Friday, February 1, 2013

The Internet Versus Xiaolongbao

I'm used to hearing complaints in China, particularly by foreigners fresh off the plane, about the speed of Internet connections. But I've recently noticed a number of people in the U.S. complaining about services there as well. It is a reminder to me that not all is entirely "smooth" even back in my homeland.

It also reminds me of when I signed up for Internet service for my apartment in Shanghai a number of years ago. Some Chinese friends encouraged me to seek out cheaper "unofficial" services, but I wanted to do it by the book and went to the local China Telecom branch. A service representative there explained to me that three data speeds were offered. As I considered them, the representative added that there was no reason to chose the fastest / most expensive option. I asked why, and she quietly told me the speed would actually be the same as the middle option.

I pondered life and humanity. Quickly realizing I wasn't going to get anywhere useful with that line of thought, I then weighed the possibility that the woman was correct versus the possibility that she was mistaken--for example, maybe the service quality varied across different regions. I also considered that the difference in price between the middle and most expensive options was at the time roughly around US $1.50 per month.

I decided it was worth giving the fastest option a try. I wish I could say for sure what went through the representative's mind, but based on her facial expressions I feel safe saying it wasn't anything like "Brilliant choice, oh wise one".

When a technician later set up the service at my apartment, he had me connect to a local site which could measure the speed of the connection. It reported a speed consistent with what China Telecom (but not the service representative) had promised. Even in my optimistic state, I looked at the numbers with skepticism. Nonetheless, I heartily thanked the man who had brought me my connection to the world (well, at least with the aid of a VPN).

My later experiences dealing with an Internet connection that often crawled along at speeds much slower than a giant centipede in Hong Kong convinced me the kind service representative had been correct. However, if I had listened to her I may have always wondered if things might be a little better if I had gone with the "faster" option. So maybe it was still money well spent. But then again, you could buy a rather healthy portion of xiaolongbao for a $1.50 in those days.

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