Jerry Pournelle Chaos Manor: A Road Warrior’s Tale

Our Jerry Pournelle wrestles with Wi-Fi connectivity on the road. Here he defeats the problem with a product called AT&T USB Connect 900 — but it sure is a pain using dial-up in the meantime.

When you are on the road nowadays you are seldom far from some kind of Wi-Fi connection.

Hotels, airport waiting rooms and particularly airline lounge clubs, coffee shops, you name it. There are Wi-Fi networks everywhere. But there isn’t one anywhere near our beach condo.

I used to have cable modem, but for good and sufficient reasons that’s not an option right now. Last year, you might recall, I solved the problem using the AT&T USB Connect 900, which I bought at the local AT&T store. The device looks like a large thumb driv, and it connects to a USB port, where it functions sort of like a cell phone. In fact, it really is a 3G cell phone  and it actually has a phone number.

Above, check out my Southern California beach house writing establishment:  A ThinkPad connected to an ancient but quite good ViewSonic monitor, Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse, and other stuff. I do a lot of work down here, and (sci-fi author Larry) Niven and I wrote two novels here. 

When you get the Connect 900 you choose a data plan. You can choose to pay a monthly rate, but you aren’t likely to use this when you have another option and you do. One option is a $50 prepayment. That’s good for one month or 5GB of data, whichever gets used up first. After that, the Connect 900 will still connect to AT&T — and it will offer you the opportunity to buy more time or more gigabytes.

I know that works because I have done it.

But this time it didn’t work. I plugged in the Connect 900 and it called home and connected to AT&.T. It then opened my browser and a friendly message told mPostse, “Hello, please log in and buy some more time.” AT&T even filled out my log in name. It only wanted my password.

That should have been alright. I had it written down in my log book and, for that matter, the ThinkPad remembered the password because I had told it to, anyway. That was possibly a foolish thing to do and I won’t be doing it any more, by the way.

Here was my problem. I remembered my password. My computer remembered my password, AT&T didn’t. It kept telling me to log in. I cursed a bit — but just a bit — and then I got by with a dialup connection for a day or so. That wasn’t much fun.

When I first started doing Internet stuff including blogging – I can make a reasonable argument to having been the first blogger, although I didn’t call it that because I think the word blog is ugly – we were almost all on dialup. Anyone who wasn’t was likely on am academic or government campus that had backbone connections. We were all careful to keep our web sites simple and easy to use because there weren’t any high-speed connections when we were on the road.

Those were the days of hacking into a hotel’s telephone system just to get dialup.

But nowadays almost everyone has high bandwidth, and web sites often make a dozen link calls, and bring in fancy graphics, and some web sites are nearly impossible for people on dialup, and I decided to go get my Connect 900 activated. The AT&T store is only a couple of miles away from my Mission Beach condo.

Traffic was horrible. Mission Beach is a busy place and this was one of its busiest weekends: miles of tourists in cars, bicycles, tourist busses, golf carts, roller blades, and nearly every conceivable means of locomotion. It took half an hour to get the two miles to the AT&T store, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were five uniformed employees and no customers.

I hauled out the ThinkPad and explained my problem to one of the clerks. I showed him that the Connect 900 was working fine, and was in fact able to connect to AT&T, but AT&T didn’t believe my password, and could he do something about that. Alas, he said, he didn’t think so. He’d never encountered that problem before. However, he’d try.

First thing was to get my ThinkPad on the store’s wireless net. That turned out to be harder than it ought to be, because Windows 7 has a wireless management system, and the ThinkPad has a Lenovo wireless management system, and they hate each other, so you have to be familiar with both so you can keep one from interfering with the other, and my AT&T clerk cursed Windows because he was an Apple man. But eventually we got connected to the local Wi-Fi, and after a while we discovered what the problem was: AT&T remembered that I had an account, but I hadn’t used it in 180 days (or perhaps longer) – so AT&T cancelled the account. Alas, though, my Connect 900 couldn’t start a new account because it was still associated with the old one.

The clerk ingeniously solved the problem by removing the sim card from the Connect 900 and putting in a new one. I told you it was really a cell phone. With a new sim card, AT&T saw it as a new phone, and asked me to tell it my name, address, phone number, email number, secret words, the name of my neighbor’s cat, and so forth, created a new account, let me log in to it, and now was ready to charge my American Express card for prepayment of a block of time and gigabytes. There wasn’t any charge for the new sim card.

After which everything worked just fine. The AT&T 3G system works quite well. It’s not as fast as modern Wi-Fi, but the slowness is lagging response time rather than throughput. And, of course, Wi-Fi can get overloaded easily. All in all, having a working 3G connection system can be a useful backup for any road warrior. The only caution is that you will have to buy a day’s time twice a year else AT&T will close you out and you’ll have to go to an AT&T store to get a new sim card so you can fool AT&T into thinking you have bought a new Connect 900. It works with Apple and Linux systems as well as Windows.

I recommend it for road warriors who want to be sure of having a connection wherever you have 3G bars.

For and always for Chaos Manor, I’m Jerry Pournelle.



  • I remember when my dad got a very early one years ago. It was so amazing. Now it’s built into my Galaxy Nexus. How times have changed :)