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Options, but no Solutions

In my experience, I have found hotel-based Net access (Option 1) to be of uneven quality and getting worse as more people master the fine art of connecting to wireless LANs. Hotel staff are unaware of the poor speed and can't do anything about it even when they are told. And in my case, accessing email just once a day is not being responsive enough to my clients.

Sprint PCS (Option 2) was the second solution I tried, and the whole experience was crazy. I tried Sprint PCS two ways: with a phone tethered to my laptop with a USB cable; and, via a PCMCIA card-based service. The whole experience was so frustrating and, at times, unbelievable, that it deserves its own section where I can rant without derailing the rest of this article.

The upshot of my experiences with Sprint PCS was that I found it to be unacceptable for on-the-road Internet access. Even the simple low-speed 56K Internet access that they could provide through tethered phones wasn't something they wanted to provide, and their PCMCIA service—which was not any faster but had much better measured access—was too expensive for small business people like me.

Free Internet hotspots (Option 3) was the next solution I tried. At first, free hotspots seemed promising. The theory was that if you were attending a meeting in another town, you could stop by a coffee shop to check your email. Great theory, but not practical for me. I get lost in strange cities. Unnecessary driving can tip the scale away from the "almost missed" appointments toward possible disaster. Therefore, free access points are only an option for me if they happen to appear in places where I am already. Of course, in most places I find myself, I don't have access.

The fourth Internet access method I have tried is what I think of as "Air Coffee." I actually prefer the pay-for-use Wi-Fi service at coffee shops, hotels, and airports than other services. I like a charge that is high enough to keep the bandwidth-hoarding riffraff off the network, but not so high that I would avoid paying. Typically, I have paid from $4 to $10 per access. Although last summer, I paid around $13 —more than my typical price—at the Narita International Airport when my flight out was canceled. But generally, the price I pay most frequently is $4.

Pay-for-use wireless services are a mixed bag of bad and good. In the category of "bad" pay-for-use services is T-Mobile. I was able to use it once, but haven't been able to use it again because my first pay-for-use time somehow broke the login feature. I could probably fix the problem, but I can't bring myself to call T-Mobile, wait as I'm put on hold, and then troubleshoot as if I were a T-mobile customer (prisoner). I'm not a T-mobile customer; I just want to access the Net.

Figure 1 shows the T-Mobile Hotspot Login available at Starbucks Coffee. The username and password fields located in the upper right-hand area are the key to T-Mobile's user model. Using these, you will log in to the wireless access that you are paying for as a separate monthly recurring network communications fee. No shoes, no shirt, no login, ... no service.

T-Mobile Log in at Starbucks

Figure 1: T-Mobile Log in at Starbucks

T-Mobile makes it easy to sign up for a monthly access program, but they make it difficult to buy one-time access. Because T-Mobile has made one-time access hard to buy, I follow an "anyone but T-Mobile" rule. At the Burbank Airport, for example, you can choose AT&T or T-Mobile—I always choose AT&T.

Why? Because AT&T is my favorite "good" pay-for-use wireless service. At my local Barnes & Noble bookstore, AT&T access costs $4 for two hours. This is fair. In fact, it's great because $4 will keep the network-hogging riffraff off my connection, and I don't work for more than two hours at a time at Barnes & Noble! I usually slip into the store to grab a coffee and my email; then, I'm off.

Log in to Air Coffee

Figure 2: Log in to Air Coffee

The key reason I like AT&T access, however, is that they makes it just as easy to buy one-time access as they make buying a monthly subscription. Figure 2 shows that AT&T has User and Password fields to log in like T-Mobile. The difference between AT&T and T-Mobile is that on AT&T's Web page, you can click the CLICK HERE TO GET CONNECTED option, shown in Figure 2 (located below the hand holding the book in the main image).

Figure 3 shows the screen that will appear where you can choose Purchase One Time Connection from the payment plans listed.

AT&T's Most Excellent 1-Time Access Option

Figure 3: AT&T's Most Excellent 1-Time Access Option

When you click Purchase One Time Connection, you are taken through a very slick, very simple purchase payment process, and your access is turned on. The process takes about a minute. I had been very happy to pay at the coffee shop for two years ... while waiting for my Sprint PCS contract to expire. When paying for Wi-Fi access, I say to myself, "Gee, $4 for 2 hours is a lot, as in, a lot less than Sprint PCS and a lot less that $500 bill!" Then, I smile and type in my credit card number.

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