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I admit I'm addicted to being connected

Jack Betts
Jack Betts writes on politics and life in The Carolinas for the Charlotte Observer's Editorial page.

RALEIGH One day early this year, our man Mark Johnson called in from South Carolina, where he was covering the presidential primaries.

Where's that wireless coffee shop I use to get on the Net and work when I'm in Columbia visiting my daughter? Was it the one on Garner's Ferry Road?

It was indeed. Easy to find, good coffee and food, free wireless, and an electrical outlet where you can plug up.

I've had those conversations with dozens of people in my travels around Virginia and the Carolinas in the past year or so. Finding a place where you can work for an hour or so on the road has become a routine part of this business. We've learned where a lot of places have free wireless Internet, including some out-of-the-way spots you wouldn't have guessed. For places unknown, there's a good Web site listing known free wireless hot spots.

It's an addiction, this need to be connected to the world all the time. Maybe 40 years of meeting deadlines and getting ready for the next one does this to you.

I was in denial about how addicted I am to quick connections until one day last winter. I was up in the mountains and got a badly distorted cell phone call about a problem in a column. A mountain neighbor who lives in Florida most of the year once mentioned that he leaves his wireless connection running at his house on a dirt road in the Blue Ridge – 15 miles from a town of any size. I drove over and trudged up to his deserted, tightly locked home – and sat in 30-degree bliss in his front-porch rocker, clicking away on a laptop and fixing a column that was to run the next day.

I was thinking about this wireless addiction the other day while reading Eric Larson's 2006 book “Thunderstruck.” It's part technical howhedunit and part murder mystery. It walks the reader through Guglielmo Marconi's quest to develop wireless communications a century ago and how the gradual spread of that technology help apprehend at sea a murderer who had committed an extraordinarily gruesome crime in England.

Marconi took wireless communications to a level once thought impossible, with trans-Atlantic wireless transmissions as well as ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications. People once laughed at his ambitions. Now we take wireless gizmos for granted – and fume when they don't work as expected.

It's also worth noting that one of Marconi's early competitors, Reginald Fessenden, made history by doing some of his research on transmitting wireless voice communications at a site on North Carolina's Outer Banks 100 years ago. I wish Fessenden, developer of AM radio as well as a depth finder and radio direction finder, were around to consult on some local gaps in our wireless world. As anyone with a cell phone knows, there are dead zones where a signal cannot reach, and life-support zones where only intermittent signals are available.

On our back deck up in the hills, we're lucky to hear even a burp from the cell phone when someone tries to call. But walk 300 feet east into the middle of the hayfield, and things improve. Some days I can even catch seven out of every 10 words.

Not too long ago, a bright young fellow from the local phone co-op came by and started hooking up gizmos to what looked like plain old telephone cords. Before he left that day, a modem was winking away and a wireless G transmitter was transforming our rural refuge into an oasis of online offerings.

We're thinking of putting in a counter of fancy coffeepots and a line of sandwiches and chips, as soon as we train the staff on the difference between regular and high-test. Yup, we've got Wi-Fi, but leave your cell phone at home.

Jack Betts is an Observer associate editor based in Raleigh: jbetts@charlotteobserver.com

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