Toronto and I have to say they have been terrific when I’ve called them. But that doesn’t address mobile connectivity.

    We recently switched to T-Mobile from AT&T and cut our phone bill in 1/2 plus gained international, though slow (though it worked in the Caribbean when we were near an island using 2G – didn’t know that was still deployed but I guess in the Caribbean it is), wifi unlimited messaging.

    But in the US, Amtrak from C’ville to DC wifi is provided but it’s generally useless for real work. Mobile is mostly unavailable across the majority of the tracks to DC.

    And nobody cares.

    Sad.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      One of my favorite bloggers refers to this as “the crapification of everything.”

      I think the neoliberal dispensation plays a major role in this. Yes, we still have very large governmental systems – military, health care, Social Security, etc. But those are now legacies and soak up most of our politics. We don’t have bandwidth for something new.

      Imagine trying rural electrification now.

      • Phillip Long says:

        Rural electrification is the historical equivalent to Broadband distribution today. It, that is electrification happened in the last century, but it’s modern day equivalent isn’t likely to happen anytime in this one. We have lost the sense of being one country with responsibilities for each other regardless of class/economic status or language of birth.

        It woukd be interesting to map when nation building gave way to the centripedal forces of partisanship & exclusion in the name of individualism.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          I’d put that break point around 1990. The Democratic party starts its turn to the center then. The Soviet Union goes away, dealing a blow to the worldwide idea of state-led social interventions. Neoliberalism becomes more accepted.

  4. “commuting to computing” describes standard cell phone usage strategy back in Mountainair NM…spotty in places here in rural Yuma too but less so.

  5. Bryan,
    Great story well told. I liked the maps and am only sorry Ceredwyn didn’t snap a pic of the driver. I’m sure that would have gone over well.

    Last year when I was firing up a fall class, I set off for Mt. Rainier the first day of class as our school has a long standing policy of automatically turning on Moodle at midnight the first day of school.

    I didn’t get the memo that the policy had changed, and I had to turn it on manually. I was in a national park, which I think quite reasonably doesn’t have connectivity. I was hiking high up on a remore ridge when suddenly I had bars galore and emals and texts from students came pouring in.

    As I had just that window of opportunity, I texted my Moodle administrator to ask if he would turn my class on for me, but he’s one of those literalist who by gawd couldn’t be bothered. My class; my job.

    I hiked down the mountain.
    I drove a dangerous hour down off the mountain out of the park where I could get bars.
    I logged in and slid the button to “on.”
    I drove an hour back up the mountain—in the dark, as it happened.

    I realize this story is tangential to the point you want to make, but it’s one that demonstrates the absurdity of our dependency on bars. How much carbon footprint did I burn to slide that button?

    Thanks for a good read that pointed to a pervasive problem.

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