Planes, trains, and automobiles – the Internet hits the road

Chrysler’s big Wi-Fi announcement means the Web is even more ‘world wide,’ but is that a good thing?

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

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    MegaBus in New York offers free Wi-Fi to its passengers.
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Back in prehistoric times (as my children like to call it), say 1992, when the Internet was basically unknown to most people outside academia and government, I got my first Internet connection from Canada’s only commercial Internet service provider (ISP) at the time, which just happened to be located in an industrial park in back of where I worked in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

In those early days, I mostly used a tool called “Gopher” to navigate my way around the Internet – and the world. I would spend six hours a day sometimes engaged in exciting tasks like reading graduate papers in physics from South African universities – not because I knew anything about physics, but because it was just so darn cool to think I was looking at something in South Africa. It felt almost exotic.

But if I was excited about traveling the world virtually, I was pretty much planted in one spot physically – in front of my computer at home. My, how things have changed in 16 years.

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We’ve grown used to taking the Internet around with us for several years now, thanks to mobile phones, wireless hotspots, home networks, “wireless” cities, etc. But several recent developments mean that we’re going to be able to access the Internet in even more places – planes, trains, and automobiles – than before. We’re truly reaching the point that when we talk about the “World Wide Web,” we really mean it.

Business travelers and overwrought parents traveling with children have often wished that they could connect to the Internet at 35,000 feet, and it looks as if several carriers are poised to make that wish come true this year. Most airlines which are looking at providing Internet access will rely on satellite signals or air-to-ground (ATG) connections. (The latter uses cellphone towers that “pass” the Internet signal along from location to location.)

Both have their pros and cons. ATG is cheaper because it uses already existing infrastructure. But the signal is slower and pretty hard to receive – say, impossible – when you’re flying over water. Satellite is more expensive, but the service is faster and, hey, when you’re on that 12-hour flight to Moscow, you can remain online the whole time.

Either way, you can expect to pay for it. Airlines see Internet access as a cash cow at a time when almost everything else they offer seems to lose money.

Trains are also looking to keep customers connected. In France, high-speed trains will use a combination of satellites and wireless to get travelers online. (The wireless is used in tunnels where the satellite signal disappears.) You can bet that Amtrak is keeping an eye on how the French experiment works out. Meanwhile, Greyhound offers free wireless access on its BoltBuses, keeping all those Boston college students happy when they go to New York for the weekend.

But the story that really caught my eye was the recent announcement by Chrysler that, starting in August, it’s going to turn all Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge models into, well, wireless hotspots on wheels.

Using a system it calls “Uconnect,” the cars will generate a wireless signal that goes 50 feet in all directions around the car. So when you and the family go camping, for instance, you can fire up the laptop around the campfire, as long as you keep the car close by. Chrysler says the system will combine Wi-Fi and 3G cellular connectivity.

Just like the airlines, Chrysler plans to milk some money from this deal. The router will cost $449, Chrysler said in a statement, and the dealer can charge another $50 to install it. Service will be $29 a month. Also there’s a one-time $35 activation fee.

But I find that I have mixed feelings about all this rolling Internet connectivity, especially in cars.

On the one hand, turning your car into a wireless hotspot is pretty innovative. Business people will love it. It basically turns any rest stop into your office. And it does give you another option for entertaining the kids on long car trips (if you are still taking those anymore with gas at $4 a gallon).

But truth be told, there are days and situations where the idea of getting away from the Internet completely is appealing. I recall car trips as one of those special times when my parents and I talked to each other a lot (in between fights with my siblings, of course). But now with built-in TV screens, satellite radios, and now the Web, cars are just like, well, home. And the whole idea of a vacation or trip is to get away from home.

More than anything, the increasingly world-wide availability of the Web illustrates a new skill that parents now and in the future will need to learn: How to manage all that connectivity in a positive way, and deciding when it’s OK to be online and when it’s not.

That may sound easy, but when the Internet is everywhere, its going to take us a while to learn how to turn it off.

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