About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

CTIA ROI: Did I need to go Vegas for this?

LAS VEGAS–My stay here only ran about 38 hours, but even if my itinerary hadn’t gotten upended by flight delays Tuesday I would have only spent 42 hours here. That was by design: I didn’t choose to go to CTIA’s Super Mobility Week until I’d already committed to going to Portland for the XOXO conference.

CTIA logoThat way, I didn’t risk much on the news value of an event that hasn’t exactly padded out Vegas taxi lines he last two years–selling one story should cover my additional travel costs.

But even by those low standards, the show organized by this D.C. trade group underperformed. The floor was a vast expanse of peripheral players hawking cables, cases, chargers or the industrial hardware that keep our phones online, from cell towers to backup generators to drones to inspect cell towers.

Among companies most wireless customers might know well, only Verizon, Samsung, AT&T and Tracfone had a notable presence on the floor. None committed any real news. (A Tracfone staffer said that prepaid carrier didn’t have any publicists around when I stopped by. PR tip: Not helpful!)

The opening keynote Wednesday featured appearances by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, but neither yielded enough material for a story for my usual outlets. If you missed my tweeting Wednesday morning: Wales is helping to launch the U.S. branch of a U.K. wireless reseller called The People’s Operator that lets you direct some of your spend to charity, and Wheeler said he’s confident that next March’s auction of some broadcast-TV spectrum to wireless carriers will succeed and that the FCC’s net-neutrality rules won’t stop wireless carriers from investing in their networks.

And then I spent the next two hours watching Apple’s event. This is the second year in a row that Apple has elected to introduce a round of new products on the opening day of what’s supposedly the wireless industry’s leading domestic event. The people at CTIA must be so pleased by that.

Many tech journalists were in San Francisco for Apple’s event. Others sat out CTIA because they’d gone to IFA the week before and didn’t want to deal with that much travel.

I’m not writing this to trash-talk CTIA’s efforts, although their decision to stage this show right after the electronics extravaganza in Berlin now looks a huge unforced error. Wireless is one of the most interesting and important parts of the tech business today, and you’d think it needs and could easily support an annual gathering like any other industry’s.

But one that’s marked by an absence of news and exhibitors, which happens only a day or two after a larger event that involves 9.000 miles of travel, and which takes place in a city that’s not quite my favorite place to go, is not something I need on my travel budget again. Sorry, CTIA.

Weekly output: encryption, wireless carriers, Gear S2, IFA

I’m home from Germany, but not for long. Tuesday afternoon, I depart for CTIA’s Super Mobility Week show, and two days later I head over to Portland for XOXO. I thought about skipping CTIA’s show, but two nights’ hotel in Vegas and the extra air travel added so little to my trip costs that I decided to go ahead with it. (No, I’m not going to Apple’s event Wednesday in San Francisco; Yahoo and USA Today already have reporters covering it.) Check back next weekend to see if I still think this schedule was a good idea… I already have my doubts.

9/1/2015: What Politicos Don’t Know About Encryption Could Make Us All Less Safe, Yahoo Tech

I filed this somewhat overdue update on the encryption debate (hint: security experts say there’s nothing to debate) Monday evening over one of Canada’s maritime provinces. I’d complain about the WiFi cutting in and out, but it’s important to keep perspective: I wrote from a chair in the sky! With Internet access!

Wirecutter best-carriers guide9/1/2015: The Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

Didn’t I just update this guide? Yes, I did. But then AT&T revised its prices, Sprint announced it would drop two-year contracts by the end of the year, and some new third-party research came out. I took advantage of the opportunity to redo our usage scenarios to reflect reports of higher average data consumption.

9/3/2015: Hands On: Samsung’s Gear S2 Brings Some Elegance to the Smartwatch, Yahoo Tech

I had about an hour to play with this interesting smartwatch Wednesday evening in Berlin. The lede popped into my head the next morning, in plenty of time for me to file before Samsung’s embargo expired.

9/6/2016: Four trends spotted at the IFA tech conference, USA Today

A few weeks ago, the folks at USAT asked if I could occasionally switch up my column from the usual Q&A format to address issues raised at tech-industry events like IFA. I said that sounded like a reasonable idea, and this is the result. Next weekend will probably see me again hold off on the Q&A to write about whatever I learn about the wireless industry at CTIA’s event.

Checking my linguistic privilege

BERLIN–The past four days have reminded me how often being an American means never having to learn another language.

Departure sign in GermanI’m not proud of that fact, but when almost everybody you meet speaks English and does so well, you can get by with a knowledge of German that goes little further than “danke” and “bitte.”

That’s especially true at the IFA electronics trade show that has me here for the fourth year in a row (once again, with most of my travel costs covered by the show’s organizers). Veterans of the show tell me that IFA press conferences used to be conducted in German, but now everything runs in English. And not only are almost all of the labels on the exhibits here bilingual, most of those are English-first.

But earlier today, I was on a tour conducted entirely in German. I realized I was not quite as dumb in the language as I thought, in the sense of recognizing nouns and developing a sense of the other words around them from their context. If nothing else, that means my pattern-recognition skills haven’t completely atrophied.

It also reminded me of what it felt like when I began to learn French. It was frustrating to feel so lost at interpreting words made by other human beings–and yet I was fluent in the language by the end of college, with a certificate of proficiency to prove it. Sadly, a near-complete lack of practice since then has undone much of that learning. Maybe I should have taken Spanish instead, which I’d have plenty of opportunities to use around D.C.

I can’t undo those things, but I can at least try to knock some of the rust off my French or develop some marginal competency in Spanish. Any suggestions for a language-learning app to put on my phone or tablet?

(Meanwhile, my daughter has magically  progressed in five short years from baby babble to learning to read. This transformation is fascinating, and I’m not sure I could inventory what I’ve done to make that happen.)

Weekly output: vacation mode for phones, whither unlimited-data plans

The next few weeks will involve a lot of airplanes, starting tomorrow when I fly to Berlin for my fourth annual trip to the IFA electronics show there. I’m back on the 6th, then depart two days later for the CTIA wireless-industry gathering in Las Vegas. That will be a brief stay, as I move on to Portland on the 10th for the XOXO conference. A week and a half later, I’m off to L.A. for the Online News Association conference.

At least this travel schedule isn’t as insane as last September’s (when, for example, less than 24 hours separated the IFA and CTIA trips). But still: Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?

Yahoo Tech vacation-mode post8/25/2015: The One Feature Every Smartphone Needs: Vacation Mode, Yahoo Tech

I wrote this essay, sadly enough, while on vacation. But I did leave time that day for a nap! Of course, half the comments were along the lines of “just turn off your phone.” Thanks, dude, that’s a really practical bit of advice.

8/30/2015: New math hurts case for old unlimited data plans, USA Today

Speaking of comments, something weird happened with them on this post tonight–the previous 16 comments, including some replies of my own, vanished, and now there’s just one. (It’s from a guy who says his phone is his only Internet device, and he therefore burns through 40 gigabytes of data. I am pained thinking of spending that much time online on any phone.) I’m not sure what happened. Never mind–I was reading a syndicated copy of the story on the site of the St. Louis TV station KSDK but completely ignored the different header atop the story. Duh.

Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting WordPress.com’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.

Weekly output: techno-panics, unsubsidized phones, Apple and Google streaming music

Hey, August, you’ve been doing a really bad job of being a slow news month. Could you please clock out already?

8/18/2015: How to Survive the Next Techno-Panic, Yahoo Tech

When I suggested this topic to my editors, I had no idea that a day later, Spotify would uncork a self-inflicted techno-panic by… wait for it… rolling out a vague and expansionist privacy policy written by lawyers for other lawyers.

Yahoo Tech phone-prices post8/20/2015: 5 Reasons You Should Pay Full Price For Your Smartphone, Yahoo Tech

I filed the first draft of this story last week, then had to update it twice when Sprint a) said it would stop selling subsidized phones at the end of the year and b) the next day, rolled out a warmed-over version of its old “iPhone for Life” lease plan. You can guess what other, oft-updated work of mine needed repeated revisions this week; look for them to show up online shortly.

8/23/2015: What to do when Apple Music has its head in cloud, USA Today

In an alternate universe, this would have run July 5. Instead, I wrote another, timelier column and put this one back on the shelf until now. That extra time led me to discover a useful option in Google Play Music that’s missing from Apple’s music apps.

One place I don’t mind paying for Internet access by the hour

For years, I’ve been a bit of a curmudgeon about inflight WiFi. A seat on a plane was a refuge from an interrupt-driven lifestyle, a place where I could monotask for a change.

Engine nacelle over mountainsAnd besides, most first-generation, air-to-ground WiFi systems became unusably slow once enough people got on. In my limited experience, at best Gogo’s cellular technology yielded download speeds below 1 million bits per second–unacceptably slow 3G service on the ground. So why would I want to pay $16 or more for a flight’s worth of that?

Satellite-based WiFi can run much faster and works over oceans but is usually no cheaper over the duration of a flight.

(JetBlue offers free satellite WiFi but isn’t convenient for most of my usual destinations. Southwest charges only $8 a day for satellite WiFi but has its own route-map issues.)

Hourly pricing can make this a better proposition–I have paid Gogo’s $5 hourly rate on short flights, though I no longer do since I discovered that my phone’s Google apps work for free on its WiFi. But on its 737s, United Airlines offers hourly prices with a tweak that makes them more valuable to me: a pause button.

I can pay $3.99 for an hour of LiveTV’s satellite-delivered WiFi that actually works–download speeds have exceeded 24 Mbps in my tests–and then stretch out those 60 minutes by pausing it while I eat, nap, read, squeeze myself into the lav or take a moment to appreciate the wonder of occupying a chair in the sky. I can further extend my online time by opening up a batch of pages in new tabs, then pausing the connection to read them as if I were trying to save costs on a dial-up connection.

I can’t do that with Gogo, where you only buy a continuous hour of use. But I also haven’t seen this purchase option on United’s other WiFi-equipped aircraft; this airline’s inconsistent service (its A319s and A320s got WiFi before its 737s but still don’t have in-seat power) extends to a confusing mix of WiFi providers and pricing. I worry the company will “fix” this problem by taking away the pause button–but for now, that has me spending money I might otherwise not ante up.