Kara Swisher

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I Cut the Cord: Our Reporter Goes Totally Wireless–And Lives to Tell About It

This article was first published in The Wall Street Journal on September 21, 1998. All rights reserved.

I snipped my copper umbilical cord one sunny weekday not long ago.

Canceling my land-line phone account, cutting off service to my home for good and rendering the telephones that had long sat on tables in every room as useless as my closeted bread machine, I took the final step in a lifelong attempt to free myself from the wires that tethered me.

Casting my fate to the heavens, quite literally, I decided to go wireless. Completely wireless. All wireless, all the time, everywhere.

My decision was a rash one prompted by a billing dispute with the local phone company, but it soon turned into a telephonic jihad that left me transformed. Equipped with two cell phones–one for work and another for home–I like to think of myself as a kind of 21st-century digital pioneer, ready to network, fax, page, e-mail and–oh, yes–talk at will.

But the Plains, as we all know from American history, are littered with the skeletons of pioneers. Likewise, forging one’s way through this new, digital world doesn’t come without major bumps and twists. My own all-cellular journey is strewn with technical glitches and innumerable lost connections, pricey millisecond charges that make using a cell phone seem like a bad addiction and vague worries that perhaps too much cell-phone exposure actually does cause brain tumors. Then, of course, there is the matter of etiquette–the constant slings and arrows from the uncellulared masses, not to mention Miss Manners.

Worth Everything

But for the wireless-obsessed like me, the unfettered freedom and knowledge that I am accessible 24/7, that I can reach anyone from anywhere at anytime and they can reach me, is worth everything.

It all happened, I confess, because of a now-paid bill. But my long walk down the digital path began much earlier, with a childhood enriched by scratchy walkie-talkies and a lifelong aversion to suspiciously dirty pay phones–the kind that inexplicably cut you off with the clink of a coin.

Things got under way in earnest in the 1980s, when as a young reporter bound to a newsroom I first flirted with pagers. But these odd little hockey pucks were simply too slow, and not nearly as interactive as I desired. So, as soon as I could, I moved through a series of clunky cell phones, the first about as portable as an extra-large bowling ball. Most of the time, because their heft gave me backaches, I remained immobile, making calls from my car sitting as still as I would have at home. Later, I had one installed in the car itself, only to find that while pecking out calls on the tiny numeric pad I’d veer across the highway, a cellular drunk.

In the early 1990s, cell phones came down in size and price, so using them became much easier. But then I discovered the hazards of telephone etiquette. My telephone manners were, well, offensive to some. As I lugged my cell around yammering away, I noticed cold stares from passersby who viewed me as a kind of techno-terrorist, or at least incredibly rude.

Clearly, I was unable to follow proper phone etiquette. Rules ingrained since childhood said phone calls were private–that’s why we have telephone booths. Those rules also dictated that the phone (and I) should remain leashed by wire to the wall.

But I loved whipping out my phone on a beach to make a restaurant reservation. I adored calling friends from the Painted Desert to describe the view. Craig McCaw, the Christopher Columbus of cell phones, the man who allowed me to walk and talk and chew gum at the same time, was my idol. Was I some sort of communications freak?

My Kind of People

Maybe not, as I found out on an eye-opening visit to Sweden. As I wandered through Stockholm’s neat streets, I noticed cell phones were almost celebrated, a way of life, a religion. So much of the Swedish population was wireless that no one looked askance. (Little surprise, I found out later, given that major cell-phone manufacturers such as Ericsson and Nokia are headquartered in this neck of Europe.) I had found my people.

Then, in 1996, I discovered Motorola ‘s StarTAC. An impossibly cute device that fits snugly in your palm, it looked exactly like the phone Spock used on “Star Trek”–hence its name. Instantly covetous, I made it mine. And so did many of my friends–even those who had teased me most about my “inappropriate” cell-phone use.

Still, the idea that I could totally turn my back on the wired world seemed far-fetched. Sure, I liked bopping about with my cell, but I could always return to the safety of the land line at home. Could I take that plunge? Could I live without a land line anchoring me solidly in place? What would happen to my dial-up connection to the Internet?

The turning point came not long after I moved to California from the East Coast and thought I had made arrangements with the phone company in San Francisco to pay a late bill. Apparently I had not, and one Monday my service was cut off. Despite my protests, without a $20 reconnection fee and a $200 deposit for bad behavior, the line would remain dead. I refused to pay, instead moping angrily in a phoneless house, my world stilled.

Then, walking to work, I noticed the plethora of cell-phone stores that had sprouted up downtown like kudzu after a heavy rain. With big banners and bright stores, sassy promotions and freebies, it seemed they wanted my business, while the local phone company merely expected it.

After years of dealing with the local phone company–the only game in phone town–I remembered: Competition! I knew what to do.

I already had a cell phone for work, one that afforded me several hundred minutes of peak phone time a day. Why not get a second cell phone for home? It made sense: Buying additional time on the first would be very expensive, and anyway I wanted to keep my business and private lives separate. But would it be affordable? Would it be reliable? Did I have the guts?

Yes. Perhaps. And maybe.

A Smart Deal

Trying to goose calling habits, many cell services now offer lower rates on nights and weekends–exactly the time I’m at home. I realized I didn’t really use my traditional home phone that much during “off-peak” hours anyway. After going from one store to the next, I brokered a deal that got me 1,000 free off-peak minutes a month, along with 150 free peak minutes and a range of free services–like voice mail, call forwarding, paging–for about the same as I was paying for my land line: $50 a month before taxes.

Long-distance service cost extra, of course, but not much more than I was already paying–prices are quickly closing in on the long-distance rates of land-line service. (A recent 10-cents-a-minute cellular long-distance rate offered by AT&T , for example, set off a minor calling frenzy among cell aficionados.)

Several months into the wireless world, I am about as pleased as I could be. First, there’s the freedom. I can choose whether or not to take my phone with me, depending on my mood.

While some decry the notion of being connected anywhere, finding the technology invasive, I find it gives me better control over my life. If I have my home and work phones with me, for example, I miss no calls and do not have to check my voice mail obsessively. I can also choose not to answer the phone, especially when so many new features allow me to identify who’s calling or record calls dialed in and out.

My phones also have paging capabilities and can receive electronic mail, features that allow me to stay in touch with friends and business associates all day long. If I choose to, I can buy other extras. I could send my own e-mail, for example. And, although not yet widely available, there are devices (mini-screens, if you will) that snap onto cell phones, allowing you to surf the World Wide Web.

I also find the phones make my life more efficient, since I use them in cars, while waiting in line or whenever I’ve got a few extra minutes. That means I can work as I drive. (And now I use a headphone/microphone contraption that keeps me cellularly sober and steering straight.)

At the same time, going all-wireless forces me to use the phone more judiciously, for several reasons in addition to cost. Because many of my phone habits have given way to e-mail, I do not hang out on the phone in quite the same way as I used to.

Though with me at all times, the incoming phone calls at home don’t seem as intrusive as they once did. The loud clanging ring of my bedside phone always bothered me in a way that the soft buzz of my two cell phones does not. My home seems quieter now, partly because (without cell-phone books) telemarketers can’t find me–yet.

Cellular Snares

Cell life hasn’t been all tulips, of course. If I don’t keep the phone charged, it runs out of juice and I have to use it plugged into the wall (wired again, alas). While the staying power of cell batteries, especially digital ones, improves by the month, it’s still common for the phone to run down, especially on a chatty day.

And, sometimes, though not at home, the connection gets fuzzy and I lose calls (not always such a bad thing, of course). Because there is always a meter going, I’m now obsessively wary of using the phone too much–also not a bad thing.

If I had lots of talkative teenagers in my life, I might not be so flexible. Such families might want a cell phone only for emergencies or quick calls. Cell phones still seem aimed at, and work best for, the businessperson on the go who wants as much freedom as possible and is not terribly worried about price.

When it comes to the Internet, I have managed to find a cell phone that allows online linkage, although hanging online for hours is also not cost-effective yet.

And I have begun to test very good wireless modems that are improving in quality. Metricom ‘s slim Ricochet model, for instance, which elegantly attaches to the back of my laptop, has worked without a hitch so far and is as efficient as using a regular jack. Its new Autobahn system coming out next year will be even faster, the company promises.

I am salivating, of course, at the thought of the new satellite-based phones with which you can connect from almost any spot on the globe. Jungle calls! Deep-ocean chats! Hello, Mom, from Outer Mongolia!

(And, by the way, put me on the short list of testers for the day when wireless phones can be embedded into the human body.)

Sealed Fate

Perhaps I have gone a bit bonkers, but my last encounter with my local phone company sealed my fate forever. When I finally did find their office to stop my service, making it to the head of a long line in a drab room filled with anti-phone graffiti, the customer-service representative behind the glass was incredulous that anyone not leaving town would be kissing the phone company goodbye.

In an inexplicable fit of “policy” pique, the phone company would not put my new cell-phone number on a recording telling of my whereabouts. To get that service, said another rep I was referred to, I would have to pay the same irksome $20 reconnection charges, plus the $200 deposit, even though I had paid the bill and owed nothing. There was no telling, by the way, when I would get that deposit back.

The rep, who was sympathetic enough, shrugged. “Unfortunately,” she said, “there is nothing I can do.”

But I can, I thought, flipping open my cell phone with a defiant snap, going boldly, perhaps unsteadily, but going, anyway, where few have gone before.

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