Coping without a wireless phone at a major wireless conference

I survived four days last week at one of the nation's biggest wireless conferences, CTIA Wireless 2008 in Las Vegas, without my cell phone.

Ironic.

It wasn't intentional.

I fully intended to use my cell phone to schedule last minute appointments or check for directions to a show floor booth or symposium room. At most conferences I attend, I check in several times a day with editors from my cell phone, if only to check whether news is breaking that I might have missed otherwise.

What happened to my cell phone it turns out, was a little ridiculous. I left my house at 4 a.m. Monday to drive to the airport, charging the phone in the car. At the airport parking garage, I parked in a dark spot and ran off to make sure I was on time. It wasn't until I was settled in my seat on the flight that I noticed my phone wasn't in its normal place on a holster on my belt.

It was too late to turn back and schlep back through security again, and I wasn't completely sure I had actually left the phone in the car.

At first, I panicked, and thought I'd get to Vegas and buy a cheap phone with some pre-paid minutes. But I had several interviews right after landing that lasted into the evening, keeping me from doing so.

I thought surely there would be phones and phone lines in the CTIA press room, but I arrived to file a story and found many workstations, some with LAN lines for laptop connections, but no actual phones. I normally carry a USB headset that can be used for VoIP calling if need be, but (of course) had left that headset at home.

I pleaded with convention center attendants in the press room for a land line phone, but they only laughed and said, "This is a wireless conference," and so they directed me to what was probably the only pay phone in existence in the massive convention center. (I later started memorizing where others were, in rare spots, in hotels and along the Strip.)

A CTIA official offered to lend me his cell phone if I ran into a jam, and luckily I ran into an IDG News Service colleague who lent me his iPhone for a 30 minute conference call. I propped it against my head and shoulder and was able to type as I listened, (I am not sure it is polite to use another person's ear plug, and a speaker phone wouldn't have worked in the press area.)

Stores near my hotel weren't open when I finally got there the first night. The next day, the clerk at one outlet said she couldn't activate a phone for a few hours because of a technical problem, so I left without one.

As I left I realized I had lasted nearly 24 hours without a phone, so I thought I'd limp along three more days through the conference without one, just to see how hard it was. Still, it was ironic, covering a wireless conference without a wireless device.

I only borrowed cell phones two other times to make quick calls, from perfect strangers, after trying out that little street urchin facial expression that my teenage children use when they need to borrow money from me. People, at least those in the wireless industry who were attending the conference, took pity on me, since not having one seemed to be the ultimate form of tragedy in 2008. "I can't imagine surviving five minutes without my cell phone," one woman said, with real pity in her voice.

It wasn't a tragedy, however, and not really all that bad. First, I still had my laptop, with all my contact info and calendar information (with much of that backed up on paper). I could log on and use IM or email by activating an EV-DO Rev A wireless USB connector. What a godsend. Of course, using it more than normal meant I had to have a power supply nearby, since any wireless use on a laptop burns the battery much faster.

I started searching out electrical outlets in the conference rooms and hallways, sitting on the floor, once in a water puddle that was invisible at first. This search-for-power is something many laptop users have gotten used to, and building architects are only starting to make the outlets easier to reach in new construction. (Perhaps they think battery lifetime technology will improve soon enough to obviate the need to locate outlets conveniently.)

It was amazing, actually, how not having a cell phone meant I had to be economical with my messages in email and IM. It reminded me of my early days as a reporter, a little, when I would carry plenty of quarters and run from a press conference to a pay phone that I scouted out earlier to file a brief bulletin. (To ensure the pay phone was free when needed, were were schooled by editors to tape an "out of order" sign on the phone before covering the event.)

Without a cell phone, I wasn't calling my kids or wife, either, and noticed that my wife didn't really complain, since she's usually very busy at work and with errands. One time I sent a short email update on where I was and how things were going, ending with, "I hope you and the kids are well." She sent a short "We're all fine," in the subject field, and I thought, well, that's the kind of brief, confident message that a spouse of nearly 24 years would relay.

So, as the CTIA was reporting from the conference that the number of cell phone minutes used in the U.S. exploded last year, with text messaging soaring, here I was trying to do more reporting and communicating with less wireless voice service.

The experience reminded me of a couple of articles in the Boston Globe recently that talked about movements by educators and parents to cut down the "screen time" their kids have every day in front of TVs, games and PCs, and even cell phones. On a two hour car trip recently to Vermont, my daughter was texting so frequently that I had to harrumph! to get her to stop. She was indignant, but quickly started reading a book and we all had some quiet time in the car.

I'm not anti-cell phone as a result of the experience, at all. I worried that I might drive back from the airport and my car would break down, meaning I couldn't call easily for help. I worried that if I got stuck in a layover airport during a weather delay, that I'd have to find an old phone calling card to use at a pay phone (if firing up the wireless laptop card wasn't enough). And if there were a true emergency in a car accident, where would I be? What if there were some kind of terrorist incident? (Come on, I'm sure everybody imagines such things.)

We really are in an age of worry, I realized on my little experiment without a cell phone. At one point during my four day period, I wondered if I, and many of us, haven't become too reliant on such technology. But then, I thought, that doesn't make sense. We have that technology to make us feel confident and secure, not to mention to make us more productive and to bring us closer with one another.

I'll probably be carrying a cheap back-up phone on business trips from now on, once I get an hour free to buy one.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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