Weekly output: Starlink, spectrum coordination, flight delays (x2), T-Mobile and Verizon 5G home broadband, Mark Vena podcast

About one year later than I’d planned, I’m flying to Las Vegas Tuesday to cover the Black Hat information-security conference. Two big factors in my deciding to go ahead with that trip this year: My kid is now vaccinated and boosted, while I had Covid barely seven weeks ago.

8/2/2022: SpaceX’s Starlink has soared, but a course correction may be on the horizon, Fast Company

More weeks ago than I’d like to admit, one of my editors asked if I could do a more in-depth look at the progress of SpaceX’s Starlink low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation. A day after this piece ran, Reddit’s ever-informative r/starlink served up new evidence of capacity issues at this service: a new rate plan in France that cuts the monthly rate in half but imposes a 250 GB threshold for possible speed deprioritization.

8/2/2022: 2 Key Federal Telecom Agencies Promise to Play Nice With Wireless Spectrum, PCMag

Two federal offices about two miles apart in D.C. pledged to work better together in spectrum planning. That might seem like an obvious thing to do, but the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration last updated this memorandum of understanding in 2003.

Story as seen in Chrome on a Pixel 5a phone, showing its lead illustration: a photo of people waiting on line at an airport.8/3/2022: Don’t Get Stranded: How to Watch for Flight Delays and Get Around Them, PCMag

A discussion on PCMag’s Slack workspace about coping with travel hiccups led to me asking if I could write this story, and not just because I’d like to recoup my added travel costs from my unplanned extra night in Toronto in June.

8/3/2022: How Verizon ‘fixed wireless’ and T-Mobile home broadband is converting cable customers, USA Today

After a reality-check interview with an analyst who reminded me that fiber scales so much better to meet demand than fixed wireless can, this column on the progress of T-Mobile and Verizon’s 5G-based home broadband got a bit less enthusiastic about its potential.

8/4/2022: S02 E32 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

My main contribution to this discussion was talking about my Starlink story, but if you watch the video of the podcast you can also see me scowl at a Lightning cable.

8/5/2022: DOT Moves to Strengthen Rules on Refunds for Flight Changes, Cancellations, PCMag

Speaking of travel delays, I returned to the subject to cover a set of proposed Department of Transportation rules that would clarify what counts as a significant schedule change and a cancelled flight–and require either non-expiring trip credits or straight-up refunds for travel canceled because of a future pandemic.

Travel delays can be a team sport

After weeks of walking between the raindrops of flight delays and cancellations, I got soaked coming home from Toronto after the Collision conference there. And while Air Canada started things by cancelling my Thursday-evening flight, I managed to compound it with some avoidable clumsiness of my own that ensured I would not arrive at my house until around 12:30 Friday.

Things started going sideways for my YYZ-DCA flight by midday Thursday, when the Flightradar24 app reported that the regional jet assigned to operate it had fallen hours behind schedule as it hopped from Montreal to Atlanta before coming to Toronto. Air Canada’s site kept listing this flight on time, but at 5:52 p.m. the airline texted and e-mailed that it had canceled AC 8786 due to “the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on aviation which includes government entry requirements, travel advisories, crew constraints, and local movement restrictions.”

That e-mail said the airline was “looking for an alternative flight,” after which I soon found one in United’s app: Air Canada’s last YYZ-IAD flight that night. Alas, Air Canada’s phone line dumped me after playing a goodbye-and-good-luck message: “Due to extremely high call volume, we apologize that we are not able to place you on hold.” And while its site had a rebooking tool, it didn’t list the Dulles flight.

An Air Canada CR900 regional jet at Toronto Pearson International Airport, photographed from a boarding ramp.

But Air Canada’s Twitter profile welcomed direct messages, so I tried that before accepting the site’s least-bad alternative, an nonstop to BWI at 8 a.m. Friday. I sent a DM asking for the YYZ-IAD flight and listing my booking code and then didn’t get an acknowledgment–until 14 minutes later, when a rep replied to confirm my requested rebooking.

“You will need to check-in for this flight,” the rep advised.

If only she’d added “in the next 20 minutes.”

I hustled over to Toronto’s Union Station for the next Union Pearson Express train and didn’t start to check in until reaching the UP Express waiting area. That’s when I hit an obstacle I had not experienced checking in via my phone the night before: AC’s mobile site didn’t show any way to upload my phone’s picture of my vaccination card or the SMART QR code generated from those records, instead directing me to take a picture of either.

Unfortunately, I lost my paper vax card a few months ago (which had until then seemed a sentimental-value problem), and I didn’t think to open my laptop and use my phone to take a photo of the picture of the card or the screenshot of the QR code saved in Google Photos. Instead, I selected an option to verify my check-in at the airport, thought I’d try to check in again using a different browser–and then got a message that check-in wasn’t available.

This whole time, I had been assuming I had 60 minutes pre-departure to check in. That’s the rule I’d seen listed before for international flights without checked baggage but had not researched further–leaving me unaware that YYZ’s cut-off time is 90 minutes.

Inwardly cursing my own stupidity as my train pulled out of Union, I switched back to my DM thread with AC, asked if I’d screwed up everything, and had a different rep assure me: “Not to worry, you will be able to complete the check-in at the airport!”

The rep was incorrect and the rule was correct. By the time I got to Pearson and jogged to the check-in area for U.S.-bound flights (while seeing in Flightradar24 that the IAD flight itself would depart hours late, because that incoming aircraft left Chicago three hours behind schedule), nobody was left at Air Canada’s stations except for two reps at a special-assistance desk who had passengers in line ahead of me with their own complex problems.

When my spot came up 20 or so minutes later, a fatigued but still polite agent said the system would not allow her to check me in–and besides, security and customs preclearance for U.S.-bound flights had already closed for the evening.

This agent said she would put me on the 8 a.m. Baltimore flight; having heard her colleague tell another delayed traveler that Air Canada would cover his hotel costs, I asked her if the airline could make the same accommodation in my case. To my pleasant surprise, she said the airline would reimburse me for up to $300.

As she then worked on my flight rebooking, I sat down on the nearest bench, opened my laptop to reserve a hotel, and got into a conversation with an even more frazzled traveler–a Toronto grandmother who had seen a flight cancellation thwart her attempt to visit her son in Alexandria. I described how I’d foolishly thrown away my shot at getting home that night, said it was a rough summer for airlines all over the U.S., and wished her luck getting to my city in the morning.

After a few hours of inadequate sleep in a Marriott Fairfield outside of YYZ and breakfast split between two Air Canada lounges, I finally boarded the Baltimore flight and slept through most of it. I rushed out of the terminal to the stop for the shuttle bus to the BWI rail station–and a minute later, the Toronto woman showed up, tired and unsure about how to get to D.C. I remembered my mother-in-law telling me about having the same experience years ago.

I said I was happy to walk her through what is, objectively speaking, one of the worst airport-to-rail connections in the U.S., and then we could take the train together if that would help. We had a pleasant conversation at the station waiting for the next MARC to D.C. that continued on the ride into Union Station, and then we headed to our separate family reunions.

Lesson learned: A trip interruption, even if partly self-inflicted, that only delays your return by 14 hours and allows you to be of some small service to a fellow passenger is not the worst thing in the traveling world.