Friday, December 05, 2014

Even talk of a carry-on electronics ban for flights highlights need for "infrastructure rental" services on the ground

There were news stories earlier this week to the effect that Homeland Security (as well as corresponding agency in the UK) was considering a ban on carry on luggage and electronics, at least through the Christmas holiday, on all international flights and possibly all domestic flights. 
Jeh Johnson, DHS Secretary, said, no, that would not happen now, to Eric Bradner and Jake Tapper of CNN, news story here.   But he did not rule out that it could happen in the future, if intelligence on terror threats from unconventional explosives on planes gets more specific.
There had been other suggestions (which I posted in my International blog Dec. 1), that passenger electronics be put in a “cargo hold” area near checked baggage, where they would undergo closer scrutiny. No one could say where the electronics would be likely to be damaged (what about air temperatures in cargo areas at high altitude?) or stolen.  For the longest trips between large cities, some passengers might be able to ship their gear UPS-air (as some do with checked baggage now).
All of this is very ironic, given that only a few months ago we debated whether passengers should be allowed to use electronics during take-off and landing (see network neutrality blog, Nov. 13, 2013).  Also, a few months ago the TSA said that uncharged electronics would not be allowed on some flights, which could cause a passenger to miss a flight if some accident happened and the devices did not boot up.  (That requirement sometimes existed before 9/11 but was dropped.)
Give the way I work, I typically have to stay connected when I travel.  I don’t have a company doing this for me.  I have to manage my own infrastructure, so I am vulnerable to mishaps.
I’ve traveled four round trips by air, all domestic, since the start of 2011, after my mother died (when I was already 67), from the DC-Balt area to the Twin Cities, DFW, LA, and Atlanta.  Each time I’ve carried a small notebook (Toshiba, which got slow at home, and replaced with a Gateway), and an older iPad as a hotspot.  Yes, I could travel lighter with a newer iPad, or use the iPhone now as hotspot.  I might try that.  I need a keyboard, although it might be that some 3rd party addons to the iPad could make a PC less necessary. Everything has worked so far on all four trips (had a close call in Texas). 

At the beginning of 2011, when I worked for Census, I had to carry two computers, one for personal use as well as business, when I went to Charlotte for training.  So I drove rather than flew. 
Since airline reservations are often made weeks in advance, even talk of a ban on carryon electronics could stop me from trying to make them at all.  This has to be very bad for airlines.  I’m not the only one who feels this way.
So I think we need some real leadership – get tech companies and airlines (and a lot of systems developers and programmers) together and see if there is a way to help passengers travel.  Once concept could be “infrastructure rental”.  This might be tried overseas first (at least in the UK and other EU or western countries), where security concerns are biggest, and where technical issues (like different conventions for electricity transformers) already exist.  The idea is that you rent a PC (it could be Windows or Mac), with some variable rates depending on add-ons (like Microsoft Office, Adobe).  You also get the appropriate charger and hotspot hardware.  You take the responsibility for having a cloud account to save data (and the Cloud companies, like Apple, Carbonite or Webroot, would have to be prepared to accept rented computers).  You rent the “infrastructure” the same way you rent a car, and the arrangements are made through the airline or sites like Priceline.  When you turn in the computer, the rental company (which might even be something like Best Buy or Geek Squad) scrubs the computer and refreshes it with a rescue disk, meaning it is clean for the next customer.  There have to be some legal details, like the agreement not to use it for illegal purposes (like child pornography).
It is accepted practice to rent cell phones overseas, and there are some sites that discuss it.  A few companies may rent iPads, but some say that they rent only to other companies, not individuals.  This service would need to be usable for individuals for personal or “entrepreneurial” (as long as lawful) use, not just corporate.
Companies would only be interested in investing in such a model if it passed the Shark Tank:  there has to be demand.  That is only likely of airlines and governments actually have consistent and predictable policies on electronics security, and don’t change policies after the latest terror rumor.  Of course, flying would be even less fun, but when you got to your destination, you could be sure you could get your work done, if you were on your own (not going to an office). 
Biggest hotels have business centers, but usually only a few work stations with erratic response.  FedEx Kinkos might be OK, but there are questions about security in using any public computer unless it is going to be scrubbed. 

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