Back in the day, when cell phones were more of a commodity than a necessity, and by necessity while I pay for an internet connection via the cable company and not cable or telephone and I haven’t spoken to a LAN line phone company in years I’ve consistently maintained my cell phone and upgraded with technology and time, it was quickly clear that tethering data to phone connection, especially where data and phones could be combined, was an early holy grail of mobile communication. This was effectively before Wi-Fi and hotspots and smartphones that can be set up as personal hotspots. Basically, if you were techie or geek enough, you also wanted to be able to plug phone into computer and get online.
There are clear pros and cons with connecting computer to phone and going for an online spin. When websites were developed specifically and especially for a mobile phone, those sites were scaled back and stripped of nearly everything. You could get text, but little else. Pictures maybe, though pictures depended on size and quality and whether or not the mobile site had any.
In spite of the number of mobile ready websites (think next to none compared to post-2007 iPhone launch), the problem with being online was the cost of data transfer. Today I spend about $130.00 for a shared data and voice plan for my wife and I. We get 10 gigs of data a month, more than the previous 4 gigs I was spending even more money on. This allows both my wife and me to stream music, check email, surf the web, ignore soccer games and church, and just about anything we need to do from our phones. It also allows for the occasional and necessary tethering between phone and computer or the somewhat more common phone and tablet. The point is that I can and do tether, today, where back in the day tethering would’ve been a royal pain in the patookas for a couple of reasons. First, speed. Second, cost.
And of those, cost was far greater an issue than speed. We were used to slow speeds and slow response times because dial-up and single twisted pair copper and no DSL or Cable modems. Basically, the experience of the internet was slow. The cost, on the other hand, was relatively high.
Consider, for a moment, the cost of running a small ISP. The ISP didn’t have the same number of modems as paying users because that would’ve been on the ridiculous financially. Even though the possibility exists that all users could be calling in at the same time, the likelihood of all users calling in is next to nil that an occasional busy signal was expected. However, a percentage of modems had to exist and had to work. Modems were expensive and when a modem died it was replaced which meant that a decent ISP had a lot of working modems and a batch of spares.
In addition to the cost of modems, there was also a cost associated with the number of telephone lines that had to terminate inside the building. If you have 100 working modems, that means 100 working phone lines. Typically this also meant a special telephone box inside the ISP’s modem room that could split a larger incoming connection into the 100 needed connections. However, the outcome is still 1:1 or one phone line to one
All of that exists before you add in the cost and infrastructure for at least a T1 data connection. Which is where all those servers come in. Some of the servers are there to establish places for data to live, others exist so that traffic can be routed between modems and the internet. More cost. One of which, back then, was the speed of actually getting info.
Bring it forward in time, and with a bit more technical maneuvering, the reality is that we still have the need of a lot of hardware to support a lot of connections. While my cable modem allows every device in my house to be connected to the internet, the modem I use has to connect to a switch, which has to connect into servers that will connect to other servers and so on. The technology is far more advanced while the principles remain, effectively, the same.
Today we expect that a connection will be fast. We type in a URL and within seconds we’d better see it. In recent months, my hosting provider, which used to be good, has proven you can’t rely on dedicated server space and guarantees of uptime because, let’s face it, there are no guarantees.
However, back in the day before the availability of tethering and massive amounts of available data, there were limits and those limits were mostly enforced by cost. To tether meant you were intending to spend a lot of money on whatever you were doing. Consider a visit to Facebook long before Facebook existed. The simple act of checking in and seeing what people are doing would’ve been expensive because the cost of data would’ve been high. Today, though, the cost of data is low and the ability for everyone, including our 90001-year-old grandma, to check Facebook or email or a horoscope repeatedly and ad nauseam.
This is the modern equivalent of a teenage girl or boy waiting next to the phone for the promised phone call that will never, ever, ever come. While waiting is cheap, unless you’re billing someone at $500 / hour, the cost of repeatedly checking email or Facebook or Twitter or other internet things doesn’t matter.
However, consider a time when data tethering was measured in dollars per megabyte. Where, today, I’m penny thousndths of a penny or less per megabyte, back then the cost would’ve been high and we, meaning everyone, had no real concept of what data meant in terms of size and distribution. The simple act of going to The New York Times could’ve broken the bank. Well, not a bank that is clearly too big to fail because the government steps in and bails them out and leaves the same losers in charge so that we can leave them in charge of our money. For the every person, though, the bank could easily be broken.
My first introduction to this was not the hundreds of dollars in txt-ing charges I incurred during a brief dating fling. Instead, it happened when I was an on-call server admin and had to know up- and down-time of the servers. Txt messages are data. Data costs money. The free and available use of txt or other data methods as means of communication have actual costs even if those costs are now insignificant enough to be a standard part of nearly every phone contract.
The reality is that connection to the internet will not remain tethered to a wall or Wi-Fi modem or a cell phone. As recently as five and ten years ago, you could purchase computers and USB devices that allowed you to purchase data from AT&T and Verizon and others. You didn’t need a cell phone, you could just have the data. The cost for that service has also come down, though the reality is that we are still finding a confluence of technological events that will make data fare more ubiquitous in the near future with less need for your cable or phone company and additional specialized hardware.
Granted, for reliability the standard will remain a physical connection. For streaming media, audio, gaming, and more the end-user will want to have the cable connection with guaranteed (or so they say) upload or download speeds. Someday, as I’m sure is AT&T’s end goal, we will rely more on the satellite and wireless connections and less on the coax and copper.
Until next week, ciao.