Message: 57
Date: 04.1.98
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>


In telecommunications parlance, the "last mile" is endlessly debated in terms of wired versus wireless, symmetry versus asymmetry, and bandwidth needs - real, perceived, or actually used. This story is about the "last centimeter" - its bad design, unreliability, and public absence when you really need it.

Think of it: the lowest common denominator in being digital is not your operating system, modem, or model of computer. It's a tiny piece of plastic, designed decades ago by Bell Labs' Charles Krumreich, Edwin Hardesty, and company, who thought they were making an inconspicuous plug for a few telephone handsets. Not in their wildest dreams was Registered Jack 11 - a modular connector more commonly know as the RJ-11 - meant to be plugged and unplugged so many times, by so many people, for so many reasons, all over the world.

Not a jack of all trades
How many RJ-11 clips have you broken? I am astonished that something that probably costs less than a penny separates me from the Net so often. It seems I'm constantly carrying a cord with a broken RJ-11 connector at one end or the other. Mind you, this is caused not just by normal wear and tear, but by a design that causes the small plastic clip on the male connector to catch on various articles when you pull the cord out of a briefcase. The half-life of an RJ-11 plug on the road must be less than a month.

Ironically, some new RJ-11 female connectors add insult to injury - they are spring-loaded for better contact, which renders a clipless male plug useless. At least in the past you could pop it in and hold your breath.

Nonetheless, the RJ-11 has become a world standard. More than a billion RJ-11s have been manufactured to date; as it happens, the connector is considerably more common in fax machines than handsets in most countries. In any case, there is little likelihood that this physical standard will be replaced by anything other than wireless connections - the usability and reliability of which is a whole separate story. Suffice it to say that most people will be plugging in for a long time. Since we'll have to live with the RJ-11 for a while, we can surely make it easier to use than it is now.

Dongling participles
Dongle supposedly comes from the verb to dangle. If you do not have one, consider yourself lucky. I travel with four.

A dongle is a hardware key and cable assembly that attaches to an external port; one of mine takes the otherwise solid female part of an RJ-11 and introduces flimsiness and delicacy to map the thin profile of a PCMCIA card - what a really dumb name - into the roughly square form factor of the RJ-11. My advice to anybody planning to purchase a laptop: don't buy one that does not have a built-in RJ-11. If you do, you are simply adding another point of weakness in your connectivity and will in all likelihood find yourself with the wrong dongle just when you need it.

Airport dilemma
One reason to join airline clubs is to have access to RJ-11s - and, often, free local phone service. This is fine for those who can afford a membership, and if the airport you happen to be in at a given time has a club with RJ-11 jacks. Otherwise, you are too often captive to a national public phone system that seems not to have heard of data communications. With the exception of a rare AT&T pay phone, which looks like a pregnant Sega game, your only hope is an acoustic coupler. But this is yet another thing to carry - and it's not particularly reliable at that.

Surely we can build more pay phones with RJ-11 jacks. In fact, an RJ-11 only pay phone would not need a keypad, credit card reader, or coin slot; your PC would send the number and billing data. This would be the least expensive "phone booth" ever made.

Hotel malice
In some countries, especially those in western Europe, phones are still hardwired into the wall. In others, phones might use any one of nearly 200 phone jacks. Still, more and more places are accommodating or switching to the RJ-11 in the wall, in the phone, or as an auxiliary jack in the handset - the latter being the most appropriate in a hotel room.

Some hotels still don't have such auxiliary jacks in the handsets, offering the lesser convenience of the RJ-11 in the wall. But because hotel managers also have learned that constant use breaks the clip, many cut it off, making the plug a onetime "permanent" connection, never to come out again. That is inexcusable. Even the most benign digerati will use anything from a penknife to a corkscrew to reopen the jack, the effect of which is well deserved but devastating. Get with it, hotels.

I was thrilled to see that the latest Zagat hotel guide includes a ranking of computer friendliness. About time.

Getting it straight
Yet even if you are lucky enough to get a room with an easily removable, seemingly usable RJ-11 jack, don't be surprised if it does not work - i.e., there's no dial tone. Though the plug itself has become fashionable, in some cases the wiring is not consistent, especially in small telephone exchanges. The RJ-11 module has up to six wire conductors, but a simple phone connection needs only two. And while most of the world agrees on which two to use, just enough places (usually hotels, alas) don't.

This is one of those exasperating instances in which we cannot even agree which way is up. As best I can tell, it's a 50/50 bet as to whether you will find the clip on the top or the bottom - sometimes it is even set sideways. (The problem isn't just with technicians installing hotel wiring: two models of PowerBook had it one up and one down.) While this may seem to be nitpicky, the problem is - literally - more than meets the eye. Because RJ-11 sockets are often sufficiently recessed that you cannot easily see the jack's orientation, you have to use trial and error - and error does the plug no good.

So the next time you travel, the next time you connect, think about this critical little piece of plastic. Don't you wish someone would make an unbreakable connector, even one priced as high as US$100? Maybe it is time for designers across the board to agree that RJ-11 clips should go on the top. There's no real reason to prefer the top to the bottom, but if we all did it one way, over time we might just get it straight.

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