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24/7 Internet access is fast approaching but not here yet

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

The era of ubiquitous Internet access is fast approaching and it can’t arrive soon enough.

I’m writing this column from 35,000 feet on a flight from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco aboard Virgin America, which has Gogo Internet access on all of its flights. American, United, Delta and U.S. Airways are among the airlines that have access on some flights. Virgin America also has standard power outlets at every seat which makes it possible to use a laptop for the duration of a cross-country flight.

I was also online on the way to Dulles Airport, thanks to a borrowed Sprint EVO 4G phone that generates its own Wi-Fi hotspot. Customers pay an extra $30 a month for that service. Verizon’s new Droid X has a similar feature.

A friend of mine recently upgraded his Google Nexus One phone to the newest Android 2.2 operating system and it, too, now supports “tethering” and creates a Wi-Fi hotspot. This feature will presumably be available on all phones that run Android 2.2 or higher but it’s up to the carriers to decide whether or not to charge extra for the service.

A few weeks ago, I took the Bolt bus from Washington, D.C., to New York, which also provides Wi-Fi and power outlets.

I have a friend who works at Google, which operates a free shuttle between San Francisco and its Mountain View campus as one if its many employee benefits. Naturally, there is Wi-Fi aboard. BART is in the process of rolling out Wi-Fi on its trains.

This is a good trend. But one challenge of many public Wi-Fi networks and 3G solutions is that they are often not fast enough to stream video. On this flight, I was able to stream a Hulu video and a Netflix movie, though there were frequent starts and stops when the Wi-Fi wasn’t able to keep up with the amount of data needed to view the video. The same is often true when I’ve watched video on the 3G networks run by Sprint, Verizon or AT&T.

While I realize that the ability to watch TV and movies 24/7 is not exactly an inalienable right, it is one of the most popular things people want to do online. Hulu, last week, announced a $10-a-month Hulu Plus service, which will allow subscribers to stream all episodes from the current and past seasons of many popular shows, including “The Office,” “Glee” and “30 Rock.” If people are going to be able to enjoy this while on the move, they are going to need wireless broadband at a consistently fast speed.

The new so-called “4G networks” promise this. But with the exception of Sprint, none of the carriers currently offer 4G. Sprint’s version, so far, is available only in 33 markets, with the Bay Area slated to come online later this year.

Despite my travels, I haven’t had the opportunity to try the EVO 4G in any of Sprint’s current 4G markets, but The Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossberg was able to test his in Baltimore, where he discovered that “when using 4G, the EVO’s battery runs down alarmingly fast.” Even without using 4G, I’m having battery issues with the phone. I rarely get through an entire day without having to recharge it.

The iPad 3G is one of many devices with built-in wireless capability. Owners of that device can tweet, update their Facebook profiles, send e-mail and, in theory, watch movies from anywhere there’s a 3G cellular signal. But there are some issues with that as well. In addition to not always having enough bandwidth to stream a movie, AT&T’s new 2GB-per-month cap on its data plan will greatly limit the amount of video users will be able to watch before they have to start paying extra for data consumption.

So even though the prospects for ubiquitous Internet are getting better, we still have a long way to go. While current 3G networks are fine for using a smartphone for e-mail, texting and limited Web access, they are not generally adequate for serious use of a computer or iPad-like device.

Not only do we need more access, we need faster access and we need more affordable access. My hope is that as the carriers roll out their next-generation services, they will not only provision enough bandwidth to make them truly useful but also will price them within the budgets of most consumers and business users. Until then, most people, when away from home, will continue to hunt around for Wi-Fi access when they need to get online.

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