Options in communication technology
I’m writing this Wednesday night, but you’re not going to be able to read it until Thursday morning at the earliest, because I have no Internet connection right now – more on that later.
Today, technology has not been my friend. Normally, machines like me. I’m the person who puts money into a vending machine, gets the soft drink, and then gets the money back, or I get two soft drinks, or some other bonus. I’m the one who can make computers and printers and other electronic devices do my bidding. I can play a photocopier the way Emmanuel Ax plays the piano – I’m a virtuoso with duplexing, hole-punching, collating, and stapling – not to mention that most important skill, queue management.
But not today. Today, even the elevator that I must use to get to my office (since construction on the new bookstore has blocked the building entrance right next to the office door) was misbehaving. I never have to wait for that elevator, and sometimes I don’t even have to push the button for it; it just opens its door as I approach. But today, I had to push the button, and then I had to wait. That was an omen.
Before that, I had another problem when I first set off to go to work. My son’s vehicle, the Gila Monster, has an alarm system. I had noticed last night that the system was slow to respond to commands from the remote, and today, it wouldn’t respond at all. No problem, I thought … I’d just use the key instead to unlock the vehicle and then go on to work. Not a good idea. I set off the alarm, and since the battery in the remote was dead, I couldn’t shut it off. The alarm system also disabled the engine so I couldn’t even start the vehicle. Pat told me that Gerald told him that somewhere in the house, there’s supposed to be a spare key and alarm remote, but Pat and I couldn’t find it, so we ended up going to Radio Shack for a new battery. It was very frustrating that just because of that little-bitty battery, the Gila Monster was disabled. (Well, at least we know that the insurance discount Gerald gets for having the alarm system is backed up by the ability of the system to keep the vehicle from getting stolen!)
So … once I got to the office, I found that my friend the copier was on the blink. It just sat there, displaying “Call Service” on its little screen, and the card on top had been turned around to show that service had been called. I had a huge amount of copying to do – some fairly hefty handouts for my Essay Writing class. So I went to the office in the other building (navigating around areas fenced off for the construction). The copier there is very, veeerrrryyyy sssslllooowwww, and it doesn’t do stapling or hole-punching, and I didn’t have much time before class, especially given the volume of copying I had to do. But I gave it a try. About halfway through the first batch of handouts, with only 10 minutes to class time, it simply stopped copying. No error message, no paper jam, nothing like that; it just stopped, as if it had completed everything it had been asked to do, and it said “READY” on its screen. There was no sign of the remainder of the first batch of handouts, and no indication that it remembered the rest of the queue.
There’s a reason a photocopier figures heavily in my novel Murder at the Community College.
I was able to salvage the situation because the second hour of both of my classes this evening was scheduled in the computer lab. I was able to show the students where to find the handouts on the course homepage and have them print out their own copies. That didn’t necessarily please the computer lab staff, who want to minimize wear and tear on the printer and consumption of paper and toner. But it worked, and some of the students chose to save resources by reading the handouts online, so that’s a net gain for the planet.
And then, at home, there’s the telephone. About three months ago, we awoke one morning to find the line was dead. Using the cell phone, we called service, and by the end of the day, service had been restored. However, things weren’t working perfectly – sometimes when there was an incoming call, the phone would give a brief “ping” rather than ringing normally. One time when I phoned home from the office, I found out what the callers experienced – the “ping” followed by a faint humming sound that lasted several minutes before getting cut off for the dial tone. But the problem was intermittent; I immediately phoned again, and the call went through just fine.
Monday, the phone line was dead again. We called service. Toward the end of the day, the service technician called our cell … he reported that three months ago, the company had been working on equipment upgrades in our neighborhood, and our line had been damaged; although it had been repaired, it hadn’t been repaired properly. But this time, it had definitely been repaired properly, although he said he had checked the phone lines where they entered the house, and it looked like also a phone might have been left off the hook.
This morning, we once again got an indication that all was not well – we got an incoming call that just went “ping.” Then this afternoon, when Pat tried to go online using our dial-up connection, he found the line was dead again. It’s still dead this evening, and we went through the house thoroughly to make sure that there weren’t any phones off the hook – besides, if there were a phone off the hook, incoming calls would get a busy signal, not a “ping.” So we have used the cell to put in another call for service on the landline.
I have noticed a trend over the ten years that I have been teaching at the community college. At the beginning of every term, I have my students fill out an information card with their phone numbers and email addresses, so I can reach them if I need to, and so, if they give permission for information to be shared, their classmates can contact them. I originally had blanks for “home phone” and “work phone,” but as time went by, many students would squeeze in a cell phone, or fill both blanks but cross out either “home” or “work” to replace with “cell.” So I changed the form to add a blank for a cell phone number. Now, the conversion to cell phones is dramatic – of the 84 students I have this term, only about 14 have a conventional land-line home phone. And there are only four whose only telephone number is a land-line home phone.
I have seen statistics that say that about 16% of Americans now use a cell phone as their only telephone. Now, college students are far more likely than most Americans to rely solely on the cell phone, but most of my students are “non-traditional” students – they’re older, and they have jobs and families to take care of, and they’re not so mobile, so they don’t fit the usual profile of a college student.
Now I’m evaluating whether Pat and I really need a land-line home phone. There are three reasons we have a land-line: 1. It’s more reliable than a cell phone.2. It’s cheaper than a cell phone. 3. We use it for cheap Internet access via dial-up.
Over the past three months, our land-line phone company has shot reason #1 to hell. I can remember in the old days, after such catastrophes as Hurricane Alicia, the electricity was out, the gas was out, the water was out – but the telephone kept on going. Pat remembers the aftermath of a hurricane (I don’t remember for sure, but I believe it was Beulah), in which the trailer on South Padre Island that was the family’s vacation home was blown over on its side, but the phone still worked. That’s not the case any more. Land-line telephone service used to be that one thing that could be counted on no matter what. Now, it’s not. I’m guessing the equipment upgrades that led to our line being damaged in the first place were for higher-paying customers, to improve the quality of the DSL they’re paying for. We lowly skinflints who pay only for basic service, and not even any enhancements such as Caller ID and Call Waiting, are not high priority.
Reasons #2 and #3 are also getting rethought. I am seeing advertising for companies that offer not just any Internet access, but high-speed Internet access, for as little as $10 a month. Sure, the bargain-basement access is slower than the nicer services, but still, it’s faster than dial-up. At this point, it’s a question of whether we can afford the hook-up charges – I don’t even know what those may involve, but presumably a wire has to be run into the house from somewhere to connect to our computers. (We’re not even THINKING about using the local cable television service, which now charges more than $100 a month for basic service.)
We’re currently paying about $35 a month for our land-line telephone service, plus additional charges for any long-distance calls we make. For $10 a month, we can add a cell phone for Pat to the service we currently use for me and Gerald, with no extra charges for long distance. We pay about $20 a month for dial-up Internet access that’s available anywhere in New Mexico. We pay about $15 a month for landline service at Five O’Clock Somewhere; we can’t cancel that, since cell phone signals don’t reach there – but the phone company up there is now offering DSL for about $20 a month, so we could dispense with our dial-up ISP.
We may soon be reconfiguring the way we communicate with the world.
Update: Thursday morning we had a dial tone and were able to make outgoing calls, but an incoming call still just got the “ping.” The service department left an automated message on our cell phone voice mail that the line had been tested and no problems were found.