Without 3G and HDTV life's a beach

So what do you do when you can't look things up on the Internet to plan your day?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

The beach at Mullet Bay on Sint Maarten, Netherlands Antilles, West Indies. (Photo: Jason Perlow)

Apparently, while I was on vacation last week, Apple launched its new iPhone 4G at WWDC.

So let me get up to date -- as if Gizmodo and Engadget hadn't already done it for us a few months in advance -- its got a high-resolution screen that is comparable to the iPad's in overall pixel resolution, two cameras, an upgraded OS, and is still stuck at AT&T.

Did I get that right? Great.

I guess I didn't miss much, although apparently Steve Jobs had issues with his demo. Ouch.

While the rest of the tech industry was postulating about the epic battle brewing between Apple and Google in the mobile and desktop computing space, I was busy lounging at the beach and drinking Caribs and Ti Punches on the Dutch and French West Indies island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, with virtually no mobile connectivity whatsoever.

This got me thinking about how much we take our connectivity for granted, and just how much we've adapted our lives to using it.

Switching from having ubiquitous 3G email and browser access as well as broadband Wi-Fi in the United States to none in the West Indies is an immediate shock to the system for a 40-year old male technologist, but I can imagine it's probably pretty traumatic for a Millennial, who for the most part are completely joined at the hip with texting, smartphones and mobile social networking.

I'm not a texter -- I hate the entire concept and really have no idea why people find it useful -- but I do use a lot of mobile email and mobile web sites, as well as Twitter and FaceBook on my Droid.

Having traveled to the Caribbean before -- my wife and I went to Grand Bahama in December of 2008 -- I know that part of the world is not anywhere near as advanced as the instantaneous "must have my email and information NOW and all the time" state of mind in which we live in the United States and in other very developed countries.

So my wife and I left our Droids at home, and we brought along an old AT&T basic Samsung phone, which we had unlocked a few years ago for using in GSM-capable countries, which is what most of the world uses for regular mobile voice service.

I also brought my basic Wi-Fi iPad, in the event that I had the occasional opportunity to visit an Internet cafe or some other hotspot (of which there are plenty in the major towns) and suck down my email. I was collaborating with Scott Raymond on a Flash versus QuickTime performance piece right before I left on vacation, and we wanted to make sure our copy was good before it published the week I was away.

It was actually two days before we visited TELCell in downtown Philipsburg and purchased a pre-paid SIM card so we could make the occasional phone call back home. I had Skype credit and my iPad can make calls with it, but there was no guarantee I could get good enough bandwidth wherever I went if I could get Wi-Fi at all, so we just got basic cell service.

Apparently, Verizon allows you to roam in certain countries with data service if you get an extended roaming plan, but it is prohibitively expensive if you are just going on vacation for a week, even just for voice calls. It was cheaper just to get the $10 SIM card with $20 of call credit than to pay $1.99 per minute for voice calls and God knows-how-much for data service.

As it turned out, we didn't really make much use of the cell phone, as life on the island is pretty laid back and nothing really transpired at home while we were gone. We used it once or twice to make restaurant reservations, but that was about it.

If we had to make local calls, it was a bit comedic, because TELCell is a Dutch company and if we wanted to call the French side of the island, such as the towns of Marigot or Grand Case (where all the best restaurants and most of the action is)  we had to make an international call which costs two or three times as much a local Dutch Sint Maarten call and actually gets routed through another island, Guadeloupe, where the main telecom operations center and switchboard for the French Antilles is.

This is quite ridiculous if you consider the entire island only has 75,000 inhabitants and is 87 square kilometers in terms of land mass -- you can circumnavigate it in about an hour and a half, traffic permitting.

Email and data was definitely what you would call a best effort. The owner of our timeshare at the Guana Bay Beach Villas had a Wi-Fi access point installed in his house which permitted us to sync up once or twice a day, but the network speed wasn't anything close to a basic 1.5 Megabit US Cable Modem or 512K DSL connection, let alone what I have at home, which is a 100Mbps broadband connection with Optimum Online.

This was complicated by the fact that the weak 802.11g signal only reached the outdoor pool area, which attracted huge amounts of mosquitoes that will eat you alive. I have about two dozen bites on my arms and legs to prove it.

So the most I could tolerate using email or browsing the Internet at the pool (slowly, VERY slowly) was for about 10 or 15 minutes a day. It was just enough time for the iPad to suck down my emails, for me to run and retreat back into the condo and type my replies in the Mail application, and to run back outside (usually the following morning) and upload them back and suck down the next batch of responses.

I could have brought my iPad with me when we went out for the day, but I was worried that with the rising crime on the island due to the slowing economy, there was a possibility that our rental car might be broken into when we were on the beach or out having lunch or dinner, so I left it locked up in the condo rather than walk around with it all day.

Additionally, the weather was in the 90+ degree range and the inside and trunk of the car basically turned into an oven during the day with exposure to full sunlight, and I didn't want to risk cooking my $600.00 toy.

Sint Maarten/St. Martin residents can get Internet access installed in their homes, but their broadband infrastructure is only just now really being rolled out and many parts of the island -- such as where our timeshare was -- are just too remote to have anything better than satellite Internet access, which is very slow. 1Mb ADSL? 50Mb FiOS? Fuhgeddaboudit. Try more like 128K-256K with huge ping latencies.

In a few years time, the situation on the island might very well look different, as 3G towers have been installed on many of the mountaintops (presumably with the intention to use LTE or WiMax in the future) and we noticed a lot of sidewalks were being busted up and dug up on both the Dutch and French side, along with lots of big red cable spools which were left on the side of the road, presumably for fiber optics or trunked copper strands to improve the telecom situation.

So what do you do when you can't look things up on the Internet to plan your day? Well, you get up late, you eat breakfast, go to the beach for a few hours, eat lunch at the cheap beach BBQ shacks ("Lolos"), and wander around the local towns until you find something you like that you want to shop for or have dinner at. Talk to people and ask about where to go and what to do. It sounds primitive, but that's exactly what you do when you're on vacation in the West Indies.

And entertainment? Multimedia? It's called drinking and eating, sailing, SCUBA diving, snorkeling and watching the topless sunbathers (note to American families -- EVERY beach on St. Martin is pretty much considered to be topless, not just the fully nude/clothing optional ones, so be advised if you're planning on vacationing with your kids).

Television on Sint Maarten/St. Martin as with most of the Caribbean and the West Indies is still in the 1990s -- no HD, unless you are staying in one of the exclusive resorts or hotels with a satellite feed or are a permanent resident with DirecTV or Dish.

I got to watch the Mexico vs. South Africa's World Cup match on the condo's old tube set on Univision (which has a nice free iPad/iPhone app for keeping up with scores) in Spanish one morning. That was about the extent of my television for the week.

And I was happy.

Do you live on "Island Time" like I did last week? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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