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Last Updated: Friday, 14 January, 2005, 13:41 GMT
All of the net, all of the time
King's Cross station, BBC
This week Bill's column came from King's Cross
Will things really change when the internet is pervasive? Bill Thompson rather thinks so.

I've been living in the future for the past five weeks, and I'm rather getting to like it.

At the start of December I signed up for a month's wireless network access with one of the many competing public wi-fi services, and I've just renewed my subscription for another month.

It means that I can get online from a vast range of places, including cafes, railway stations, airport lounges, hotel rooms and even a service station on the M6.

I can also surf from the British Library if I want to go up market.

Once I add all these new places to the office I'm working in, my home, my girlfriend's place and my sister's house, I find I can get online almost any time I want except when I'm actually on the train or in a car.

And even then I could park outside a nearby McDonald's and use its connection if I pick the right spot, just near the wireless access point.

Global debate

I haven't done this because I've suddenly got more money than sense, or because I've decided to embrace my inner geek and cut off from all real-world social contact.

But I'm currently managing a world-wide online debate and need to be online almost all the time.

It's not enough to get e-mail delivered to my phone or have a tiny view of a web page - I need to be able to log on to the server, write and post documents and even edit the website directly.

That meant having a proper computer - not even a PDA would do.

Signing up for wi-fi was the obvious solution, and far more attractive than just staying at home with my broadband connection and a large supply of pizzas.

Bill Thompson
Network withdrawal doesn't sound like much fun at all
Bill Thompson
It has all worked surprisingly smoothly, and the only time I tried and failed to use a public wireless access point was my fault because I'd previously set my network card to use a specific connection and forgot to reset it.

I'm now using an iBook with an Airport card in it, and it seems to manage switching between multiple networks really easily.

It also turns itself on instantly when I open the lid, so even if I've only got five minutes I can download e-mail and check the debate.

You sometimes get funny looks going into a café just to check your e-mail and not ordering coffee, but so far nobody has asked me to leave.

I've noticed a significant shift in my working style, and have become massively more productive as a result.

For one thing, I'm dealing with stuff a lot faster because instead of putting things off on the grounds that I won't be able to e-mail documents to people for a few hours, I do the work and then look around for a place to get connected.

This column was written on the train and sent in from a bench at King's Cross station - all in the name of research.

Checking stage

It also means I can check things while I'm working, getting it right first time, instead of writing something and then checking it later. This saves time and - given that I sometimes forget the checking stage - embarrassment.

It's still far too expensive, of course, at £45 for a month's access, but that is going to improve.

British Library, BBC
Even the British Library now has a wi-fi network
And there are still places which don't let me connect because they aren't peered with the network I signed up with - staying at a hotel in Macclesfield over Christmas I had to pay another fiver for two hours access.

And the future may not be wi-fi - or rather, it may not be the current set of technologies based around the 802.11 international standard and its many variants.

A clever network card that hops between wi-fi, 3G, GPRS and Bluetooth, and can be upgraded to support WiMax or any of the newer systems, would be an attractive option

But the benefits of being online whenever you want - not 'always on', as it's important to stay in control and realise that time away from the network is also vital to being productive - are clear.

I just wonder how I'll cope in March when the debate is over and I can't afford the fees any more. Network withdrawal doesn't sound like much fun at all.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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