Pushed off the grid: 24 hours without 3G

Just one year after my 24-hour Gmail lockdown, I once again became a digital pariah. Except this time, I wasn’t behind bars — rather, I was involuntarily removed from the 3G grid with no warning. My iPhone was suddenly just a phone, incapable of any data communication. I was on the wrong side of the digital divide, at the mercy of larger institutions that control who does and who does not have access to high-speed data networks.

For the record, I don’t mind disconnection, as long as it is my choice. Granted, I have the choice of connection, something that many people on this planet do not. Yet here I was, an urban, über-connected professional, without data access. When I retraced my steps, I came to understand the digital ecosystem we live in, who holds power — and that money talks.

It was Friday afternoon and I was running late to the OMMA Conference in New York, where I was to moderate the “Breaking Down The Search Silo” panel. Once on-site, my habitual e-mail check failed, as did my feed reader and my browser. Panic struck me. How on Earth was I going to attend a conference without a data connection?

Sad as it is, smartphone usage at online advertising conferences is as much about offline avoidance as it is about online connection. Fortunately, conference organizers understand this, and my iPhone picked up a free wi-fi signal, courtesy of OMMA. I was saved. E-mails, feeds, and mobile searches happily reminded me that I was, once again, a member of the connected people.

A few hours later, the conference had ended and I was out on the street like Cinderella after midnight. On my walk home, I ran through all the possible scenarios on why my data connection had failed me. Was there a regional outage? Did it have something to do with the iPhone software update? Maybe I could just blame Times Square?

I had the evening to figure it out, safe within the walls of my home, replete with a DSL connection and wireless router. As I surfed the Web for an answer, the phone’s network icon vacillated between full cellular service to no service. I was never on the 3G network — or even Edge. “Who am I kidding?” I thought. Without a reliable mobile device with data services, I was on digital house arrest.

I reached out for help via AT&T’s online chat. “Paul” had me run through the basic diagnostics, and suggested that I go to an Apple or AT&T retail location to check the SIM card and the phone itself. He closed the chat by rubbing salt in the wound: I was definitely not visible on the AT&T data network. That night, I did not sleep well.

Saturday morning I rushed over to the closest AT&T store. There we ran through the same diagnostics. The rep looked up my account, made a customer service call and then quickly blamed Apple. “Oh Apple, they just can’t get it right. They are just mass producing these things too fast,” he clucked. He suggested that I get a new phone, if I were willing to pay a restocking fee.  

Just as I was about to walk out the door to Apple, he ran through my account again and noticed that it had been suspended. He unsuspended the account, and still, no data access. Back on the phone with customer service, there was a record of a balance due, despite the fact that my online payments had been made, the next payment wasn’t due for two weeks, and I hadn’t received any notice of a balance due. I quickly offered to pull up the receipt from my bank, but with no mobile data connection or an Internet-ready computer in the store, I was denied my right to make the proverbial one phone call.

I was left with one choice: repay the apparent balance, and enjoy a credit next month. With a quick swipe of the credit card and a signature, 3G access was immediately restored in less than 30 seconds. What three AT&T reps could not solve, the almighty dollar could. It was at this moment that I realized that the future of search hinges not upon the better engine, but upon the ability to connect.

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