NICE, Calif.--This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Imagine getting to introduce to the Internet a couple of otherwise-normal 60-somethings who, having lived off the grid at 4,000 feet in the middle of national forest, have missed more than 30 years of media innovations.
That's what I did earlier this week, with my in-laws, Tyler and Donna. They're perfectly nice people. They just have never used the Internet before, haven't watched TV, really, and even their cell phone is turned off most of the time to conserve their limited solar power.
I've been coming to visit them for nine years, and there were countless conversations with them during which my wife and I, both Internet junkies, rhapsodized about its virtues. We gushed about Google. We raved about Second Life. We couldn't stop beating Wikipedia's drums.
We'd get weary nods and, "It sounds great, but we don't really have any use for the Internet."
For my wife and me, that was nothing but further motivation to get them online.
A couple of years ago, we replaced the ancient desktop computer on which they did their accounting with a new PC that we joked was the planet's healthiest Windows machine, having never been anywhere it could meet a virus.
We also began bringing them DVDs, and they fell hard for "The West Wing" and "The Wire." But it was my wife's masterstroke--getting them a Netflix subscription--that probably won them over.
They had no way to manage their Netflix account, so we did it for them. They'd get the movies at their P.O. box, 45 minutes away, watch them, return them on their next supply run, and repeat.
Setting up their queue was beyond surreal. They'd seen nothing. Not "Goodfellas," not "Pulp Fiction," not "Gladiator," "The English Patient," "Traffic," or "Chariots of Fire." Hardly anything. Do you know anyone like that?
The last time we visited, Tyler asked me to find out how much power a satellite dish, a modem, and a wireless router used. He wasn't sure that their power system was up to the task.
It was, though, and last week, as we were getting ready for a visit, my wife said, "By the way, they're getting satellite Internet installed on Monday."
Our incredible toy
I'm a geek, so I don't mind telling you how eager I was to show off our incredible toy. Despite being avid readers, radio listeners, and now movie fans, my in-laws still had no idea that the world was coming to their door. On Monday.
Some friends visited the mountain with us, and they also got excited about introducing my in-laws to the Internet. Over the weekend, we made a list of Web sites everyone agreed they had to visit: Snopes.com, NYTimes.com, NPR.org, BBC.co.uk, Huffingtonpost.com, Google News, PostSecret, Craigslist, Flickr, BurningMan.com, Epicurious.com, TED.com, and others.
But on Saturday night, we asked them what they wanted to explore first. In my mind, it would be something fanciful. Maybe a site about science or history or politics.
"Oh, something about fava beans, I imagine," Tyler said.
On Monday, HughesNet sent two installers, and then, after nine years, it was game on.
In the in-laws' little office, where their PC lives, I sat down to work on getting the machine secured.
We're buying them a Mac, but for now, my eyes were on the prize: the latest Windows security updates. But the connection speed they were getting was painfully slow, around 13Kbps. Windows Service Pack 3 is more than 300 megabytes--more than eight hours of download time away. We had to leave long before that.
I decided to forgo SP3 and instead install AVG, a free antivirus package. But the connection was so slow that the download failed. Twice.
I was embarrassed and frustrated. To diffuse the situation, we decided to turn the focus to picking a Gmail address. They suggested a series of what to any veteran Internet user were obviously unavailable names: Tyleranddonna, Donnaandtyler, Beautifulmountain. Using my MacBook Pro and an EV-DO card, we finally found something.
I also decided to download AVG on my Mac. That, too, was painfully slow--we were at 4,000 feet, far from town--but it worked, and I copied the AVG file to their PC via a thumb drive.
But AVG needed its own updates, and so it went looking for them. I noticed that the download speeds had slowed even further, now to less than 2Kbps.
Slowly but surely?
This was ridiculous. They had signed up for a 1.0Mbps connection, which, I read, promised downloads of more than 500Kbps. They were getting 1Kbps.
I called HughesNet, and a technician told me that the account had surpassed its "Fair Access" limit. It turns out that satellite Internet users get only so much bandwidth per day--in my in-laws' case, 200 megabytes. Go over the limit, you get dial-up speeds for 24 long hours.
The technician told me that there was nothing he could do about it, despite my insisting that there was no way they'd passed 200 megabytes. A supervisor confirmed that he had "no mechanism" to lift the limit for the day, even when I explained that I had to leave soon and that I absolutely needed to finish downloading the security patches before I drove off the mountain.
In the HughesNet pamphlet that had finally lured Tyler and Donna, a footnote I now discovered really concerned me: "Based on analysis of customer usage data, Hughes has established a download threshold for each of the HughesNet service plans that is well above the typical usage rates."
This was alarming, as one of the things my wife and I were most excited about was the idea of her parents being able to watch movies instantly on Netflix. This vision now looked endangered.
"In order to arrive at our Fair Access Policy, Hughes conducted an analysis of HughesNet customer usage and then established a download threshold for each plan that was above average usage rates," Hughes wrote me in an e-mail Thursday. "Certain activities are more likely than others to exceed the daily download threshold, such as continuous downloading or viewing streaming-media content such as audio or video programming."
Users do get unlimited high-speed downloads from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. EST. Long after the in-laws would be watching streaming movies.
This was not good. What worried me more was that even watching YouTube videos might quickly put them over the top. The Hughes e-mail, though, seemed to dismiss that worry: "Activities such as viewing Web sites, checking e-mail, watching short streaming-media presentations, i.e. YouTube, and automatic software and antivirus updates are not likely to exceed the download threshold."
Back on the mountain, I decided that, slow speeds be damned, I was getting them online before my wife and I departed.
So I pulled Tyler over to the PC and sat him down.
This would not be so simple. After all, he had no experience with a browser. He didn't know where to click, or how to enter a URL, or how to tab between fields. There's a huge learning curve here for my wife's folks. They need Internet for Dummies--and now.
We booted up Firefox--I had downloaded it for him, as I would never let Internet Explorer set foot in their house again--to head to Google (see the video below, which evolves slowly).
Starting with the basics
I showed him where to type, and a little while after he typed in "Google.com," he got his first look at the search engine's wonderful, spare home page.
It was a moment of truth: What would be the first thing he would look up? Would it be FDR? The Vietnam War? Barack Obama?
Nope. It was fava beans. He hadn't been kidding earlier.
Before we knew it, Tyler was on EveryNutrient.com, a good site, it seems, to learn about the nutritional value of fava beans.
After a little more browser 101--explaining that words in blue are usually hyperlinks, and how to use the back and reload buttons--we hopped over to Wikipedia. More fava beans.
But things went downhill when we tried Gmail so that Tyler could send his first-ever e-mail--can you remember when you did that? The site wouldn't load. The connection was simply too slow.
My wife and I had built this moment up so much in our minds over the years that we were clearly more excited than her parents. Yet Tyler was frustrated. And that was crushing.
Looking for a graceful way out, we adjourned from Gmail and moved into their living room to talk.
We asked them what they were looking forward to using the Internet for. And again, practicality won. Donna said she wanted to be able to get better fire information than she could on the radio, which makes sense, since they live in the middle of a forest.
I said there were always real-time maps online during fires.
"That's exactly what we want to know," she said.
Tyler added, "That'll be tremendously helpful."
They also said they were excited about investigating the various weather sites, since they are deeply subject to the whims of their environment. And, yes, they expect to spend a lot of time reading up on nutrition.
For my wife and me, it was time to leave. But I felt sheepish.
I had had such high hopes for this experience, and instead, it had been deeply disappointing. I couldn't even bring myself to ask what they had thought about their initial experiences on the Internet.
But it will get better. We'll go back soon to make sure.