WASHINGTON – As D-day draws near for state Democrats awaiting their chance to attend the 2004 Iowa caucuses, the three buses belonging to Howard Dean’s People-Powered Road Trip (search) rumble across bucolic Iowa, where nary a building other than a barn can be seen for fifty-mile stretches.
Two of the buses carry 55 of the national and international press corps, a group whose first question about the evening’s accommodations is often, "Does the hotel have high-speed Internet access?"
Generally, the answer from the campaign of a candidate who is reluctant to spend more than $100 on a hotel room is "probably not."
But in this year's campaign season, the answer is not nearly as disappointing as it could be. The press buses have been transmogrified into a wireless Internet hotspot — reporters using computers without wireless cards are indulged with old-fashioned Ethernet switches to get them online.
Nathan Naylor (search), formerly of Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid's office and now CEO of Soapbox Inc. (search), is providing journalists with the connection — high-speed Internet and wireless service at nearly every stop on the five-day road trip.
I am, in fact, filing this report while sitting on the bus in Creston, Iowa — online access courtesy of the Soapbox. Matea Gold, of the Los Angeles Times, is sitting in front of me. Her take on the new technology: "I think it is pretty fantastic to sit in the back of bus on the side of a highway in Creston, Iowa, across from the Dairy Queen and read what my editors are saying."
The Soapbox is essentially a portable wireless access point on rollerblade wheels. Broadband points already exist at about half the places the bus stops, and the Soapbox just draws a kind of "umbilical cord" from the hotpoint to the press filing center.
At the other half of the stops where the broadband revolution has yet to take place, the Soapbox receives a signal from the Internet satellite dish in the shiny red pick-up truck Naylor has assigned to follow the People-Powered Road Trip.
Tom Fitzgerald, a reporter for Knight-Ridder, marvels: "It’s just awesome. There’s no down time. It’s like being in your newsroom, only smellier" (This observation comes only two days into the road trip).
"Now, if only they could get it constantly, it would be great," he said.
That’s the one drawback of the Soapbox — it doesn’t actually work while the bus is moving. Naylor says the technology exists, but it isn’t affordable yet.
During the presidential campaigns of four years ago, Naylor was, in his words, "a mediocre press person," the assistant press secretary for Vice President Al Gore.
"But I was great with logistics," he said.
Working for Gore required having massive numbers of phone lines installed at as many as seven locations across the country each day of Gore’s campaign travel.
After the end of the campaign, Naylor went to work for Reid and often traveled with him to Las Vegas. On one of those visits, he accompanied Reid on a behind-the-scenes security tour of the Bellagio.
"It was like a scene out of the movie Oceans 11," he said, with hundreds of cameras hidden behind the lights of the casino, all of the information coming in simultaneously through wireless technology.
Naylor recognized then that the wireless revolution was going to have a huge impact on journalists, and seized on the 2004 Democratic presidential race as the moment to introduce his service — wireless hotspots anywhere in America.
The Soapbox debuted at the announcement of Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt's candidacy in St. Louis.
Since then, Naylor has provided his service to all of the major Democratic candidates. On caucus night, journalists will log on in the Dean, Gephardt and John Kerry campaign filing centers using the Soapbox.
The experiment has been an expensive one. Naylor estimates he has spent $250,000 on equipment, legal bills, patent pending protection, consulting and his 11 subcontractors.
Naylor paid for all the equipment, though a few of his father's friends did chip in as investors. The presidential contenders are paying Naylor to provide the service.
Foreseeing that his Democratic business will be waning as voters finally select a presidential candidate, Naylor is trying to cross party lines.
He’s hoping to secure contracts for his service with the White House, and is working on a partnership with a bigger company to serve the private sector.
Those plans must seem like an eternity away, though, as the bus stops in front of a gas station, and the cries of a restive press corps begin, "Nathan, is the wireless up yet?"