Energy crisis: Where's an outlet when you need one?

Mobile gadgets that need recharging are everywhere, but good luck finding an outlet

The Consumer Electronics Show trade show is showcasing this year's batch of better, cheaper and cooler gadgets. Services that enable ever more powerful mobile capabilities abound. Wireless networks are popping up everywhere. It's now possible to travel around town, across the country and all over the world, working and playing online thanks to the collective efforts of thousands of companies and the enthusiasm of millions of users.

There's just one problem: Finding an outlet.

I'm writing this column while on a three-week trip through Mexico and Central America. I'm not taking time off; I'm "extreme telecommuting" -- working while traveling. I thought I packed my gadgets pretty well, taking everything I needed but no more than necessary. I'm currently staying in a private home -- roughly the Mexican equivalent of a bed-and-breakfast inn. I knew in advance that Mexico and El Salvador use U.S.-compatible plugs, so I brought no adapters. Imagine my horror when I discovered that the outlets in the house are two-prong plugs, rather than three-prong plugs. It's not a huge deal -- I could easily break off the grounding plug and ever so slightly increase my chances of being electrocuted to death, but I'd rather not.

I'm counting my blessings. In August of 2006, I spent some time on the Honduran island of Roatan. I pushed a column deadline right down to the wire before looking for a place to file from. Suddenly, the power went out on the entire island and stayed that way for eight hours. My laptop was fully charged, but all the routers and servers that provide Internet service to the island were out. The rumor on the beach was that somebody forgot to buy the diesel fuel that powers the generators.

Today's electricity issue reminds me how many times I have been outlet-challenged while trying to work outside my home or office, not just on sunny islands or in old Mexican homes, but in major international airports, coffee chains and even my own car.

It's an interesting problem that screams for a solution, because as gadgets get better, more numerous and more portable, the power provision fails to keep up. Functioning, compatible electrical outlets have become the weakest link in the chain of products and services that enable "anywhere computing."

A wall outlet is not something you can buy and bring along. Even solar-charging gadgets are very limiting for a power-hogging laptop. It would take all day in direct sunlight on a cloudless day to charge my laptop. Plus, my phone, GPS unit, e-book reader, music player and other stuff need to be charged, too.

I've found that outlet shortages are hard to predict and pop up in the most unexpected of places.

Fully charged, the only way to fly

An airport is a perfect place to plug in. You can charge your battery before a long flight and talk on the phone without burning down your battery, if you can find an outlet.

There seems to be plenty of electricity available for those loud, CNN-only TVs; unintelligible loudspeaker announcements; overly bright lights; ubiquitous, gigantic, computerized or lighted advertising; and electric cars that mow you down while you're sprinting from one terminal to the next. Why won't the airlines and airports supply electricity for customers to use as they really want: to charge their laptops and cell phones?

Some terminals have plugs, but they're few and far between and often beyond the reach of chairs. You'll often see people sitting awkwardly on the floor bent over a laptop just so they can use an outlet. Others somehow keep AC outlets totally unavailable to airline customers. Passenger desperation is palpable.

Recently, I spent a few hours waiting in a massive terminal at the ginormous Denver International Airport. The terminal had hundreds of rows of chairs at dozens of gates on both sides of a long walkway. Every fourth gate or so had floor outlets just on the walkway side of the chairs. There were hardly any people in the terminal, but every electrical outlet was in use. That meant huge expanses of nobody, then suddenly two people hunched over a floor outlet; then another vacant acre, then two more people hunched over another outlet. This scene repeated itself on both sides of the walkway all the way down the terminal. A few other unlucky souls were actually waiting for someone using an outlet to get up and leave. So sad. The business-traveler community is screaming for airport outlets and nobody answers their cries.

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