No Internet shock horror as NewsWireless goes East for Computex

by Guy Kewney | posted on 30 May 2004

You were probably wondering why it took so long for NewsWireless to come back on the non-wires. Taipei is a long way from London, and it takes forever to get there, even by plane - but not three days. So ... what's the explanation?

Guy Kewney

It's an easy answer: no Internet.

The roving NewsWireless office lives in a small black box, otherwise known as a ThinkPad X31 - a Centrino machine which is pretty clever at finding an Internet connection. Not only is there a built-in WiFi link, capable of pulling in the internet cloud from anywhere a hotspot can be detected, but there's also the standard Ethernet cable socket on the back. And if that fails, we have a Vodafone 3G data card, and if there's no 3G service, that defaults to GPRS.

So what could possibly go wrong?

1) Hardware limitations. I had a lot of work to do on the flight, but IBM managed to go deaf when I started dropping hints about how useful an extended battery would be, and how good the publicity would be for them if they lent me one. Centrino is pretty good as technology goes; you get a lot more processing power for the same amount of battery ... but the battery still runs dry well inside four hours.

2) Human frailty. Me. The Eva Air flight left Heathrow at 9.30 in the evening, and by the time we were at cruising altitude and finishing supper, it was really late, by any time zone. In London, where we'd left our souls walking slowly East to catch us up, it was after midnight. In Taipei, where we were going, it was breakfast time. The expeditionary force went to sleep.

3) Long journey. The flight from London doesn't go straight to Taipei. Instead, it lands at Bangkok for the twin purposes of unloading a bunch of sex tourists, and refuelling. By the time you actually get to Taipei, it's midnight again.

4) System failure. The hotel has an excellent Internet service, for just $350 NT a day. That's not too far off a five pounds fee, and I would willingly have signed up for it - if it had been working.

It wasn't.

5) Network failure. Vodafone's 3G service is not yet quite up to the level of its world-wide GSM network. Specifically, it is pretty much restricted to areas of good reception inside the London Orbital motorway, the M25, and similar areas around Reading, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. The rest of the time, in the UK, your card works as a GPRS card which, I reckoned, would be fine.

What I hadn't realised was that the associated GPRS account doesn't automatically roam, and so all I got over here in Taiwan was "No network."

In any case, the GPRS network isn't really suitable for Web site maintenance, because the upload process can't easily cope with high latency and slow speeds. GPRS upload is restricted to about 9.6 kilobits and latency of ten seconds isn't rare. That is, you can be disconnected for ten seconds or more, without dropping the line, and in that time, most FTP programs (and similar) will have assumed the links are broken and will be retransmitting and timing out.

6) Friends. Ah, this hurts. I had an invite from a good friend, to "drop by when you're in town." He took me out to his office on Saturday. "You can use our Internet connection, no problem," he warmly assured me. So, indeed, I could, no problem. The trouble is an "Internet connection" has many forms, and the form his took was one in which you get nothing but HTML over a proxy server. Telnet, SMTP, POP, or FTP all blocked. I need all those to maintain NewsWireless ...

So, what's been happening, dudes? It's Sunday morning, here in Taipei ... got that VoIP network working yet, James?

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