In my constant quest to uncover the most unusual stories in this great nation, I spent the better part of 2005 traveling through Maryland, one of the four dozen or so U.S. states that accurately can be described as weird. Although the focus of my field research is strange, the actual process of research is pretty straightforward. It makes no difference whether you're searching for Bigfoot, Chessie the Chesapeake sea serpent, or the next big business deal, you need to exchange e-mail with informed sources. You need to look up details on online databases to flesh out details. In short, you have to be able to get online fast, even if you happen to be on a winding country road looking for a crybaby bridge.
So what is the cure for this Internet access addiction? When you're out and about, where do you turn for a quick connection?
The usual suspects
One of the obvious solutions is an adapter that connects to a cellular data service, which I have dabbled with in the past. It would be an adequate solution if I had the cellular minute budget to afford extended online time. But I did mention that I practically lived on the road, didn't I? Spare cellular minutes are as valuable as always-open gas station restrooms, and in my experience, they're just as scarce. And an all-you-can-eat cellular data plan is pricey.
I won't deny it: if there's a Panera and a parking space in town around mealtime, I lane-change like a Beltway commuter to get in there. The ability to get good soup and sandwich and a free Wi-Fi signal in one place comes in very handy.
So is the better solution an always-open Panera Bread location, which touts much-vaunted free Wi-Fi hot spots nationwide? I won't deny it: if there's a Panera and a parking space in town around mealtime, I lane-change like a Beltway commuter to get in there. The ability to get good soup and sandwich and a free Wi-Fi signal in one place comes in very handy. And if you don't know where you're sleeping that night, a free Wi-Fi hit provides a great platform to Travelocity or Expedia for a few bucks off the rate of a local hotel room.
Another solution is to swing by one of the sundry free Wi-Fi hot spots that litter the country in unexpected places, such as branch libraries or the rest stop on I-95 at Savage. Or if you're lucky enough to be cruising through the right town, you can connect via one of the still woefully rare Wi-Fi municipalities. If you spend a lot of your time in airports or Starbucks and you don't mind paying for your Wi-Fi access, you can hook yourself up with a paid hot-spot service, such as Boingo.
So which is your best bet? The answer is all of the above. And yet there are times when none of these options fit the bill.
I love Wi-Fi, but it also bothers me. It's very sensitive to location. If you can't find the right seat at Panera, you may get little or no connectivity. And Wi-Fi is often insecure, so getting spoofed and hacked is a very real possibility even if you're paying close attention to the neighborhood. Really, hardwired hotel room connections are much more gratifying, except for the dull decor and the uncomfortable chairs.
After sitting in a car all day, the last thing you want to do is plant yourself at a hotel table for your hardwired broadband hit. So that's why I was tremendously impressed with a relatively new connectivity approach from a Maryland company that's spreading through hotels and apartment buildings in cities all around the United States and Europe. Instead of making guests sit next to the single Ethernet outlet in the room, the Sheraton in Annapolis, along with several hundred Choice hotels, the Sandman chain in Canada, and Best Westerns throughout the U.K., all have another approach called the iBridge from Telkonet. Telkonet provides broadband Internet connectivity through standard power lines. You can plug in an iBridge to any power socket (next to the bed, in the bathroom, even in the corridor or the elevator), then plug an Ethernet cable between it and your notebook, and you're connected.
This type of technology is called power-line carrier (PLC) networking. PLC networking isn't exactly new (the main player, Telkonet, has been operating for six years), and it's not exactly a secret either, but very little is being said about it.
This type of technology is called power-line carrier (PLC) networking. PLC networking isn't exactly new (the main player, Telkonet, has been operating for six years), and it's not exactly a secret either (it's installed in many Trump facilities in New York City, for example), but somehow, very little is being said about it, and that seems odd. It is, after all, pretty darn cool stuff. It supports VoIP and IP data communications, and in my informal testing, it delivered speeds between 1Mbps and 1.5Mbps, roughly on a par with the speed from my DSL connection at home. (For the record, the speed tests were conducted with CNET's Bandwidth Meter.)
The power behind the power lines
You can't just get the little black box that is Telkonet's iBridge and plug it in at home, of course. It needs to be used in a facility with a Telkonet backbone installed. I was invited to look behind the scenes at just such a facility: an apartment building in downtown Bethesda that had implemented a PLC network to avoid the cost and deployment horrors of running Ethernet through a historic building. The network center was disappointingly bland: a closet containing a rack where the T1 line came in, a gateway box, a coupler, and a big old power line into the main electrical junction box. That was all it took to hook up an ISP to the AC.
All the usual impediments to clean AC must have been running somewhere in the building: It's hard to imagine a 100-plus-room building didn't have a hairdryer, a vacuum cleaner, a microwave, or perhaps an air conditioner running somewhere. But the Internet connection went strong. And because you can have IP connections anywhere there's power (including the light fixtures), it's easy to imagine the possibility of quickly deploying intelligent controls for HVAC, Webcams for security, and all kinds of remote computing devices.
But all I could think about was lying down on a bed with my six-foot Ethernet cable plugged into a black metal box the size of a paperback book, with its single power/data cord plugged into the base of the bedside lamp. With either my notebook or a Vonage phone plugged into the Ethernet, I could research and send e-mail in horizontal comfort or conserve cell phone minutes while avoiding nasty hotel surcharges.
It may be weird, but isn't technology wonderful?
One plug for power and data? What strange madness is this? Let us know your take on the new power-line revolution in the TalkBack section below.