Searching For Connectivity

I'm writing this week's column from WORLDCOMP'08: The 2008 World Congress in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, and Applied Computing. It's a collection of 25 subconferences being held in Las Vegas; I'm here for the one on Semantic Web and Web Services. The first keynote speaker is Dave Patterson, from the U.C. Berkeley Parallel Computing Lab. He's followed by Anousheh Ansari of Ansari X Prize fame. And, like so many Web-focused or -related conferences I've been to recently, there's no wireless connectivity.

Some time ago, I wrote the "Internet Hierarchy of Needs", transparently based on the work of Abraham Maslow. As with Maslow's model, in the IHN the most profound and primary needs are those related to existence: a certain number of computers, connected to each other and able to exchange information.

Simply by virtue of the fact that you read this column, I presume that you share with me a certain level of Web usage. You and I find it hard to conceive of a home without broadband, or a family without at least one laptop. We find it difficult to spend a day without plugging in, updating, and downloading.



Here at WORLDCOMP, people are talking about chips with 1,008 cores on them, or telematics that allow someone at the Bethesda Naval Institute to operate on a wounded soldier in Iraq. Unfortunately, in a giant hotel in one of the world's most overdeveloped cities, I can't connect to the ordinary, plain-vanilla Internet to tell you about it.

Connectivity is the single most basic requirement for a network, but it's not a birthright and it is not a given. Attempts to make free wireless broadband ubiquitous have continually come up against brick walls. Just today, Matt Hamblen of Computerworld wrote about "how complex and political the provisioning of free or nearly free municipal Wi-Fi services has become thanks to the collapse of the advertising-supported business model envisioned by vendors such as MetroFi and EarthLink."

In countries like New Zealand, where bandwidth is metered and charged on a per-gigabyte basis, it's nearly impossible to find free wireless. But this isn't only about free; it's about access, period.

In my mind, it is no longer acceptable for a zone in any major city not to offer some sort of coverage, whether it's free or pay as you go. It is especially unacceptable to host a computer science conference in a location without coverage. Stunningly, for all of the organizers, connectivity was an afterthought.

We spend time at Search Insider discussing intensely intellectual concepts at the bleeding edge of innovation. We debate the semantic Web. We dissect ad platforms and publishing and Yahoogle. And we often forget a simple axiom: Without connectivity, there is no search.

Let's get our houses in order, guys. This has to be a solvable problem. If Anousheh Ansari and her husband can set the personal space-travel industry in motion with just $10 million, we have to be able to make Web access more ubiquitous. I simply refuse to believe otherwise.

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