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My vexing time outside Google's Net bubble

Even in the developed world, CNET's Stephen Shankland finds it painful trying to live the Google life when Internet access is absent or too darn expensive.

Very often, Google and I see things the same way. Just as often, though, Google's vision and my practical reality seem to be worlds apart.

Where we see eye to eye is in the effects the Internet is having on business and personal life. Where we don't is on a crucial stumbling block on the way: Internet access. The physical infrastructure and access fees are still holding back the promise of full-fledged cloud computing.

I base this pronouncement after spending more than a month moving from England to France, vacationing in France, working from Michigan, and fighting canceled flights to try to get back to Europe. France, the United States, and international airports are about as first-world as it comes. But more times than I can count, even this technophilic, jet-setting, relatively affluent person has found himself stuck with nary a TCP/IP network packet in sight.

It may sound like I'm picking on Google here--but I live a large portion of my personal and professional online life through the company's services. I've written before about how much I need offline Google Docs access (it's due this summer), but I also rely on Gmail, Google Translate, Google Maps, and Google Voice. And Google spends a lot of time preaching the cloud-computing gospel.

I admire Google for gazing into the future and anticipating how the Internet will disrupt everything--TV, music, books, navigation, news, word processing, telephony, and even computer operating systems. Trying to get ahead of the curve, Google launches projects to disrupt the industries that are slower to embrace the Net. Of course, as Facebook, Twitter, and some others have shown, sometimes it's Google that gets disrupted, but by and large Google spends more time in the vanguard.

Perhaps too far in the vanguard.

Google Apps logo

The big question is the extent to which Google's various efforts can succeed without widespread, affordable Internet access. I think most of Google's projects can find a reasonably large market--large enough to justify Google's continued investment. But if you spend any time at all away from the reliable broadband of your home and work, you need to think carefully before relying on Google's services.

To illustrate my point, let me detail some of the problems I've had over the last month:

• To sign up for mobile phone service with SFR in France, I had to show proof of address, which turned out to be quite a trial. Our lease and utility bill are in my wife's name, but apparently her attestation that we are married and live at the same address was insufficient: SFR notified me that my service was to be canceled last week if I didn't produce sufficient documentation. There are reasons for such formalities, of course, but the effect of them is that I don't know if my phone will work when I arrive in Paris later today. Adding insult to injury, SFR doesn't allow tethering, which I have come to know and love in the last year.

• In Sainte Enimie, France, there is no reliable mobile phone service, even though SFR is a major carrier in the country. Phone calls and text messages worked sporadically, but 3G networking was completely absent and even the 2G network functioned only occasionally when I was far away from my hotel. That hotel, I might add, didn't have broadband for its guests. It's a medieval town tucked in a valley, to be sure, but it's also thronging with tourists during the summer.

• International mobile phone service is a travesty. The difficulties and expense of using my U.K mobile phone account while I got settled in Paris, then my French mobile phone account while I was in the United States and England, were sometimes surmountable--if I was willing to be gouged by the cabal of carriers. I'm not privy to the details of their partnerships to carry each other's voice and data traffic, but I can tell you the system is optimized to extract as much money as possible from business travelers whose employers are footing the bill. Ordinary consumers will be deterred by the complexity and expense, and any system that's not designed to accommodate the surging wave of consumers with smartphones is profoundly broken. I survived in the United States with no mobile phone service at all, save for two times when I had to make urgent calls to my wife about immediate travel planning decisions. A final note: it's when you're in foreign countries that the Google Translate app is most useful.

• Telecommuting one Friday from Port Sanilac, Mich., required advanced planning, luck, a broad-brimmed hat, some sweet talking, and a tolerance for network speeds dating to the dial-up era. The library was open a half day and wouldn't let me plug my laptop into a power socket unless I agreed not to sue them. Advance scouting showed that the marina let me pay for Wi-Fi access, but I couldn't be sure. In fact, it turned out to be free but excruciatingly slow. I sat outside the ice cream parlor on a bench in the blazing sun--hence the need for the hat--until I got kicked off the outdoor socket I'd been using for power. (Have there been a lot of lawsuits about people getting zapped?) I scooted to the family cottage to juice up the battery for an hour spent offline, then headed back and coaxed a local business to let me siphon off a little bit of electricity when I ran down again. To cut Port Sanilac a little slack, the town is hardly a major population center. But neither is it a bunch of yurts in central Asia.

• Airports are a mixed bag. Of course I like free Wi-Fi, but I'm not naive enough to expect it. I encountered it first in Montreal, when I had to call my wife to tell her my late flight meant I'd be spending the night in Canada. I was very reluctant to call my wife's French mobile phone from Canada with my French mobile phone, so I flipped open my laptop, discovered the Wi-Fi, fired up Skype, and settled our plans--all while talking to the airline service representative. But in Detroit, Atlanta, and London, the Wi-Fi isn't free, and in all of them I needed it. In Atlanta, for reasons unclear to me, my connection was an atrocious speed less than 100 kilobits per second, but mostly it didn't work. I e-mailed a story to an editor, succeeding only on the fourth try.

Needless to say, this was not a time to revel in the advantages of cloud computing. I ditched Google Docs for Evernote, resumed the use of PC software to read and write e-mail, listened to music I'd burned from my CDs, relied on our car's sat-nav system, and read the paper versions of books, magazines, and newspapers. A Chromebook would have been deadweight.

Despite the problems, there were moments when I could glimpse the future. Even the slow Wi-Fi in Port Sanilac was enough to hold a conversation with Gmail's Internet calling ability. People could call my Google Voice number while I was in the United States, though sometimes the calls went straight to voice mail because apparently Google's voice communications plug-in hadn't loaded. And my esteem for Skype rose another two notches: the service bailed me out with relatively affordable pay-by-the minute Internet access in Detroit and London airports and with that crucial call from Montreal.

Overall, though, the network wasn't pervasive enough for me to live online.

It's all coming, of course--carriers at least in the United States are racing to install 4G networks, fiber-optic communications are gradually spreading to various cities, hotels increasingly see Wi-Fi as a business necessity, and Net access overall is expanding. But my current fear is that Google's vision is at odds with the market realities. Mobile network use is hobbled by data caps, and home broadband increasingly is, too. It's hard to gauge how many bits you've sent and received and to figure out how severe your consequences are if you exceed your monthly thresholds. That casts a pall over the enthusiasm you might otherwise have for uploading photos to Google+ or holding a huddle with your friends. And streaming Google Music and YouTube TV shows to your mobile device? Even more worrisome.

To Google's credit, it's working hard to make kick the Net better. It tried pushing the municipal Wi-Fi movement faster a few years ago, and right now it's trying out home broadband with an astonishing speed of 1 gigabit per second. That sort of work only directly affects a small number of people, but it helps indirectly by raising consumer expectations and fueling a little competition.

What I fear, though, is that Google employees--with subsidized home broadband and mobile phone service, Wi-Fi-equipped buses, and 3G-equipped Chromebooks--often don't understand just how hard or expensive it can be to connect to the Net.