Focal Point: Reluctantly off the grid

Wireless headphones don't work in a house with no internet and no Wi-Fi. (Photo by Dave Berry)

"I think the discipline comes with turning that cellphone and Blackberry off and unplugging completely. You do that and you go through some withdrawals in the beginning. You start thinking, ‘Oh, do I need to do this? Do I need to do that?' You forget that we were doing just fine with the payphone."

- Matthew McConaughey


Somewhere on my list of columns to be written is one about "going dark," getting off the grid, abstaining from the internet, putting down the cellphone, cutting short the 24-hour news cycle … unplugging from everything.

I figured for a short time at least I could power down the internet, shelve the smartphone, ignore the PC, encase my laptop and let television go unwatched. Maybe the land line phone would be all I needed.

Not forever, just a week or so. Long enough to start getting the jitters. Long enough to feel the pressure of not knowing. Long enough to miss out on what's trending. Long enough, but not too long.

It was a good idea, but I didn't want to do it. The quick communication, constant feedback, continuous news, easy access, wireless printing, effortless texting, instant photo-sharing … well, it was all too good, too comfortable, too indispensable. And, yes, we would probably miss a couple of television shows.

So, the idea stayed low on the list, somewhere nestled among topics such as: "Always go to funerals," "Three turkeys for Thanksgiving" and "Glorious insults."

Then almost three weeks ago on April 7 it all came undone. That was the day before the movers arrived to pack, load and haul us to a new home. That night, I unplugged all the cables, modems, hubs, drives, printers, backups, routers, desktops, laptops, iPads, iMacs, Apple TVs, Kindles, surge protectors, wireless headphones and remotes. Every electronic gadget was shut down, all the cables were labeled … and it was tucked away in the Jeep.

We had planned to use the move as an opportunity to upgrade our digital world. We did the best we could in rural Smith County for 20 years. Good cable didn't arrive until recently, so we got our TV off the dish. That was fine, but their prices kept creeping up. A molasses-slow phone company DSL brought us internet, and Wi-Fi was spotty, to be charitable. Cellphone service was good because of a nearby tower, but we were looking forward to improving our digital experience.

Now, three weeks after the move, we find ourselves with only our smartphones, a PC that yearns for the internet and TVs that get no signals. I had arranged for Verizon fios to install a fiber-optic, state-of-the-art system in our new home. Four days and we would be up and running, they said. We could make it four days.

But as they sold me, Verizon itself was being sold - to Frontier. My scheduled installation came and went. Verizon was nowhere to be found, and despite a stack of confirmation letters and order numbers, Frontier had no record of me.

We started over. Frontier tried to be accommodating, but they were and are still overwhelmed. I set up a new account and made a totally fresh beginning with a company I had never heard of until that week. Hoping for the best, we signed up for the next available installation window on Monday.

So, for two more weeks, we lived in digital darkness. We moved to a new city, set up utilities, got a daughter married and tried to put a house together … with just our cellphones. We're not helpless; our smartphones can still do a lot. But it's a struggle.

The first week, I sent my column to the paper using the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. But free is pretty expensive if you figure 10 bucks for two grande lattes. Last week, I learned to use the personal hotspot on my smartphone as a temporary internet connection. High data usage on my cellphone will probably show up in extra charges on my phone bill, but it worked.

We can get on the internet when we have to; we stayed active on Facebook during the wedding; we can print and send information from the desktop if we hook my cellphone to the PC with a USB cable … but it's all a big work-around. And I have to confess, we miss basic television and its distraction. Going dark was no picnic.

Monday was to be the second scheduled installation day. I tried to verify someone was coming and spent the morning listening to bad music and waiting through messages about "higher than normal call volumes." No luck. I called the personal phone extension of the salesman who set up the installation and got his personal message that "higher than normal call volumes are preventing me from checking my voicemail as intended." He promises to get back to me in three days.

After three transfers, I reached someone who confirmed I did indeed have an installation scheduled Monday, and for a time I was content. As it turned dark with no calls or communication of any kind … it became obvious we had been stood up again.

So, this Monday evening as I write my Wednesday column on a laptop cut off from the internet … as I try to determine how I will send to the editors at the paper a photo locked inside my PC … I'm not feeling digitally warm and fuzzy.

Today, I'll shop for options, call a digitally savvy friend and find another path - the quickest way - back on the grid. Verizon gave me away to Frontier, which lost me. I'll start again and shop for a provider that really wants me.

But in the meantime, and maybe for a few more nights to come, we'll plug a DVD into what is now a pretty dumb smart TV, tune in NPR on the radio to keep us in the know and if we need to get away from the quiet that comes with being digitally unplugged, we'll run down to Starbucks for their expensive lattes and free Wi-Fi.


Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column appears on the front of the My Generation section.







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