Losing My Internet Was a Reminder of How Essential Broadband Has Become
And also of the fact that the Internet of Things has already arrived
This Thursday, Comcast went around our neighborhood putting notices on everyone’s door about a “brief” Internet outage on Friday, which would happen while they were “working to enhance and strengthen the network” in our neighborhood.
On Friday, Comcast arrived as promised and shut off the Internet. All day, men with cherry-picker trucks fiddled with cables in the street. I saw a bunch of concerned posts on Nextdoor (that’s what Nextdoor is for, after all) about the “suspicious people” in our neighborhood “cutting wires and asking to access my electrical box.”
If you’re a Comcast customer, you know where this is going. On Friday afternoon, Comcast’s workers left for the weekend, leaving our Internet disabled. That meant a full weekend without Wifi or other Internet access in our house.
Overall, it’s a minor annoyance compared to what a lot of people in the world are dealing with. But losing Wifi also provided an interesting reminder of the extent to which the Internet of Things — long promised — really has begun to arrive. It’s also a reminder that in the age of Coronavirus, Internet access is an essential service — if not on par with electricity, than certainly as important as timely trash service or other utilities.
In the age of Coronavirus, Internet access is an essential service
I’m a tech journalist and I run a gadget-centered YouTube channel. So my home is probably far more tech-enabled than many. But lots of people now have devices that subtly connect to the Internet over Wifi — sometimes without you knowing (or remembering) that they do so.
Throughout the weekend, the number of these gadgets that I have in my home was made extremely obvious by the lack of Wifi signal. My Nest Learning Thermostat still performed admirably when I set it manually, but conveniences I’ve grown accustomed to (like changing the temperature via my phone while upstairs in my office) ceased to function.
More obviously, the Roku box which I use for all my TV and TV-like streaming services also stopped working. I don’t have traditional cable TV, so all the services I use to stream entertainment — Hulu, Disney+, Netflix, YouTube, and more — were all inaccessible. It was a reminder of the patchwork quilt of random streaming services (each charging me about $7 per month) that has replaced the cable TV providers of yore — and not necessarily at a lower expense, or with more convenience.
My voice assistants, also, became a lot less helpful. About 15 times throughout the weekend, I instinctively asked Alexa for something, only to be met with the confused, somewhat concerned response “Hmm, I seem to be having trouble connecting” and the slightly more upbeat, optimistic “I’ll keep trying!”
It’s a reminder both of the extent to which I use Alexa for minor tasks without even thinking about it (you try converting 10 tablespoons to cups without the Internet’s help), and of the subtle trickery behind these devices’ operation. When you ask Alexa for something simple, you’d think she could just handle it for you. But in reality, Alexa and her ilk record what you’ve said, send it out over the Internet to a central server for processing, wait for a response, and then play that response back to you.
This happens for complex queries (“Alexa, what religion is Justin Bieber?”) and simple ones, like setting a 10 minute timer while baking. It’s a testament to the ubiquity and also the fragility of voice assistant tech that in 2020, Alexa can’t answer either question without access to the Internet.
Absent the ability to phone home to Jeff Bezos and his mothership of servers and voice processing algorithms, Alexa can do little more than flash a yellow line on my screen.
It’s easy to forget that even when I ask for a simple on-device function like setting a timer, Alexa is beaming my voice off to Jeff Bezos and waiting for his response. When the Internet dies and this is impossible, Alexa’s fundamental feebleness is revealed. Absent the ability to phone home to Jeff and his mothership of servers and voice-processing algorithms, Alexa can do little more than flash a yellow line on my screen and apologize to me.
Other broken gadgets were more of surprise. When I stepped onto my Fitbit Aria wireless scale to take my weight, I was able to see a value, but then was met with 20 minutes of a spinning arrow, and finally the message “COULD NOT SYNC.” My Philips Hue lightbulbs couldn’t switch on and off remotely, nor could I control my office light via T-link dongle. My Nest cameras were unable to tell me when a package arrived at my front door. My crypto heated tomatoes went unmonitored.
All these broken gadgets are a reminder that the Internet of Things — long promised — has subtly arrived without most of us noticing. More and more of our appliances have some form of Internet connection, and many are actively recording what we do and beaming it all over the world. The fact that I can’t control my lights or use my scale without Wifi made the extent of my devices’ connectedness clear.
I wish I could say that losing Internet access allowed me a pleasant opportunity to unplug, and to be be more present in daily life. But it didn’t. Perhaps before the pandemic, a “digital holiday” would have been welcome. But with Covid-19 preventing most indoor activities and almost all gatherings — and wildfire smoke often rendering outside events impossible, too — Internet access has become a lifeline to the outside world, and a way to stave off isolation.
I wish I could say that losing Internet access allowed me a pleasant opportunity to unplug, and to be be more present in daily life. But it didn’t.
That was even more acute this weekend, since Saturday was the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah — a celebration of the Jewish New Year. Nearly all of our congregation’s services were remote this year, and without reliable Internet access, my family struggled to engage with them. We finally found a solution by switching a cellphone to hotspot mode, placing it in an exterior window (ironically, the same window where we usually place our menorah during Chanukah), and then connecting to its cellular-enabled Wifi signal using a laptop or another phone elsewhere in the house.
This workaround helped us to stay engaged with Zoom services and gatherings. Our temple is also very innovative in the face of all manner of challenges, and held a drive-through carnival for the holiday — and we have a family member visiting (yes, a real, in-person visit), so that helped as well.
But I can easily see how if were older, lacked the tech knowledge to implement a workaround, or simply couldn’t afford broadband Internet in the first place, it would be easy to lose crucial access to the outside world — and to be even more isolated from our friends, family and communities than the pandemic already makes all of us.
Thankfully, after a power cycle of my router, the Internet returned this morning. Otherwise, the molasses-slow connection from my cellphone hotspot almost certainly would have altered the kinds of work-related tasks I could get done. Already, I shudder to think of my Sprint bill after a weekend of sending all my family’s video streaming, downloading and Zooming through my phone’s tethered connection.
Internet access is the epitome of an essential service, allowing for connection to the outside world, as well as — in many cases — essential activities like ordering food, working, seeing a doctor, or educating our children.
All this was an important reminder of how crucial Internet access has become for post-pandemic life. Fast internet, before the pandemic, was a luxury which allowed thing like watching 4K movies or playing video games. But today, it’s the epitome of an essential service, allowing for connection to the outside world, as well as — in many cases — essential activities like ordering food, working, seeing a doctor, or educating our children.
That’s a point we should all keep in mind when considering issues like digital access and broadband equality. If you think fast Internet is a frivolous luxury, try living without it for a few days. It might change your mind about the importance of providing high speed access to all.