Productive Mobility: Not There Yet

Is it just me, or does 2010 seem like yet another year when the mobile infrastructure in the United States is finally ready for prime time? I live and mostly work in and around Chicago, which has one of the early 4G broadband networks (based on WiMax), and when it works, it’s great. Unlimited data traffic for $60 a month, plus the (subsidized) cost of the modem. Pretty good bandwidth: about what you get with 11g Wi-Fi in most places.

The issue is with the “when it works”–and where it works–part. Some days, the network is fine; some days, it isn’t there at all. And move
a couple of blocks, and service is in and out.

The service falls back to 3G (in this case, EvDO, or Evolution Data Optimized) just fine, but it’s limited in total monthly data to 5GB before the gouging starts. That’s ok for personal use, but it’s not adequate for a business user. Plus, the speed drops to anything from 500kb to, at best, 2Mb. You can’t be productive with that, but it’s better than nothing.

As an alternate approach, you can try to hop from one Wi-Fi hot spot to another. And then there’s travel time (train and occasional flights in my case), when Wi-Fi might not be available.

It’s even worse in New York, where it’s a good day when you can complete a 10-minute call on a cell phone without getting dropped or sounding like you moved to Mars.

Despite these problems, I get regular pitches from companies that tell me they can virtualize my desktop environment and let me work from anywhere with just a browser to provide “secure” access to the image on a corporate server. They all seem sincere, but it makes me wonder what they’re smoking.

I am (a little) sympathetic to the carriers and service providers. The electromagnetic spectrum is a tough platform to build a reliable service on, especially when you have to work with very low power levels to transmit and receive. That’s one reason carriers take that wireless signal and dump it onto fiber as fast as possible. It’s much easier to manage traffic when it’s riding on an optical wavelength in a hard-to-interfere-with medium like fiber–or even shielded copper.

But the odds are against them for the last mile. Most buildings weren’t designed to be electromagnetic-accessible, and retrofitting to accommodate the multiple frequencies used by U.S. broadband services is expensive. Add in the challenges of triangulating on a moving target to maintain a signal strong enough to support reasonable data rates, and it’s a tough engineering job. That’s why it’s best to stay still, even if you are “untethered.”

And then there’s the little matter of batteries. For all the improvements made in electronics and wireless infrastructure, the real Achilles heel of mobility is portable electrical power. Today’s devices do incredibly well with power management–until you turn on their internal (or external, but internally powered) data service radios.

My laptop (which has a solid-state drive, not a rotating media drive) will get 6 to 8 hours of battery life if I turn the radios off. Turn on

WiFi, and that drops to under 3 hours. Turn on WiMax, and it’s even worse. I don’t know about you, but my working day’s longer than that. So even if I’m untethered from the network, I’m not untethered from the power grid. Sigh.

I’d really like all this to work. So would my staff and associates. I’ve been waiting for two decades to become a really productive mobile worker. I’m probably going to have to wait for at least one more. And maybe forever.

John Parkinson, former CTO of TransUnion LLC, has been an IT executive and consultant for more than 30 years, advising leading companies on the effective use of IT.

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