Beki Grinter

My cellphone thinks I’m in Canada

In computer science, empirical, research, social media on July 28, 2009 at 3:16 pm

I am about one mile from the U.S. border with Canada, at a place called Semiahmoo (say Semi-ah-moo). I’m at the UW/MSR summer workshop on the troubles with networking in the home. It’s a great workshop, people from many areas in Computer Science.  But enough of that.

I’m having a great Susan Leigh Star moment.  Leigh studies Infrastructure. Her argument is that infrastructure rather than being invisible, technological and static, is visible, socio-technical and relational. I’m always pro this argument, but today I have a great case of it, because my cellphone thinks I’m in Canada.

How do I know my cellphone thinks it’s in Canada, because it has joined the Rogers cellular network.  Rogers is a provider of cellular services in Canada. My cellphone prefers it to the U.S. provider that I typically use, AT&T. This comes with some consequences.  I am an iPhone user, which means that my visual voicemail has now been turned off. But far more importantly, I am now outside of the U.S. (or at least my cellphone is, despite the fact that I am physically inside the U.S.) so I am Internationally roaming. Voice calls cost more, data too. Basically, my device is now reduced to a wifi terminal, since I refuse to pay for international roaming.

Why does this remind me of Star. Because I have been exposed to a mis-match between two infrastructures. The cellular infrastructure does not align with the political infrastructure. The cellular networks do not respect political boundaries, instead they bleed over, and where signal reception is stronger, so my cellphone goes. It also makes me wish for a feature which is “please select the domestic network.” I wish I had such a feature so that I could map my cellphone to my experience.

My relationship with the cellular infrastructure is now exposed to me, my relationship to it has changed, because my expectations of it have come out of line with what it is providing me. I expect to be Internationally roaming when I am myself internationally roaming, but not when I am only domestically roaming. I wonder what the experience of cellphone usage is for people in Blaine, WA which is where I basically am. What do they do?  Do they just purchase Canadian phones (can you have billing addresses in the United States?) and then how do you prevent the phone from finding the AT&T network. Do they just not use cellphones in this area? I am really curious. For me it’s a problem that will last for a few days, for local residents I’m very curious about the solution (perhaps they get international roaming plans, but those aren’t cheap).

On a final and somewhat tangential note. Exclaves: pieces of a country that are not connected by land to other parts of the country (such as Alaska. I am also near another exclave, Point Roberts, it’s a small piece of land that is below the 49th parallel, and therefore it is in the U.S.  All sorts of implications, while they have a primary school there, all other American children are bused through Canada back into the U.S. for education. Who provides their services, their sewage, water, etc… Exclaves must be one of the most interesting adventures in infrastructural visibility, particularly, I would guess small ones like this one.

Update: a great article on some of the challenges of living on an exclave.

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  1. The difficulties of living in an enclave are sharply illustrated along the Indian-Bangladeshi border: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Bangladesh_enclaves

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