Observing America part 1, cell phones

In the year 2009 the cell phone is pretty inescapable.  Devices have improved, carrier coverage and ability has improved, and the continual investment in manufacturing has reduced the cost of entry.  Via pre-paid SIM and shared-device situations even people without a mobile are able to access the networks and services.

What remains then as the divide is the level of services, devices, and access.  While people like Jan Chipchase, FrontlineSMS and others are tracking and planning the phone’s global advancement, others are tracking the push upwards, into the realm of computers, GPS units, music players, and cameras.  These two fronts are in some ways the same, that of expanding the ability and availability of a single, always-on device carried with the user.  This expansion is truly revolutionary, and understood by both corporations and individuals.

The problem, however, is the gap between desire and implementation, made worse by the almost-identical gap between truth and marketing.

Here in America, for the most part, we are the lucky recipients of an incredible wealth of technological development.  Apple is here, Google is here, IBM and Xerox were here, Microsoft and Sun and countless others are here.  We are a test-bed for software and expensive systems.

But we are not a leader, in most cases.  And the reluctance with which we admit this, or solve it, is startling.  I do not mean to say that America as a nation is failing, or unable to address these issues.  I am simply stating that the specific technological issues which Americans face on a daily basis in the area of mobile telephony and computing are neither necessary nor shared by the rest of the globe.

Recently I have noted a number of people making a variety of arguments that can be whittled down to one idea:

“[subject] is not really that bad [here].”

The subject varies, more on that in a moment.  The here, though, is implied, because most of the writers or commentators have no comparison, or make none.  They do not state that “relative to another system” this one is better.  There is no comparison of advantages and disadvantages.  There is simply the statement that “it’s not that bad.”

What’s not that bad?

1.  Network coverage.

Marco, who writes very well about many things, makes the claim here:

I frequently travel to the fringes of cellular reception areas, including many areas with zero coverage from any carrier. I’ve found:

  1. AT&T isn’t as bad as many people think.
  2. Verizon isn’t as good as many people think.

This is classic “not so bad” thinking.  Why?  Because there is no option for good.  While Marco’s experiences are completely tied to his location, being a US consumer he has only so many options.  However, in San Francisco, AT&T has far, far worse coverage than Verizon.  Not just data coverage, or just voice coverage, but coverage of any kind.  On Haight and Ashbury, a relatively central, relatively famous San Francisco location, there is a thirty meter wide dead zone where no AT&T tower reaches.  Moreover, Marco’s conclusion, while based on extensive personal experience with both networks, comes down to the very unenviable conclusion that:

my phone is a personal computer most of the time, and it’s occasionally used to make or receive phone calls. Most data is downloaded over WiFi, with occasional small transfers over the cellular network. Network flakiness hurts me less than device flakiness. For me, therefore, the device is much more important than the network, because I’m using the device much more than I’m using the network.

Suddenly the inconsistency is clear.  Marco is reviewing cell phone coverage on a variety (he also mentions Sprint) of networks, but, for him, networks are not the primary concern.

There are no good networks in America.  Sprint’s is fast, but small, and can not handle voice and data simultaneously.  It also is based on a non-global standard.  Verizon’s is large, but like Sprint’s cannot handle voice and data simultaneously, and is not based on a global standard.  AT&T’s network is large, porous, minimally 3G, and often overwhelmed.  T-Mobile’s is small and uses a unique band for 3G.

That’s it.  There are other carriers, but they are regional.  There is no “good” choice.  There are no carriers that offer a truly nation-wide network that also interacts with the rest of the world.

2.  Price

My good friend Charles has been known to state the following, which, I suspect, is a sentiment shared by many, especially those writing online about cell phones:

I don’t mind paying the $90 or $100 a month, that seems fine for unlimited data, texts, whatever, I just want service that works, all the time.

I’m paraphrasing, so should you see him in person, apologize for me.  However, the point remains.  There is a portion of the US market that does not see price as the barrier.  The absolutely mind-blowing aspect of this realization, which many have made before me, and Charles makes often, is that, despite a willingness to pay, this group is still unsatisfied. Why?

Because there is no good US network.

Yet that conclusion leads backwards, to an interesting thought: Why then is cell phone service, in the United States, so expensive?  Without comparison, domestically, this question is hard to answer.  Most US carriers offer strangely similar prices, often exactly the same.  There is very little price competition, and therefore very little in the way of media comparisons.  Yet, in most surveys, US cell phone service costs remain highest in the world.  This is not often mentioned because there exists no alternative.  Yet media pressure is an effective tool, and should be utilized.  Paying more for less is not in anyone’s interests.

There are other aspects, like international travel support, carrier locked phones, and early termination fees, that I would like to rail against.  Like pricing and network effectiveness, they are issues defended as “not that bad”, and, I think, all too easy to accept without a view of places where they are not the standard.

Here in America we have a great many things, but not all of them are good, or as good as they could be.  We also have the ability to compare, the information with which to do so, and the outlets to publish our findings.  It is a shame then that so much of the current writing stays within the bounds of what is, here, rather than looking for what is elsewhere and could be, here.

Letters to Mayors part 1, the N

Dear Mayor,

As someone who has recently moved to this city, I am writing you out of concern. The public transportation I was promised upon arrival is broken.  This is a bold statement, when millions of dollars are invested in it.  Yet I have an offer for you.

Please come ride the N with me for a few days.

We will be late to our meetings, yes, but we will be late together. We will be frustrated as the train we are on is taken out of service half way to our destination, the final Giants home game of the season.  Yet we will have company in this as well, said game being a popular public event scheduled long in advance.

We may watch as the train passes us at the station, empty and headed where we have promised to be, without stopping, despite NextBus’ assurances, but we will have our cell phones, and be able to explain to our colleagues, clients, friends, and, in your case, constituents that it is not our fault, that the Muni is again unreliable.

And they will understand, because they warned us about the N, and because they too live in San Francisco.

Returning souls

In the same time zone on the same continent a week now my body begins to understand its place. It is not the act of transit that leaves me so disconfigured, but the lack of location. In San Francisco for parts of three months, in Los Angeles twice, in Shanghai for a matter of days and Shaoxing a few weeks, I mind not the distances, but the lack of home. To those who frequent airports as business usual and shrug at the list just made, I note again, it is not the travel, but the lack of home.

We humans settle in the same fashion as cats. Chelsie, the cat from downstairs, hops onto the bed to find the afternoon sun. She has explored the closet, the bed’s underside, and the kitchen, looked for new purchases and imports from previous dwellings amid the piles, and is ready to furnace, her fur heated by the long rays of November. She turns once, surveying the alternatives to her spot just beneath the pillows, finds none better as she pushes gently at the comforter, assessing it’s softness, and settles. It is the act of someone who has come to rest in this spot before, who is aware of the benefits, and ready to be where they are. I watch her, as her eyes close in those long blinks that mean happiness, and realize my lack.

In transit for too long, stripped of all habits save the most basic, coffee in the morning and communication before bed, I have lost track of the best spot to settle, of where the light falls longest. With only a month in this apartment in a new city, a new state, and then weeks in a country I had left, with four months this summer afloat, borrowing other’s dwellings, though grateful my soul knows not where to rest.

Re-reading Pattern Recognition on the flight to Shanghai, the layover in Seoul, I remember Gibson’s brilliance in Cayce’s disconnect, her continual lack of comfort. It is a delicate point, and one I had seen but not felt on previous readings. There is a time for all books, or a place, I’ve been told, in long walks through Tokyo, and I agree. They are not places intended by the writer, though those surely exist, but rather specific locations that allow the story to resonate with the reader’s situation. Reading In the Skin of a Lion the second time, in Shanghai in 2003, with the cranes all around and the streets dirty with the sweat of men working underground, laying water and sewage in the hot August nights, the sacrifice of those forgotten builders of Toronto became impossible to avoid.  On successive readings it is the dust of China that returns to me most vividly.

This sense of understanding given to books and ideas by our body’s similar experiences strengthens many things. Yet relying on our bodies this way means that when they have no mooring, no familiar spot in the sun, we too are lost, adrift in the things our minds take in and call forth.

Here in the Sunset years past those Shanghai evenings, with an apartment again to myself during the hours of sunlight, I wait for my soul to return, for my body to remember the place I do inhabit, rather than those that I have.

Three business tactics

Answering the phone while driving back from the factory to his office, weaving in and out of the oncoming lane to pass trucks and cyclists, his voice shifts. At thirty eight he is a man of no small stature, having already begun to gain the bulk of those well-fed into their later years. The change then, from light-toned questioning with the windows down to this deep-voiced adult, who refers to others as Little so-and-so, comes easily from his body. This voice, devised for business and for those unknown, is not a personal invention. It is a ritual, a method of establishing seniority, sincerity, importance. He questions the faceless caller without pause for several minutes, half in one lane half in another. As the phone clicks off he shifts back to a more gentle set of sounds, but the switch is not as quick. His first sentence begins severe, in this voice of habit, and then becomes a joke, a secret shared between friends.
It is this voice he will use the next day to tell me about the factory’s complaints, about the difficulties they face, and the strictness of my standards. His voice will tell me this is business, that it is his job to say these things, and I will nod, agreeing. Nothing will change.

Without words he pulls the pack, red with golden lettering, from his bag, slicing the plastic wrap from it with a long nail. As he pushes the top open he extends it, though he knows I do not smoke. As I dismiss the offer he swings around to its true target, the third party at our small lunch table, who accepts gladly. He then takes one himself, and procuring lighter from some pocket lights them both. As they inhale he sets them neatly on the table, lighter on top of cigarettes, a deftly handled social calling. He looks at me, then, slowly exhaling, before eyeing his cigarette carefully. The third man puffs away, grateful for the break in conversation.
“You still don’t smoke,” he says.
“No.”
“Neither do I.”

“This weekend we will go to a bar,” he says, “it’s just that I’ve been so busy.” I nod. “I’ve barely had any alcohol at all this week myself,” he continues, “too much work, too tired.” I sympathize. The week has been long, lots of driving and meeting, waiting and watching, but that is not what we are talking about. We have spent hours together, driving around in the patchwork of our shared language, and they are long hours, filled with uncertainties and re-thought opinions. But I agree, if that’s how it happens.
“I haven’t been to a bar in so long,” he says. Two days before he’d admitted that he didn’t understand them, and never went. His wife, across the room, does not look enthusiastic.
“Me neither,” I say. It’s true. We leave it like this, sipping tea and waiting for a phone call.
“Do you even go to bars?” he asks after a minute, as though the idea were new.