Unless you've been on safari deep in the jungle recently, you'll recognize the quote above as the catch-phrase used by the acerbic British host of NBC's newly imported game show, "The Weakest Link." The host, one Anne Robinson, has become a megastar in her native England by harshly insulting game show contestants who flub their answers. Rejected players dejectedly slink off the stage pursued by Robinson's sophomoric insults.
I mention this by way of introducing the weakest link that many of us face every day—our connections to the Internet. Or maybe I should say the lack of connections to the Internet. I fervently wish that I could dismiss these fragile links with a swift wave of the hand and a well-phrased insult. Unfortunately, I have no choice in the Massachusetts town where I live and maintain a home office.
I am limited to the delicate copper wires provided by the local telephone company, now mysteriously called Verizon. What kind of a name is that? We used to have the New England Telephone Company which became Nynex (maybe that's a sound made by an expiring telephone?) and, more recently, Verizon (a veritable mirage on the horizon?). On our two phone lines, we are pestered daily by phone company representatives (Verizoneers?) for this package or that rate plan but there's no DSL (digital subscriber line) offered locally or planned within my lifetime. I'm probably too far from the central office, anyway.
In the meantime, we struggle to maintain dial-up Internet access with our two computers, both equipped with 56K modems. It's impossible to get any kind of connection that will last for more than five minutes without self-interrupting. Our phone lines are so noisy and under-powered that we can rarely establish a connection at more than 28K. When I reach a web site that offers text-only pages, I pounce with my mouse. Graphics are a luxury only those with a T1 connection can enjoy.
Of course, there's always cable. However, our local cable monopoly, AT&T Broadband, fails dismally to live up to its name. Not only do we get a pitiful lineup of unwatchable channels with abysmal picture quality but AT&T does not provide broadband access and has no plans to do so until September of 2002 at the earliest. Our town is in the midst of negotiating its five-year contract with AT&T. At a recent public hearing on the contract, local subscribers stood in line to have their three minutes at the microphone to bemoan AT&T's lack of response to demands for better service. AT&T "listened." But did they hear what was being said?
Then, there's the latest big new thing, broadband wireless. If you've never heard of this, that's because it's available almost nowhere. The long-distance and cell-phone carrier, Sprint, has offerings in one or two big cities but nothing is on the horizon for us small-town dwellers. Sprint has taken the ball and is crawling with it. Mind you, to use my Sprint PCS cell phone, I have to either be on the highway or climb the tallest tree on my property to get reliable reception and transmission. So I'm not holding my breath for broadband wireless. When and if it does arrive, I'll need to be line-of-sight from a transmission tower. Out of sight, out of mind is more like it.
Then, there's broadband satellite service. Until recently satellite services offered only downloading. To send data to your Internet service provider, you also had to have a telephone connection (see Verizon for this). Now Hughes offers something called DirecPC which is being "gradually" rolled out across the United States. DirecPC offers two-way connection (such as down-link and up-link) via one of those ugly dish antennas emblazoned with the company's logo. For this, you pay, and handsomely. Of course, you'll need a clear line of sight to the southern sky. Translation: if you can't see Texas from your office or home roof, forget satellite. I'm not sure I want my home to look like a satellite tracking station. And can you imagine calling customer service, "Houston, we have a problem." I don't think so.
It's just so wonderful to live in the 21st century and have access to all these really terrific communications services. "You are the weakest link. Goodbye." Connection interrupted . . .