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The Ultimate Blind Road Warrior: Total Mobile and Portable Internet Connectivity is Almost Upon Us

June 17, 2005 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The “Global” communicator portrayed in Earth Final Conflict doesn’t yet exist, but, perhaps, we are getting ever closer to that ultimate goal of total anytime, anywhere planet wide communications capability. The “globals” could exchange data, video and voice from any point on the Earth under almost any adverse condition. It was not necessary to be located in a large city or otherwise near an established communications network of any kind; the globals were completely independent from the traditional terrestrial networks. Instead, they provided immediate, real-time communications facilities through a large number of high powered satellites in high Earth orbit. Of course, undoubtedly, some advanced Taelon technologies were helpful in the creation of such a monumental breakthrough.

Fortunately, it looks like we may yet reach the goal of complete, seemless global electronic communications, without need of advanced extraterrestrial intervention. We have high speed broadband Internet access in our homes and offices that allows us to use our desktop computers to exchange data, video and voice with anyone, anywhere on the planet in a matter of seconds! Wireless networks based on the 802.11 (Wi-Fi) set of communications standards extend this ability to laptop computers and small devices known as PDAs (personal digital assistants) in our homes, offices, airports, coffee shops, hotels, public libraries and many other fixed locations around the world. Finally, cellular telephone services using a type of technology known as 3G (third generation) offer this ability (though with much less bandwidth than either broadband or Wi-Fi) for use when no other Internet connectivity is available. Though it is still far from anything approaching seemless, it is now possible to stay in touch from just about any location on Earth most of the time.

We now use a combination of currently accepted wired and wireless communications technologies to stay in touch. The Accessibility Command Center (our home office) features a high speed 3 Mbps DSL connection provided by Speakeasy. A voice over IP solution is used to provide local and unlimited domestic long distance telephone service in the office. Four desktop computers are connected to a standard wired 10/100baseT Ethernet connection. A SonicWALL Pro100 hardware firewall provides the first line of defense against any Internet based security threat. Two of the desktop computers (Karen’s and my primary workstations) run Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 and all critical security updates. Karen exclusively runs JAWS as her screen reader of choice, while I also experiment with other accessibility solutions including Freedom Box and Window-Eyes. The other two systems run Red Hat Linux and are currently used for experimentation on the geekier side of the house. A Dell TrueMobile 2300 wireless access point in the office provides secure Wi-Fi access to a Dell Enspiron 600M laptop computer and a PAC Mate QX 420. Wireless coverage provides good connectivity throughout our house and up to approximately three hundred feet outside. We are able to connect to the Internet from the pool area!

While away from home, we remain relatively well connected, though certainly not to the same degree as our headquarters network. The laptop provides for dial-up, Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity. Ethernet and wireless access are preferred, but dial-up is available as a last resort. I used a combination of dial-up and Wi-Fi connectivity while on vacation a year and a half ago with Karen’s side of the family in New England while using Ethernet and Wi-Fi to connect with customers’ networks for performing troubleshooting tasks. Thanks in part to additional CompactFlash cards, the PAC Mate currently provides Bluetooth, infrared and Wi-Fi connectivity. Bluetooth capability is provided by way of the Socket Communications Bluetooth Connection Kit while Wi-Fi is provided using the Sandisk Connect+128 wireless CompactFlash card. While Wi-Fi can be used to connect directly with any available 802.11B/G network, Bluetooth and infrared can be used to establish a connection with a cell phone which in turn can act as an access point to the Internet. Ethernet cards and modems are also available as CompactFlash cards for use on the PAC Mate.

The technology involved in the implementation of the office network has largely matured. Ethernet has been used in business for almost 20 years and the Internet has been available to the general public for almost 15 years now. Some know-how was required to intelligently implement the firewall and the network protocols, but these skills have become widespread commodities that nontechnical users can simply hire out for completion of such a network installation. Even Wi-Fi technology is really starting to come into its own, reaching a state of maturity in the near future. Wireless access points are becoming easier and easier to set up and using a Wi-Fi equipped laptop or PDA to establish a connection is straightforward in the vast majority of scenarios. The real snag came when I decided that I needed Internet connectivity while riding the bus, cab or Dial-A-Ride and at any time it became necessary to sit around waiting on others.

I absolutely despise being limited, especially when those limitations are being imposed by others as the result of my disability. While the sighted may travel at their leisure by driving their cars, I must wait on Dial-A-Ride or other public transportation. Sometimes, these wait times can be quite long, even over an hour! There are also the times where, just like everyone else, it is necessary to wait one’s turn for service: the bank, the barber shop, the doctor’s office, etc. Hard copy Braille materials have always faithfully served me during these down times. In more recent years, electronic books have largely replaced large Braille volumes. Unfortunately, life is becoming faster and faster. The technology and the associated demands on one’s energy and time have increased. What happens when, during your reading and writing activities on your laptop or PDA, you need access to a piece of information you have not previously saved on your device? In the past, you have been stuck waiting until you have returned home or to the office, so that you could retrieve the information from another storage device or gain access to an Internet connection. In more and more cases, this situation can be eliminated, thanks to an Internet connection you can make right on site using your laptop or PDA. In some cases, you can use Wi-Fi technology. When wireless network access is available, the reliability and speed can sometimes rival your home network! Wi-Fi is the fastest, most reliable form of wireless networking. Use this technology whenever it is available and affordable. Free wireless network access is often available in such places as recreation centers, public libraries and other local government buildings. Some private businesses, such as coffee shops and restaurants, also offer free wireless connections. Other wireless service may be available for a fee: either pay as you go or subscription based. Coffee shops like Starbuck’s and hotels like Hyatt Regency often provide fee based wireless Internet access. These connections tend to be fast and reliable, so it is simply a matter of whether or not you can afford to pay access fees of as much as $12 or more per hour! When no Wi-Fi connectivity is available or affordable, use your cell phone service!

Your cellular telephone can act as a device for connecting to the Internet. There are essentially two ways to set up this option. The first, and least recommended, is to simply use your cell phone as a modem to access your existing dial-up account. There are at least two serious drawbacks to going this route. First, the connection can be excruciatingly slow and unreliable, requiring several attempts to establish the link only to be dropped at the most inopportune times. Second, this option can be expensive! When using your cell phone as a dial-up modem, your cellular provider considers this to be a regular telephone call, billing you accordingly. Establishing and reestablishing multiple slow connections will use up cellular minutes in a hurry. The calls count against your plan’s bundled minutes and any usage over your plan costs a not so small fortune! The second and recommended way to connect to the Internet through your cell phone is to purchase and use your provider’s data communications plan. While some plans charge you for the bandwidth used, others, such as T-Mobile Internet, charge a flat monthly rate for unlimited service. Once connected, using your cell phone as an Internet connection device will feel very much like using an old fashion dial-up modem. The reason is due to the low bandwidth provided by T-Mobile Internet and many other similar companies. Real world connection speeds for these services average around 40 Kbps, very much in line with a “56K” modem. Though using your cellular telephone for Internet access isn’t snappy by any stretch of the imagination, it sure beats having no connectivity at all.

By far, the most difficult aspect of my adventures setting up an anytime, anywhere Internet communications system has centered around the implementation of T-Mobile Internet service through my cell phone. It took three months to get it working! Sadly, despite a total of more than 20 telephone calls, T-Mobile was unable to help me, deciding I needed a replacement phone! Ultimately, thanks to some new information provided by one of my colleagues just two days ago, I finally got this outstanding piece of the portable communications puzzle pressed into place! Though slow, the connectivity is quite reliable. Each time I direct my PAC Mate to establish a connection to the service, I am connected and ready to play. In most cases, I can even leave my cell phone in my pocket with its keypad locked while working online. On Wednesday afternoon, I was using MSN Messenger to communicate with a couple of friends while riding in a Dial-A-Ride van to the doctor’s office, waiting to be seen and riding home. On Thursday morning, Karen and I were instant messaging; she was at home while I was riding the bus to the office! At the moment, it seems that instant messaging and basic web browsing are the only functions I can reliably perform. Though the cellular connection is rather slow, an even more significant obstacle revolves around limitations in the Pocket Internet Explorer used on the PAC Mate. Though I was easily able to browse such sites as ACB Radio, AFB and Freedom Scientific, I was unable to successfully create a post to Blind Access Journal using Blogger or retrieve my e-mail via several web-based mail sites. I wasn’t even able to retrieve mail using Pocket Outlook, but the reason for that may be my use of the more interactive, bandwidth intensive IMAP protocol instead of POP3, which is more suited for low bandwidth situations. Despite these challenges, the software on the PAC Mate will improve, configuration will get easier, EVDO and other higher speed cellular data communications technologies will soon be deployed by providers and use of the Internet through a cell phone or similar device will get faster and become a pleasant portable Internet access option.

Have we achieved the ultimate dream of seemless anytime, anywhere global communications? Definitely not! Large portions of the world remain outside the scope of the technological advances of the Internet, or suffer from minimal connectivity for a number of economic, political or social reasons.
But, we are making significant progress every day. If you are located in a large metropolitan area of a modern Western nation, your chances of obtaining reliable mobile and portable Internet access on demand are quite high. This trend of increased global communications is great for blind and sighted technology users alike, though the benefits for those of us whom happen to be blind are fantastic! Imagine the creation of an online assistance service for the blind. A digital camera and cell phone could be used to gain remote sighted assistance to access some print on a piece of paper, read a sign or identify the color of an object in the environment. Accessible GPS solutions could be combined with remote assistance to create a pedestrian mobility system similar to the satellite services like OnStar enjoyed by some sighted drivers today. Future artificial intelligence based systems could be devised and implemented to assist the blind to perform a wide variety of tasks outside the home, office or other fixed location, perhaps, even automated driving! While a portable device lacks sufficient processing power to run the programming required for advanced artificial intelligence, the device could be linked to a cluster of remote computers that certainly do possess such processing ability! Data communications technology is in a constant state of advancement! It can bring incredible benefits to the blind, so long as we are ever vigilant, making sure our accessibility needs are granted the consideration they deserve. Watch this space and stay tuned for more on accessible telecommunications technology, including a tutorial covering the configuration of T-Mobile Internet service on the Nokia 3650 cell phone.

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One opinion on “The Ultimate Blind Road Warrior: Total Mobile and Portable Internet Connectivity is Almost Upon Us

  1. Here in Chicago, Verizon actually offers WiFi over their cellular network. You can purchase a 802.11 card from them and gain WiFi acces from anywhere within their coverage area. The speeds are somewhere between dialup and T1, roughly around 384kbps.

    The BrailleNote (including the older generations upgraded to Keysoft 6.11) run on Pocket IE 6, so they support JavaScript sites like the Bank of America, and other sites not supported by the PacMate’s browser.

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