Can You Cross the Planet and Stay Connected to the Internet?

In this wondrously connected age we often forget just how quickly technology is changing our world. In just a few short years we’ve progressed from whistling and humming modems and download speeds measured in bits per second to a world in which our cell phones can download movies in minutes, in which we can stream a video call from Houston to Ho Chi Minh City instantly and check the latest news from around the world from a device we carry in our pockets. It boggles the mind.

In fact, to truly understand the lightning fast development going on around us we often have to step out of the relentless stream for a brief moment and take a look in from the outside. In the winter of 2011 I found myself in Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country on earth. Just three million people live in Mongolia, a country three times the size of France (population: 65 million), and with good reason. Through the long, dark winter the temperature falls to -40 degrees Celsius and never rises above -20. A thick layer of snow and ice blankets the lonely steppe, death is an ever-present companion, and the closest Big Mac is over 1,000 miles away. The steppe is one of the most hostile environments known to man.

And in the middle of this vast and forbidding territory in the coldest depths of winter, its backlight glowing weakly from the pocket of a capacious winter coat, my iPhone displayed a familiar logo: the signal that told me I was connected to a 3G network.

It’s difficult to grasp the enormity of this reality. The coldest, loneliest and most isolated parts of the world used to be just that: isolated. But messages that used to take days or weeks to reach their destination can now be delivered instantly, and all across the world people who have never traveled more than a mile from their homes can reach out and touch the world.

It certainly makes you think. It made me wonder just how easy is it to stay connected 24/7 even when travelling. Is it possible, for instance, to cross the globe and stay tethered to the Internet from the comfort of your bed in a suburban home to your final destination on the other side of the world? Well, let’s take a look.

London, England: Home Internet
Still waiting for the call

ou are sleeping on your favorite royal like mattress bed, resting to allow your body to recharge. In contrast, your phone beside you is buzzing with activity – receiving the very latest emails while you sleep. Your iPhone alarm finally rings, and as you wake from your slumber you reach out to silence it. Moments later, before you’re fully awake, you notice ten new emails have been pushed to your phone during the night over the 4G network. One is from your most important client, ordering you to fly to meet him at his headquarters in Guangzhou, China. The email holds your electronic flight tickets and the details of the cab that will deliver you to the airport. Both have been booked online by your client thousands of miles away.

You click through to your flight booking and check in online to save time at the airport. All this is done while you’re still lying on top of your mattress. You finally bid goodbye to it and then rush for a quick shower before the cab arrives. Thirty minutes later you hear the beep of its horn as you’re browsing the latest news from your iPad in the kitchen.

London to Heathrow: Mobile Connectivity
Your 4G signal drops out as you leave the city so you switch to the 7.2Mbps Wi-Fi network built into the Toyota Prius cab. 300 such wifi-enabled taxis were introduced before the 2012 Olympics, and more are being added all the time. The signal holds until it hands over to the Wi-Fi network covering Heathrow Terminal One.

Thanks to online check-in from your iPhone (along with other amazing iOS apps) you manage to avoid the queues, sweeping through security and on to your gate with the only break in connection the few moments it took to pass through the security check.

Heathrow to Guangzhou: In-Flight Wi-Fi
As the engines rumble into life on your Lufthansa flight to Guangzhou (via Frankfurt and Hong Kong) you pull out your iPad and log onto the Panasonic FlyNet wifi service. FlyNet provides connectivity using satellite Internet broadcast over wifi to all passengers, so you head to Skype, call your assistant back home and ask for your schedule to be cleared for the next two days.

Guangzhou: In-Cab Wifi
Once again you switch to the terminal wifi in Guangzhou, and then onto the in-cab network offered by two of the city’s largest cab firms for free. You crawl through traffic in the busy Chinese city, shaking your head in dismay as you realize that half the Internet is blocked behind the Great Firewall.

Guangzhou: Roaming 3G
Finally you reach the office of your client, stopping at a 7-11 next door to pick up a cheap pay-as-you-go SIM card. A few Yuan of credit will provide you with all the 3G you need to get through the day until, after you’ve met your client, you can hop on the hotel wifi network before climbing into a comfortable bed for a few hours rest before the flight home in the morning.

Just five years ago almost none of this would be possible. Our cell phone connectivity had barely advanced beyond WAP. Wifi speeds crawled by at a snail’s pace. Many hotels provided a signal too weak to reach all but a select few rooms, and taxis and airplanes were completely isolated from the Internet.

Today it’s possible – not just possible, but easy – to cross the globe without losing your connection to the Internet for a moment, even while you sleep. You can browse your emails in your bed, and log on to Facebook to catch up with your friends around the world. You can take a cab while watching your favorite TV shows on Hulu, and catch a flight while listening to music you’re streaming from Spotify. You can remain connected 24/7 in London, New York, Guangzhou and, yes, the isolated steppe of Mongolia.

Imagine what we’ll be able to do tomorrow.

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