[Web Version of Newsletter]  [Newsletter Archives]  [Advertising Info]  [Website Home Page]  [Please Donate Here]

26 March, 2010

Good morning

I spent Monday - Thursday of this week in Las Vegas, attending the annual CTIA show - all to do with mobile phones and related technologies.  As you can imagine, I find this to be a very interesting show to attend, with lots of gadgets on display.

First of all, a request.  I'm researching a solution to a problem many of us face - using a hotel room's internet access for multiple devices.  Many hotels not only charge you $15 or more a day for internet access, but limit this to only one device.  If you connect a different device to the internet, they detect the different serial number of the different network card in the different computer, and require you to pay a second $15+ fee for the second device.

In my case, I had my Dell laptop, an Acer netbook, and both my Blackberry and iPhone too, all wanting internet access.

Sure, if the hotel provides a cable/ethernet based internet connection, you could plug it into a Wi-Fi router and create your own Wi-Fi network in your hotel room, and that would mean you only needed to pay for one device (the Wi-Fi router) because the router 'disguises' all the other units that might be connected to it.

But what about a hotel that only provides Wi-Fi service?  This is where I'm asking you for help.  Do you know of, or better still, use, any sort of device that takes in a Wi-Fi signal, then rebroadcasts it out as a second signal that can be shared by multiple gadgets.

There are devices that will take a wireless service's data signal and rebroadcast that as a local Wi-Fi signal for multiple devices, but I'm not asking about that.  I'm strictly seeking information on any devices you might know of that rebroadcast Wi-Fi.

Please let me know if you can suggest any.  If I find a good one, I'll of course review it and let you all know about it for the future.

This year's CTIA show saw few compelling new products, but a lot of talk about things that will be coming 'real soon now' - specifically that which is being described as 4G wireless data services.  Currently, we have 3G wireless that seems to deliver connection rates of about 1 - 2 Mbps to our cell phones, and in optimum conditions three or four times as fast.

The several new types of 4G data services that are in various stages of trial and initial roll-out promise speeds that are considerably faster again, but as is with the case, there is probably going to be a significant difference between theoretical maximum speed and actual real world experiences.

I continue to think that rather than developing another 'better' and faster service that still suffers from massive real world constraints, the wireless companies might be better off simply improving their current 3G service so that it performs to specification, and is more widely available in more of the country.  Some of the issues that limit 3G speeds will also limit 4G speeds - issues such as the bandwidth between each cell phone tower and the rest of the (wired) internet, and issues such as too many users sharing finite bandwidth between them.

The gap between good and bad service continues to widen - in some areas there's no cell phone service of any sort, in some areas, slow GPRS or EDGE data, and then in other areas, 3G data service of widely varying speed and reliability.  If we could get reliable multi megabit/sec 3G data on our phones (ie the same speed or faster than we get at home and at work on our computers), who would ever need faster 4G data service?  But instead of completing the roll-out of their 3G and regular cell phone services, carriers are leaving these incomplete and are turning instead to new 4G data rates.

Oh - one more thing about 4G - to be able to receive and use 4G, we will have to junk our current phones and replace them with new and of course 'high end' and expensive new models.

I also worry about the need, in providing 4G data service, to be adding still more, higher energy and higher frequency (in some cases) radio waves into the 'air' all around us.  Our houses, offices, and even the open outdoors are increasingly overloaded with wireless signals already, and the proof of this was being shown in a most startling form at the show.  A very futuristic seeming device, due out probably in summer this year, will take power from thin air - from the energy in radio waves all around us - and use it to slowly recharge the batteries in cell phones and other devices.  This power will not be enough to completely power a phone or recharge its battery, but it will extend its battery life greatly.

Think about that.  A simple small antenna is able to take enough power out of the air around us to partially power a cell phone.  If a tiny antenna (the developer told me of his plans to fit them into cell phones, rather than, in the current test models, have them as stand-alone units larger than the cell phones they power) can take that much radio frequency energy out of the air, how much more are we soaking up ourselves?  And, of course, with the energy being used for Bluetooth, for Wi-Fi, and for many cell phone communications, as well as for baby monitors, some cordless phones, even garage door openers and who knows what else all being in the same frequency band as the frequencies used in microwave ovens to cook animal flesh, can there be any doubt that we're absorbing this energy the same way a piece of chicken does in the microwave, albeit at a slower rate?

If there is that much radio energy everywhere around us, how can that possibly not be having some sort of weak and slow - but steady and certain, and definitely not good - effect on us, our tissue, and our brains?

One thing of note was a chance to speak with three employees from the once super-secret NSA.  The NSA has come out from the shadows and had a booth at the show, complete with some of the best giveaways of any exhibitor.  The NSA has a technology transfer program, 'Access to Innovation' and in particular they were showcasing a 'Method to Detect Tampering in PDAs, Blackberrys and Smartphones' that seems like an invaluable tool for people with such devices - devices which are increasingly at risk of virus attacks.

In addition to this program being offered, apparently for free, by the NSA, there were also a couple of commercial anti-virus type programs for cell phones.  Apparently Symbian phones have been targeted for virus attacks in Europe, and these new products are designed to protect phones the same way our computers are also protected by anti-virus programs - it is interesting how an entire category of software has evolved to address and resolve problems and weaknesses within the operating system.

Another hot new category of software that had maybe eight or nine different companies promoting products is that of limiting phone use when driving (or, equally, when being driven).  I can understand the concept, but what is the point of this if it is possible to disable it just by telling it 'Oh, it isn't me who is driving, so please let me do everything as I normally do'?

Some of the products have some clearer value and provide convenience rather than inconvenience - they translate text into speech, so instead of reading incoming emails and text messages while driving, you can listen to them instead, and some of the products claim to be able to translate your speech into text, so you can speak replies as well, but the voice to text translation services are far from perfect and sometimes create hilarious results.

Other exciting new products to be released later this year include a new way of controlling your home electronics - using your cell phone as a smart remote, and via a Bluetooth connection to an IR transmitter that then sends the usual codes to the devices.

AT&T will be releasing a new hybrid satellite/regular cell phone that uses normal cell phone service when it can, but if it is in an area of the US with no cell phone coverage, the phone switches automatically to satellite service instead, using a new satellite launched by Terre Star.

The phones look like a slightly thicker than normal Blackberry, rather than the big brick shaped satellite phones used by Iridium.  Great not only for explorer/adventurers, but also for people wanting a comprehensive 'disaster/survival kit'.  Although cell phone communications are often more hardy and withstand disasters better than regular landline phones, they're far from invulnerable or perfect, and a phone like this would give an extra way of keeping in touch with the outside world if some sort of disaster, be it earthquake, hurricane, manmade, or whatever, should cripple normal communication capabilities.

The strangest display was by Japanese phone giant DoCoMo, where in among all their other gadgets was a set of headphones that allows its wearer to control the headphones (and the device the headphones were plugged in to) by moving their eyes.  Want to increase the volume - I guess you look up.  Want to skip ahead a track - I guess you look to the right, and so on.  It looked a bit creepy.

Some comments about Las Vegas in general.  The last few months of tourism statistics have suggested the city is recovering from the pronounced slump in business of the last year or so.  That was confirmed by my impressions while walking the streets, eating in restaurants, drinking in bars, and walking through casinos.  I'm not sure the casinos are getting as much activity as before, but the city did seem full.

Part of the reason may be the very low hotel rates that remain on offer - I stayed at the Flamingo for $60/nt; an average sort of hotel in the very center of the strip, and definitely good value; places like Excalibur and the Sahara sometimes have rates as low as $20/nt.

On the other hand, I'd have happily paid a bit more if that would have got me a hotel with better key cards and more sensible front desk staff.

Within a few hours of arriving, my key card had demagnetized and no longer worked.  So I went down to reception, noting with interest that they had a special line for 'Keys and Mail' - I guess my experience is far from a 'one-off', and after a way-too-long wait asked for the card to be recoded.

The girl asked for ID.  I explained to her that I'd just nipped out of my room to go down for a drink (Exhibit A - glass of beer in one hand) and something to eat (Exhibit B - bag of potato chips in the other hand) and hadn't thought it necessary to bring ID with me for such a trivial exercise.

She said she couldn't give me a key card without ID.  I told her I couldn't get ID without going back to my room to get it, and that required a working key card.  Impasse.

So, no ID meant no replacement key card.  She could have done something sensible like asked for some of the details of my reservation that were likely to be known only to me, but we were at a stalemate.  How could it be that they even have a special line for people with key card problems, but they don't have a procedure in place for people who have their ID in their room rather than on their person?

So, being the 'outside the box' thinker that I am, and being thoroughly exasperated, I suggested a solution.  I told her I'd simply go back up to my room and kick the door down.

This suggestion brought the threat from her that she'd call security.  I suggested she do so immediately, and have them take me to my room and confirm my ID there.  She paused, and then said she'd only do that if I asked nicely!  Otherwise, she'd refuse to call anyone.

I was in no mood to ask nicely or play her games.  I just wanted to return to my room, drink my beer, eat my chips, and go to bed.  I called out to a nearby security guard who was already looking on with a measure of concern, and asked him to come over.  This trumped the girl's refusal to call one.

But she had another trick up her sleeve.  She said she'd have the security guard escort me to my room, wait while I got my ID, then I could come back down to reception, wait in line again, then show her my ID and only at that point would she give me a new key.

I suggested she give the key card to the guard, have me show him the ID in my room, then have him give me the key card on the spot.  She refused.  A new impasse.  I asked to speak to the duty manager, but it turned out this idiotic dimwit actually was the duty manager.  Oooops.

The security guard offered to do as I suggested and take me and my key both up to my room.  The girl looked doubtful, and said to him meaningfully 'Are you sure you're okay with that' - clearly code for 'don't make it easy for this guy', but the security guard kindly confirmed he was fine with that process, so, defeated, she finally agreed to give him my replacement key card.

What an unnecessary performance.

Although hotel rooms are cheap, nothing else is cheap any more in Vegas.  Food was expensive, and drinks almost prohibitively expensive ($8 - $9 for a 16oz or smaller sized glass of 'instant' margarita from a dispensing machine, $6 or so for a bottle of beer).

I enjoyed a dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas, Yolies.  This is a Brazilian Churrascaria style restaurant, where seven different types of barbequed meat are continually offered to you at your table, sliced off huge skewers.  The meat has been marinated, and can be as rare or as medium/well as you wish, and is absolutely marvelous.  I think it was $39 a person (their website says $35 and probably needs to be updated).  I'm fairly sure that over the course of several hours I ate at least that much worth of their wonderful meat.  Definitely recommended for the non-vegetarians among us.

Every time I visit Vegas I'm amazed at the growth that has occurred since my previous visit.  This time the astonishing new development that is now partially open is their City Center project, located between Monte Carlo and Bellagio.

This is the largest privately funded construction project ever in the US, and is a 17 million sq ft project with a mix of hotels/casinos, condos and luxury shopping.  The major hotels (close to or five star in quality) are Vdara, Aria and a Mandarin Oriental.  The Aria has 4,004 rooms, the other hotels are much smaller.  The next largest, the Vdara, has 1495 condo sized units.

The overall vastness of this cluster of huge luxury buildings is staggering in its extent.

I'd write more, but after a busy and tiring week, it just isn't going to happen.  Stay tuned for lots of stuff next week instead, including my revealing the natural process that releases ten times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as all man-made activities - if we're worried about CO2 emissions, shouldn't we be controlling this first and us second?

Also, some good news on the EU/US Open Skies agreement extension, where it seems like the US negotiators got everything they wanted without having to give much, if anything, to the Europeans in return.

Oh, and the BA strike?  Last weekend's strike held few surprises for anyone, and may have possibly gone better than expected/feared.

What's that?  You want a security horror story?  Oh, okay then, a quick one.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  There's nothing quick about this story, alas.  Quite the opposite.  Here are a series of fascinating tables showing the average wait time to cross the border between WA state and BC, Canada.

Going into Canada during the busy summer period has motorists waiting their turn to speak to a Canadian border official for never more than 20 minutes during the week, and always less than 45 minutes during the weekends.

But when it comes time to return back to the US, look at the wait times we must suffer to return to the US.  Most of the days (6 - 8 hours during the week) have delays longer than 20 minutes, and sometimes exceeding an hour, and during the weekends, there are ten hours of more than one hour delays, with delays peaking at 80 minute waits.  What isn't clear is that these numbers are averages, and on a really bad delay, delays can stretch way the other side of two hours.

Two comments.  First, if the Canadians can keep our waits down to usually less than 30 minutes, why can't we do the same for people coming to the US?

Second, if you do cross the border, you really should consider getting a Nexus card and beating most of these delays most of the time.

I have one myself, and it invariably saves me time coming back into the US (but sometimes with zero wait for all lanes going into Canada, it isn't really necessary at all in that direction).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.