Elgan: Adventures in 'extreme telecommuting'

Fast, cheap Internet access in Greece can be harder to find than the lost city of Atlantis

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Cheap or easy -- take your pick

I was surprised to learn early on that tethering my BlackBerry to my laptop worked just fine from Athens, without any modification. It was deadly slow, usable for e-mail and light Web surfing but impossible for uploads. Here in Crete, I have zero data access on my phone. I couldn't find either of these surprising facts (tethering works abroad from Athens; zero data access on Crete) anywhere on the AT&T site or on the Internet.

Tethering was a nice surprise, but totally inadequate for real work. My first task in Greece was to figure out how to connect for real in Athens. I found stark contradictions. For example, Starbucks all over Greece charge you $660 for a month of Wi-Fi access. But right next door is a better coffee joint called FloCafe where a month of Wi-Fi costs you zero. There are something like 36 FloCafes in the greater Athens area and another 21 in the rest of Greece. They're open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.! The late hours are ideal for "extreme telecommuters" from the U.S.; 2 a.m. in Athens is 4 p.m. in Silicon Valley and 7 p.m. in New York, so it's nice to be able to be online during U.S. business hours. But there's a catch.

I quickly learned that, for reasons unknown, no Google site (and a small number of other sites I frequent) is accessible over the FloCafe network. So no Gmail, no Google Calendar, no Blogger, etc. These are sites I rely on every day. So I used FloCafe for hours per day but made a list of all the tasks to do on Google sites, which I did later over pricier connections.

As I wrote in my blog from the town of Agios Nikolaos (Greek for "Saint Nicholas") on the island of Crete,

Internet access appears to be everywhere. Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving. The guidebooks boast of Internet cafés galore. A quick jaunt through this idyllic seaside town reveals conspicuous "INTERNET CAFE" and "Wi-Fi" signs posted everywhere. But when I actually tried to connect, all this access proved illusory.

I started with my own hotel, which advertised free Wi-Fi. But the front desk informed me cheerfully that they'd have the access starting next week. No problem, they said. Just go into town, and you'll find plenty of places to connect. The first stop was a kind of government post office, which offered for-pay access to a couple of PCs. That doesn't work for me. For a variety of reasons, I need to connect using my own laptop.

The helpful people at the post office told me where I could find a couple of Internet cafés. The first wasn't open yet for the official tourist season. The second was a coffee house with Wi-Fi, which the waitress told me worked "occasionally" -- unfortunately, not on this occasion. No luck.

I wandered all over town asking shopkeepers and hotel clerks where to find access. All sent me to one spot or another that should, would, could, might, or eventually will have access, but none ready to go. After a four-hour scavenger hunt, I returned to my hotel and tried to get lucky mooching off a nearby hotel's connection. I could see a hotel pop up on my "View Wireless Networks" list, but it required a password. So I asked the front desk where to find this hotel, went there and bought access cards costing about $6.25 an hour for a slow connection. Now I'm sitting in a lobby paying more for Internet access than I thought I would have to.

I shouldn't complain. Internet access in Greece's major city or tourist spots may be challenging, but it's always doable. But public Wi-Fi exists only for yuppies and tourists. If you're in the countryside, well, they've never heard of it.

"Extreme telecommuting" is totally worthwhile, and I recommend it for anyone with a sense of adventure who is currently able to do "regular telecommuting." Just don't expect it to be easy.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go snorkeling over a submerged city one local swears is the lost city of Atlantis -- which was way easier to find here in Crete than an Internet connection.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Elgan at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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