Friday, January 14, 2022

Hot Spot - the Future of the Internet

I think wireless will be the future of the internet.  Wires and cables to your home may disappear.

A reader wrote, a little confused as to how I am using the Internet.  As I explained - poorly - in an earlier posting, we started using our "hotspot" on our cell phone when travelling, to access the Internet.  We could then go on the laptop and use Chrome and load Netflix, even.  No longer were we chained to sketchy coffee-shop WiFi or campground WiFi - or be limited by bandwidth or what our neighbors were downloading.

The process is simple and has been around a long time.  A lot of people still don't know it exists.  Most iPhones are (or were) configured to leave the hotspot on all the time, which drained battery power and used some bandwidth, if you were not using it.  When I log onto my WiFi hotspot from my laptop, I am always amused by how many iPhones appear as "available networks."   Usually a half-dozen or more!

Mark always gets confused about using the hotspot.  If we want to watch Netflix on the television, I tell him to turn on the hotspot.  "You mean the WiFi?" he says, clicking on the wrong icon.  "No! The Hotspot!  One is for sending and the other receiving!"

That is not accurate, as both are two-way communications.  But think of it this way - a hotspot is like your router - it connects you to the Internet, and you can connect your devices (phone, laptop, television, smart doorbell, whatever) to your router, either through a Cat-5 cable or by WiFi.  Running the hotspot on your phone turns it into a router, of sorts, and you can connect any WiFi enabled device to the internet through your phone with the hotspot on.  Yes, you can even connect another phone through your phone, via the hotspot.

So, we started doing this while traveling, and it worked pretty well.  When we got home, we kept doing it because AT&T UVERSE would disconnect our modem/router after more than 30 days of nonuse.  For several years in a row, I had to call the AT&T help line and explain the problem. The helpdesk in India could never resolve the issue, as it required reconfiguing the modem.  Sometimes, they would connect me back to a guy in the USA who would reboot my modem remotely and it would be fine.  Other times, they would send a technician out to fix it, and still others, require that I pay $100 for a new modem.

And each time, this took several days of talking to the helpdesk in India before they would "escalate" the situation to a US-based technician.  I don't know how many times I heard, "Did you try unplugging it and plugging it back in?"  Yes, Sanjay, we tried that.  Apparently that is the only "help" they are authorized to provide.

So the last time it happened - and this was several years in a row - I didn't bother calling as I was loathe to once again explain myself to someone who really didn't speak or understand English and didn't and couldn't understand the problem.  So I just blew it off.  After a week or so, Mark remarked, "So I guess you got the modem fixed!" as we were watching Netflix.  I said, "No, we're still using the hotspot on the phone.  I haven't gotten around to calling AT&T."

"Well, you can't really tell the difference," he said, and I had an epiphany.

We were paying $50 a month (each) for our phones through AT&T GoPhone.  We were paying like $70 a month (after the "introductory period" expired) for UVERSE internet service.   Six months of the year, we aren't even home to use the UVERSE.  Why not just pull the plug on UVERSE and go all-cellular?

So we did.  And the rest is history.

However, there are some glitches.  We were using used T-Mobile phones, bought for $99 on eBay.  AT&T wants you to pay extra for hotspot usage ($10 a month for 10GB).  Apparently, the T-Mobile phones were not registered on the AT&T system, so AT&T could not detect that we were using the hotspot feature without paying for it.

It was fun while it lasted.  AT&T sent us a message saying our phones were "out of date" and could no longer be used and they sent us new Samsung Galaxies, locked to AT&T.  The T-Mobile hotspot "app" mysteriously did not transfer over, and now we have to pay for hotspot usage.

I will probably shop around one of our phone plans to see if we can get more hotspot for less money.

But despite the gltiches, it isn't hard to see that this is where the technology is headed - that is the whole deal behind 5G I think - to make the Internet totally wireless, other than the backbone connections.  If you think about it, things like the "Metaverse" (no thanks!) would be pretty awkward if tethered to your house.  With 5G, you could take it anywhere, and hilarity would ensue.  Think Pokeman Go on steriods.  People wandering all over with headsets on, bumping into things.

But if you travel a lot, well, the hotspot on your phone beats the crap out of local Wifi - and is more secure as well.

There are, of course, other ways of doing this.  For example, "Screen Mirroring" can be used on some phones (Samsung, for sure) to "mirror" your screen to a television.  It worked OK and I did that for about a year.  It does make the phone get hot, though, as it is transmitting video to your television.  I also noted that it jitters a bit - the bandwidth needed to transmit the image from your phone to your television is greater, for some reason, than merely using a WiFi connection via hotspot.

Screen mirroring isn't a feature they advertise heavily.  Sharp called it "miracast" and even Samsung has different names for it.  I suspect it is one of those "beta" features that they didn't expect anyone to use. And with smart televisions, why bother using it?  You can just click on the "Netflix" button and be done, rather than dick around with screen mirroring.

You can also buy a dedicated "hotspot" from any of the major carriers, at Walmart or other places.  They look like a phone without a display and basically, for a monthly fee (or a pay-as-you-go card) you can WiFi off the hotspot, provided there is cellular coverage.  I tried using a T-Mobile hotspot years ago, and it worked, sort of, but was not very fast, and T-Mobile didn't seem to have a lot of coverage.  We used it to surf the net - not for video streaming.  But I am sure that such hotspots are better today and probably faster.

One downside to going wireless via your phone is that it is harder to connect your "Smart Home" devices.  A friend of mine who is never here, has their entire house wired for "Smart Home" junk.  Oddly enough, they are old hippies, but they love this technology crap.  They have a smart thermostat, smart cameras (a lot of them) smart refrigerator, smart alarm system, smart sprinklers, and so on and so forth. They can go on their phone or computer and look at real-time images of the inside and outside of their home, set the thermostat, or turn the sprinklers on and off.  We cut off the water when we leave, and give a key to a neighbor - it's a lot cheaper and less hassle.

I have avoided "smart" appliances as I have been stung in the past with this technology crap.  It is not that it never works, only that they often sell these things before they are fully developed.  So you buy this [fill in the blank] piece of techno-junk and are up all night with the instructions, troubleshooting your router when the damn thing won't connect, making dozens of calls to Sanjay in Bangalore ("Did you try unplugging it and plugging it back in?) and it still doesn't work.  And for what?  So I can upload smart doorbell videos onto "Tik-Tok"?  I've got better things to do with my time - and money.

The only "smart" appliance we have is a smart thermostat and I disabled the WiFi on that.  I suppose I could link it to my neighbor's router, but I have never, in my lifetime, had a need to adjust my thermostat when I am not at home.  We just leave it at 85 and go away.

But even then, wireless could work.  You just buy a mobile hotspot and leave it at home and that becomes your new router.  Alarm companies started doing this back in the day with ordinary cell phones.  You would buy a "basic" cell phone plan for $29.99 a month or whatever) and plug a "burner" phone into the alarm system.   The idea was, a burglar could cut the phone line at the network interface box outside your home and thus disable the alarm system.  Once inside, he simply would rip the alarm siren off the wall.  Problem solved.  Going wireless with alarm systems was a way around this.  And it would be a way around the modern problem of burglars cutting your phone or cable-TV wires to disable all the "smart" appliances and alarm system in your home.

But getting back to streaming - is it perfect?  Well, no.  You aren't going to stream 4K on your 4G phone - not without a lot of jitter and using up your data allocation in one night.  But at lower resolutions, it seems to work OK.  And some channels work better than others.  Disney and Netflix seem to stream well (if you set the resolution to the lowest setting).  Are there artifacts?  Sometimes, particularly in dark images, the shades of black seem to "float" a bit.  But television is an audio medium (hence the term, "the talking lamp") more than you would think.   And as I learned doing Patents on imaging systems for cable television and computers, what people look at isn't necessarily the entire picture - a lower resolution image is often indistinguishable from a higher one.  We just aren't that sensitive to the difference in many cases.

But again, the promise of 5G might alleviate that and result in greater acceptance of wireless streaming.  And let's face it, half the "video" people watch today is on a smart phone or pad device, anyway.  So in a way, wireless internet is already here, in the form of the smart phone.

Another reader chastised me for saying that having a smart phone is sort of necessary these days in America - like having to own a car.  And he's right - you don't "need" a smart phone, just as you don't "need" to be on Facebook.  But so much of our society is structured based on the assumption that you are "all in" on technology and social media.  Just to find a job these days, you'd better have texting enabled and have a Linked-In profile, or so it seems.   People in the arts association put things on Facebook and then tell Mark, "Well, it was on Facebook!" as if that were the Internet itself.  Mark has to patiently explain to them that he is not on Facebook, but they still don't get it.

I scared my neighbors the other day when I told them that - believe it or not - sometimes I drive into town and leave my phone at home!  The horror!  Suppose you broke down?  Walk, I guess.  But since they have eliminated nearly all pay phones in the country, I suppose they have a point.  It is darn hard to be connected these days without a phone. And even an old flip-phone isn't enough, as most people prefer texting to talking on the phone.  So unless you have at least a text-enabled phone, forgetaboutit.

Let's not even talk about things like QR codes (although that fad seems to have faded quickly).  Hell, we went to a restaurant the other day and they had no menus.  You had to order by scanning a QR code glued to the table.  I didn't have a QR code reader app on my phone and I wasn't about to dick around with it to get a dozen chicken wings and a beer, so we left. Maybe that is where we are heading - you won't be able to buy gas, get a job, or even buy food, without a smart phone.  Sort of like with Idiocracy, where "unscanned" people are arrested.

Maybe it hasn't come to that quite yet, but we seem to be slipping in that direction, one little bit at a time.

UPDATE:  Verizon has a prepaid plan similar to AT&T's and offers unlimited hotspot if you are connected via 5G.  Since Verizon and AT&T are on incompatible networks, I would have to buy a new 5G phone to make the switch.  In many parts of the country, we are in areas where there is AT&T service, but not Verizon or vice-versa.  So it makes sense to have one of each.  Also, fuck AT&T - they funded the "One America Network" which spreads conspiracy theories.

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