NICE, Calif.--As a San Francisco-based Internet junkie, I can't count the number of times I've been in groups with almost as many wirelessly connected Mac laptops as people.
So the scene in front of me shouldn't be new: four people, three connected Mac laptops.
But there's something completely novel going on: I'm visiting my in-laws at their off-the-grid, mountaintop house in Northern California, about four hours northeast of San Francisco. And I can say with absolute certainty that this is the first time such a scene has played out here.
How do I know? Because it's been less than two weeks since my in-laws, Tyler and Donna, had Internet installed on their property for the first time--in their case, the only available option was satellite--and it's been just hours since I personally set up their wireless network. In other words, Wi-Fi is a newly arrived house guest, and judging by the concentration on their faces, the occasional smiles, and the superlatives coming from their lips, it's a very welcome one.
For years, my wife and I had been trying to get her parents to cotton to the idea that their lives, at 4,000 feet, surrounded by national forest and steeped in the necessities of growing most of their own food, could be improved by getting online. But they'd gotten by just fine, thank you, for more than 30 years, without even a television.
Now, suddenly, there is a Wi-Fi network set up in their house, and I could see my in-laws' lives changing before my eyes.
For example, Tyler said excitedly to me one morning during my visit that he'd figured out how to use e-mail and the Web to do many of the things that used to require him to stop at the post office and get stamps.
"That's the end of snail mail for me," Tyler told me. And, he added, no more catalogs would be cramming their P.O. box.
Working so much better now
My wife and I had conveniently--and coincidentally--managed to time our last visit to the mountain with the HughesNet satellite installation. But as I wrote previously, those first baby steps didn't go so well.
Thanks to glacially slow initial download speeds, the unexpected realities of a 200MB daily download limit, and the necessity of loading countless Windows updates onto their 2-year-old, Internet-chaste PC, we had retreated the mountain almost embarrassed by how badly it had gone.
So, I set out to make it all better by bringing them a refurbished MacBook, pre-configured at home with everything they'd need for a happy Internet life. I even unhooked my home Wi-Fi network and donated it to the cause.
The reality, of course, is that while the Mac we brought them, combined with the Wi-Fi network, worked almost flawlessly, it certainly wasn't the only way they could be happy online.
In fact, upon our return to the mountain, HughesNet seemed to be working much better, and I'd even have to disagree with the many people who told me satellite Internet sucks. Meanwhile, the PC, freshly loaded with all its new protections, looked to be a fine tool for whatever Internet needs the in-laws might throw its way.
Things were looking up.
One morning, Tyler and Donna were listening to a politics show on local radio. As he often does, Tyler grabbed their cell phone and dialed the station, and before long, he and the host--who know each other--were debating Russian revolutionary philosophy, among other things. I listened for a bit, then excused myself.
But when I returned, Tyler said that before he hung up, the host acknowledged seeing his and Donna's newly created e-mail address on the station's alerts and updates registration list.
I wasn't there to hear the tone in the radio host's voice, but I have to imagine there was some shock at the improbability of such a development.
For Tyler and Donna, nearly everything they might experience online is new, and to that end, my wife and I had bought them the book "Internet for Dummies." Tyler said he'd already read it all the way through, and had enjoyed it. Maybe something I overheard him talking about later, the book's gentle but silly approach to porn, explained why.
"Your browser also uses the history list to provide a drop-down list of URLs you've typed," a passage in "Internet for Dummies" that Tyler showed me began. "Some of our readers have asked us how to clear (their history), presumably because they meant to type 'www.disney.com' but their fingers slipped and it came out 'www.hot-xxx-babes.com' instead. (It could happen to anyone.)"
They got a kick out of that. I didn't check their browser's history, if you're wondering.
For some time, the two of them have been watching DVDs, first on their PC, and much more recently on a 26-inch TV. And over time, they have been buying used DVDs in town. At $7 a pop or so, however, it seemed awfully expensive, and my wife and I had been very excited about the notion of her parents being able to watch movies using the Netflix on-demand service.
For the most part, though, it seems that the 200MB daily download threshold will keep them from doing that. It's true that HughesNet gives its customers "free access" from 2 a.m. until 7 a.m. Eastern, but that's long after Tyler and Donna go to bed.
On our first visit after the HughesNet installation, I called technical support, trying to figure out why their download speeds were so slow. I ended up with two very unhelpful technicians, and I wrote about that later. Now, thanks to that story, Hughes offered up some technicians from its Executive Customer Care program, and they carefully led us through some steps to make sure everything was set up properly.
On request, they also came up with a list of different things someone might download and how much bandwidth each would require. A 2:25 minute YouTube video was 4MB, they said. An album from iTunes, between 80MB and 160MB. A standard-def movie would take 700MB to 1GB. Forty photos from Kodak would be about 4MB, and Windows update patches could be anywhere from 10MB to 400MB.
This was very helpful, but I was reminded that it had taken me pulling some public-relations strings to get them this level of service. The average HughesNet customer wouldn't be able to do that.
I wrote afterward to ask how the company rationalizes switching customers to dial-up speeds for 24 full hours if they surpass their download limits, especially if they do so late in the day.
"The purpose of the (limit) is to ensure a fair and equitable Internet experience for all HughesNet customers," the company wrote me Sunday. "After many years of providing service and monitoring the impact of the policy, we have found the 24-hour period to be most effective for ensuring the best Internet experience for the largest percentage of our users. We've found that only a small portion of our customer base is impacted by (the limits) and we do provide plans with higher thresholds and speeds for those who find themselves needing a higher level of service."
HughesNet, welcome to the world of downloadable and streaming movies, something I'm certain your customers are going to want to take advantage of. I wonder how long those who would like to do so will remain a "small portion of our customer base."
The Net takes valuable power
Living off the grid, Tyler and Donna rely almost entirely on solar power for electricity, and their resources are modest.
That's particularly true during storms, like those that hit the mountain while we were there.
For my wife and me--and most American Internet users, I'd bet--there's never a moment's thought given to whether getting online will take too much power. But to Tyler and Donna, it's a concern, and often during the course of our stay on the mountain, the computers and the network stayed powered-down to conserve power.
For me, this was a little frustrating, but it reminded me that perhaps I'm a little too dependent on the Internet. But I also wondered whether, as the in-laws discover more of the Internet's virtues, they'll relax their power concerns.
And given that they get as much bandwidth as they want in the wee hours, I joked about returning to the mountain next time and finding them glued to their computers at 3 a.m. playing World of Warcraft. They didn't laugh.
But for a couple with a 40-minute drive just to get their mail, I know the Internet is a game-changer.
For Donna, communicating more easily with her sister will be big. And for that, we suggested Skype.
On Sunday, I set up Skype on their Mac and showed her how it works. When I called her new account from my laptop (in the bathroom so as to avoid an echo) she sounded delighted at the service's ease of use.
"That's just phenomenal," Donna said when I emerged from the bathroom.
Soon, it was time for my wife and me to go home, but before we left, I wanted to get final verbal confirmation that things had, indeed, gone better this time.
"I'm overjoyed," Donna said. "On a scale of one to a zillion, I'd rate it 999 billion 984 million."
And Tyler summed up exactly what this entire Internet experience meant for the two of them: an infinite world of discovery and exploration--something many of us now take for granted, but which is still entirely eye-opening for those who have never really used it.
"There's a lot of doors opening here," Tyler said. "I want to see what's on the other side of them."