My Communications Perfect Storm

My Skype Journal silence for the past few days can be attributed to a milestone wedding anniversary for which my wife and I took a mini-vacation in rural Ontario (or near Ontario’s West Coast as one promotional brochure liked to call it). While by no means the primary purpose, trips such as these provide an opportunity to investigate how "mobile" I can be as rural country inns are not expected to be fully Internet or wirelessly connected. But my expectations and what turned out to be reality were totally out of sync during this trip.

The inn, which actually comprised several buildings spread out over a 1 km radius, had mentioned on their website that they had WiFi in the main reception and eating areas but not in the rooms. However, on checking into our room in a lodging building Wednesday evening I found my Nokia N95 to have detected a WiFi signal. I did not attempt to make an Internet connection from my laptop until early Thursday morning but, as one simple test, I found the web browser on the N95 to only work marginally and intermittently. In the meantime I had attempted, from the dining building, to send out a couple of short emails from my Blackberry advising family members of our location. They seemed to go out but I had never actually looked at the (GSM/EDGE) signal level indicator.

Thursday morning I booted up my laptop in the room to find that I had a weak Internet connection; but with sufficient signal strength to slowly bring in my email and bring up my default web browser Home pages. But, when Skype opened up, its status line was stuck on "Connecting"; I assumed that maybe the signal was not strong enough to handle Skype calls. (My one constant while on the road is that WiFi can be all over the map in terms of signal strength and access to various – especially resource demanding — programs.)

While at breakfast I checked my Blackberry signal strength only to find that there was NO signal; yet my Blackberry emails from the previous evening seemed to have gone out; maybe it was picking up a minimal signal while walking between buildings. Talking to the staff revealed that, sure enough, GSM reception in the valley in which the inn was located was tenuous at best and usually not available. (Although the local EV-DO provider had no problem, apparently.) The staff also informed me that the WiFi and Internet service was only two weeks old; it had been brought in along with a new cable TV service. So here I am with weak WiFi in the room and no GSM signal in the valley but expecting that if I took my laptop to a building with a WiFi access point I would find a stronger signal.

Headed back to our room after breakfast and found an email asking if I was getting Skype connectivity; a little bit of Google searching revealed that others were having Skype connectivity problems. Since we had a golf round booked, we had to head out; on coming out of the valley my Blackberry picked up a GSM signal and a message from Skype’s PR firm to say that there was a software issue with Skype and to expect a 12 to 24 hour wait before it could be corrected. Forwarded the email to a couple of key contacts and, from my golf cart via my Blackberry, put a message in my Facebook status to indicate the essence of this message. Four hours later, after completing the golf round, checked on my Blackberry, via Google Reader and Google News to find that the outage was ongoing. Between my weak WiFi, lack of GSM signal and no Skype access I felt I had encountered the communications version of a Perfect Storm.

On returning to the inn, I found a much stronger WiFi signal outside a neighbouring building and, as a test, made a Truphone call to Andy Abramson — got his Grand Central voice mail — and confirmed that, yes, VoIP would work over this connection. We then headed back to Stratford-on-Avon (Ontario version) to watch King Lear (after watching a middle-aged couple at the neighbouring restaurant table communicate with each other via their Blackberries — well, it certainly looked like that … oh, the restaurant etiquette some people show).

Just to complete my Skype outage experience: Friday morning I was getting intermittent connectivity to Skype from the room but packed up to return home. When connected I would get the occasional Group Chat update and a couple of other chat messages but by the time I could respond, the Skype connection was lost. On attempting to use my Nokia N800 I could get a WiFi connection but it would not even bring up web pages, even in areas with a strong WiFi signal.

On returning home I found that a PC-Free phone I am evaluating still had Skype connectivity (I never had logged out although I had put it in Offline mode when I left home) and could make SkypeOut calls from it. But I was still getting very intermittent Skype connectivity on my laptop until about 5:30 Friday evening (2130GMT). Since then I have had sustained connectivity and my Group Chat sessions have resumed their activity. I have seen as many as 6.6 million users online; however, the true test of ongoing Skype use will come Monday and Tuesday when users normally peak around 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Eastern Time (GMT-4).

We are still in an early stage of mobile and communications connectivity overall From my perfect storm (and other road warrior) experiences,

  • WiFi networks need to be consistent and standardized in their ability to connect;
  • web browsers need to be consistent in their ability to bring up web pages;
  • wireless (GSM) service providers still need to fill in their rural black holes and
  • web-based services, such as Skype, still need to find their weak spots in order to build their robustness.

And occasionally we will have to deal with occasional service outages as these technologies mature. Yet, the benefits of these services still provide such a significant advantage both from a cost and user service perspective that they will continue to be adopted.

More commentary on the Skype outage, in terms of its impact on every day activities, will follow. In the meantime check out Garrett Smith’s excellent post: Is Voice No Longer the Preferred Means of Communication?

P.S. – Just before I left on this trip I had cancelled my four-year-old Packet 8 service. Why? Not for any technical reason but rather because it had outlived its usefulness to me as a U.S-based phone number. Yet my experience with them from a technology viewpoint had consistently improved from a point where initially — four years ago — maybe 50% of my calls got through clearly — at a much lower cost that using Bell Canada — to where today about 98% of the calls were excellent quality. But my recently acquired SkypeIn number would serve the Packet 8 number’s current purpose, to provide a U.S.-based phone number, at a much lower monthly cost. And I could remove some hardware from my cluttered physical desktop.

Tags: Skype, SkypeIn, SkypeOut, Skype outage 2007, Packet8, Blackberry, GSM, GSM service providers

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.
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