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SUNDAY, MARCH 4, 2007
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Eric Fleischauer takes a moment to look up the sound of what he suspects is a bald eagle via a mobile broadband card on his laptop. Verizon is targeting employers with offers for service: The cards allow users to surf, check their mail and download files without being at a Wi-Fi hotspot or using a network cable.
Daily photo illustration by Jonathan Palmer
Eric Fleischauer takes a moment to look up the sound of what he suspects is a bald eagle via a mobile broadband card on his laptop. Verizon is targeting employers with offers for service: The cards allow users to surf, check their mail and download files without being at a Wi-Fi hotspot or using a network cable.

Surfing while kayaking in Valley
Mobile broadband great for fishing, not bad for productivity, either

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com ∑ 340-2435

A warm breeze stirs from the Tennessee River as I write this. A barge churns quietly upstream, prodding a flock of seagulls to take flight, a cackling snowstorm against a blue sky. Let me check ... herring gulls, it appears, although the pair in the back look like Bonaparteís gulls.

ďYo, Fleischauer,Ē you say. ďThis is the business page. Youíre a business reporter. Get with the program.Ē

I say, ďRelax. Iím getting there.Ē

I donít know a Bonaparteís gull from a juvenile kingfisher, but I know how to find out on the Internet. And sitting here on a blanket on the riverbank, unseasonably green grass around me and an order of extra-hot chicken wings threatening my keyboard, I have Internet access. Broadband, no less.

Iíll grant you itís a personality defect, but when Verizonís public relations folks offered to loan me mobile broadband access for a few months, my first thought was not increased productivity.

It was fishing.

Verizon made its offer in conjunction with the rollout of broadband on its cellular network in the Decatur and Huntsville area.

Verizon offers wireless broadband service in North Alabama that lets you surf the Internet while you fish (or work away from the office). Cingular, a Verizon competitor, says it will introduce broadband in Huntsville late this year but has not set a date for service in Decatur.
Map courtesy of Verizon
Verizon offers wireless broadband service in North Alabama that lets you surf the Internet while you fish (or work away from the office). Cingular, a Verizon competitor, says it will introduce broadband in Huntsville late this year but has not set a date for service in Decatur. (Click on image to enlarge)
The coverage area includes 665 square miles generally bordered by Trinity to the west, the Tennessee state line to the north, Gurley to the east and Morgan City to the south. Athens, Decatur and Huntsville are within the coverage area.

Marketing

From a marketing standpoint, the coverage area makes sense because of the heavy commuter traffic between the cities. Now the thousands of people traveling Interstate 565 can fiddle with their Blackberries at 75 mph.

What I love about Decatur is not its proximity to Huntsville. I love its proximity to water. And that water — the Tennessee River or its backwater meandering through Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge — is between the cities.

So my first thought was that my favorite fishing holes and kayak haunts are in the center of Verizonís coverage area. The thought of wedding my passion for the Internet with my favorite pastimes was too good to pass up.

My inaugural use of the service was to identify a pygmy penguin. Or maybe it was a puffin. I was staring at it from the banks of the Tennessee River, and my brother the birder did not answer my cell phone call. Then I remembered the laptop sitting in the truck. I popped the aircard into the slot, Googled around a bit, and there it was. A bufflehead.

My wife had e-mailed on another occasion, asking that I pick up my daughter at a friendís house. Of course I forgot, but this time it came back to me a few minutes before it was too late. Problem was, I was in the car and couldnít remember the name of the friend. The laptop beckoned. I pulled up my Gmail and found the name, along with an address I didnít recognize. Mapquest to the rescue. I got there on time.

Itís one thing to get lost when youíre driving. When youíre already tired from a long kayaking trip and just want to get back to where you started, the prospect of a wrong turn is enough to start anticipatory muscle spasms. So as I floated at a fork in some offshoot of the Tennessee River, wondering where my truck was, I booted up the laptop. Google Earth did the rest, giving me an aerial shot that not only advised me to turn left but let me know I had only 1.6 miles to go.

For good measure, I e-mailed home to say Iíd be a little late. Then, after baiting my hook, I e-mailed a friend a digital picture of the water moccasin Iíd seen 20 minutes before. And then, just to prove I could, I updated my church Web site.

Research on the fly

On another kayaking venture I heard an anguished kleek-kik-kik sound coming from a tall tree. Audio from a Web site confirmed my suspicion that I was hearing a bald eagle.

Verizon has generated lots of press releases touting broadband access, but none mentions cottonmouths or buffleheads. Many mention productivity.

One reason is the price.

Verizonís broadband access is $60 per month if you have a voice line or $80 for data only. PC cards range from $50 to $180 with a two-year contract.

Surfing the Internet for lure recommendations while on a boat is great fun (although I still didnít catch anything), but it does not translate into money. For those who have to pay for the service — which means everyone but the occasional reporter enjoying a short-term perk — monetary benefits are the most compelling justification for a monetary setback.

Targeting employers

Indeed, the target audience of most Verizon promotions is less the employee than the employer. Provide your employee with unending connectivity, suggests the company, and you will extract a lot more dollars in productivity than you will pay in monthly bills.

The productivity angle seems to be working. Peter Kurth, Huntsville-based manager of data sales for Verizon, said many of the 21 Fortune 500 companies with a Decatur presence have signed on.

Occasionally I have to work, although I try to limit it to rainy days. So I tried the productivity thing.

After covering a meeting at Huntsville International Airport, I e-mailed my story to the office before heading for another meeting. Collecting and responding to work e-mails while out of town was a no-brainer, and did not require seeking out a Starbucks with Wi-Fi access. While on vacation, I found (to my wifeís chagrin) that I was following business news, checking e-mails and even filing an occasional article. None of that would have happened if I had been limited to dial-up Internet access.

The battle behind the scenes, both in the United States and worldwide, is between Code Division Multiple Access — Verizonís technology — and Global System for Mobile communications technology. Overseas, GSM has been the standard, but CDMA is catching up. A downside of CDMA is that you cannot use voice and data simultaneously.

An upside, which sometimes translates into a price benefit for consumers, is that CDMA technology automatically adjusts power output based upon what you need. If you are sending a text e-mail from beside a tower, you donít need much power. If you are sending an image from the edge of the coverage area, you need lots. CDMA adjusts accordingly.

As it stands, Verizon is the only mobile broadband game in town.

Cingular, which competes with others for subscribers in Birmingham, uses GSM technology. Dawn Benton, regional public relations manager for Cingular, said her company will introduce broadband in Huntsville late this year. A date for service in Decatur has not been scheduled.

Will I subscribe? Nope: canít afford it. Indeed, Iím hoping no one from Verizon reads this, because then theyíll know itís time to retrieve the aircard. But see that black duck with a white bill? Itís actually an American coot. Oh, and Nucor shares are up 2 percent.

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