Thursday, August 18, 2011

The vagaries of free WiFi

Using the basic iPad2 for mobile electronic Internet access leaves you dependent on the willingness of others to offer free, unprotected WiFi access. And you know how vulnerable you are when you travel and depend on others for anything.

In my case, as I travel through Austria and Switzerland, I am surprised both when WiFi is available as well as when it is not. I have come to expect it in hotels, and I do not understand why hotels that provide free WiFi access sometimes put password protection on it. If someone next door hitches a ride on your bandwidth, how does that really hurt you?

It’s annoyingly ironic when a hotel provides free Internet access to all paying guests, but through a wired port. They’re being quite generous when they even have an Ethernet cable ready to plug into your laptop—except that in my case, I don’t have a laptop. The iPad’s complete wireless advantage turns into a disadvantage in this case.

But then there are times when access is bafflingly impossible. For instance, yesterday I sat down in a Starbucks in Geneva (another surprise: a sign on the door celebrated the location’s 10th anniversary!): partly because I needed an air-conditioned break; partly because I still like Starbuck’s American-style coffee, even though I was in the land of European-style coffee; and partly because I wanted to log onto the Internet.

Now, while Geneva’s Starbucks location offers free, open WiFi access like all other Starbucks, my iPad2 could not connect to the network. The Settings screen showed the Starbucks wireless connection, but I never got the Web page where I would agree to Starbucks’ terms and conditions.

I went over to another person who was surfing the net with his Toshiba laptop (the kind with the screen that rotates so that you can see it from any angle) to ask in my best French if there was something special to do to log in here. I was surprised (it was a day of surprises) to find that he spoke perfect, American-accented English. He assured me logging onto the network was the same as I had experienced in Canada. While he admired the iPad2, he could not find out the problem.

Later, I returned to my hotel room in Lausanne. The Hotel la Paix is wonderful, and they upgraded me to a suite. But while they offered free WiFi, I could only connect to it in parts of the lobby, and in one small part of the hotel suite! It did not work in the sitting area or on the bed; I had to move a chair to near the front door to connect.

Lesson learned? I’m not sure, except that connecting to a wireless transmission is still as much about the physical location as the best digital algorithms.

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