Downed trees in Framingham

Downed trees in Framingham (Photo via Framingham Patch)

Today is my fifth day without Internet service. My connection dropped on Sunday during Tropical Storm Irene, when my cable provider, RCN, lost power. Five days later, my local RCN office remains one of the 3% of utility customers statewide who have yet to get power back.

I’ve accepted this inconvenience with quiet resignation. On the misery scale, my plight is about the same as a mild headache, or running out of milk. Being offline for so long has made me more keenly aware of how central the Internet has become to my work and life, however.

I live online. My work setup includes four monitors powered by two PCs, each running voice recognition software. I administer four different blogs and Websites on a regular basis and stay tethered to my clients and friends through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging. My e-mail, calendar and many of my documents live in the cloud. Even my phone calls often involve screen shares and file transfers. Without the Internet, I’m almost unable to work.

With no travel planned this week, I’ve had to find places with free or cheap Wi-Fi that would let me take up residence for hours. This turned out to be more difficult than I expected. The closest wired restaurants – a Panera Bread, McDonald’s and a coffee shop – have all been without either power or Internet all week. The three Starbucks in the area resemble press rooms: their tables are filled with other afflicted locals hammering away on laptops. Linger too long and you get dirty looks.

A client in the area kindly offered to give me a desk in its offices. Unfortunately, my laptop wasn’t set up to authenticate to its network, so I ended up piggybacking on the cafeteria Wi-Fi for an afternoon. I might as well just have camped out in the cafeteria.

That’s when I hit upon the local public library. Blessed with a fast, free and taxpayer-funded Wi-Fi connection, extended hours and a staff that’s happy to have you there, It’s become my temporary lifeline during this week of digital deprivation. The Framingham (MA) Public Library has private, closed study carrels where I can make phone calls and dictate to my laptop without bothering others. The librarians have even looked the other way when I bring the forbidden food and beverages into my closet.

Offline Challenges

Being disconnected has had some surprising challenges. I never figured out how to set up an FTP connection to my home file server, so transferring files from my laptop has been a tedious process of saving to the local disk and transferring manually or moving files around on flash drives. Version control is nonexistent.

My personal life is also been affected. My wife and I share each other’s calendars and schedule appointments like pediatrician visits through invitations. We’ve had a couple of miscommunications this week because one of the other wasn’t connected. We routinely chat via instant messaging during the day, and with Dana off-line, cell phone texting has been a poor substitute for AOL Instant Messenger. Printing documents from the Web has meant transferring files from the laptop to a desktop connect to the printer.

Lack of TV service has left me unable to watch my beloved Red Sox during a series with the Yankees this week. AM reception in my area is poor, so I usually listen to the game over a live audio stream. Not this week.. Some of our favorite TV programs are showing their final episodes of the season this week, but we’ll miss them because TiVo has nothing to record and Web video is unavailable.

Like I said, mild annoyances. They’ve dramatized to me, though, how vital networks have become to my way of life. Fifteen years ago I got along just fine without any of these tools. Today they’re part of nearly everything I do.