Mobile Wi-Fi's Baby Steps

The promise of anywhere access when on the go is old hat, promised but not delivered by all sorts of providers for more than a decade. How long have you heard about Wi-Fi on airplanes, Wi-Fi hotspots wherever you travel for business, municipal Wi-Fi, and so on?

Finally, that promise is starting to surface, as I was reminded in the last month when I traveled to several cities for various events. But the rough spots are still there, and wireless access is still very much a crapshoot when you're on the road.

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First the good news: It is easier to connect via Wi-Fi from your laptop, smartphone, or iPad. In fact, iPads are showing up in traveler circles fast. A colleague noted last week that in his cross-country flight's business-class section, there were two iPads, two iPhones, two or three BlackBerrys, a couple MacBooks, and a Windows laptop in use. Aircell, which provides in-flight Wi-Fi service, says iPads already account for 2.5 percent of devices that access its service.

I was pleasantly surprised, for example, that the Long Beach (Calif.), Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle-Tacoma airports all offer free Wi-Fi access in their gate areas, as does the JetBlue terminal at New York's JFK; San Francisco International is promising to follow suit soon. (And a tip for travelers: The Apple Store provides free Wi-Fi access, so if you're in signal range, you can save some money. Many McDonalds and Jack in the Boxes offer free Wi-Fi access as well.)

Although not free, nearly all the flights I took offered in-air Wi-Fi access via the Gogo service from Aircell. Hotels have been offering in-facility paid Wi-Fi for several years now, and most airports offer paid Wi-Fi service. I found it in Atlanta, Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena (Calif.), Dallas-Fort Worth, and Los Angeles International from a hodgepodge of providers in trips this year.

Not only is Wi-Fi essential for data access, it can be a lifesaver for making calls using VoIP on your smartphone or laptop when overseas or in an area where the phone roaming charges are high. It's also often essential to download large files or access streaming media -- activities that cellular 3G services often prohibit or discourage.

The Hodgepodge of Services Ups the Hassle Factor and the Cost
Now the bad news: Mobile Wi-Fi is a hodgepodge, which means separate charges at each spot in most cases. As an egregious example, the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix charges $10 per day for Wi-Fi access, but that access does not extend to its meeting rooms, for which a separate signup (and fee) is required. The Ritz-Carlton also won't let you have more than one device at a time access its wired or Wi-Fi connections -- a hugely annoying restriction if you want to keep both your laptop and your smartphone or iPod Touch up to date. I found the same per-device scheme at the Hilton in Universal City, Calif. -- and it's Wi-Fi signal doesn't extend into its conference space.

And have you noticed that the pricier the hotel, the pricier the Wi-Fi service? Motel 6 charges $4, while the W (at least in Seattle) and Marriott (at least in Plano, Texas) each charges $15 -- though none of these hotels limit you to one device at a time as the Ritz-Carlton and Hilton do.

Although I have an AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot subscription, it's the basic plan, so roaming is not permitted at airport locations from other airport providers (it does work at AT&T's airport locations). But I can roam on those same providers' Wi-Fi hotspots when I'm at non-airport locations. Likewise, if you have a T-Mobile Wi-Fi plan with your cell phone or a subscription for your laptop, the same lack of airport roaming exists for those airports that don't use T-Mobile's Wi-Fi service. It's a nightmare for travelers, accounting, and IT to track, manage, and support all these variations.

You or your business can easily spend $50 to $100 for Wi-Fi on a short trip if you pay for access at the airports, flights, and hotels you patronize. That's highway robbery. One option is to get a 3G card for your laptop, which costs $60 to $100 per month, and avoid the per-site Wi-Fi fees. Of course, you can easily exceed the bandwidth limits and pay a lot more, and you can't use cellular devices on airplanes. Connections are often much slower than with Wi-Fi, which can make large downloads and streaming media access impossible. And you need to pay separately for 3G data access on your smartphone, another $30 to $40 per month. Plus, PDAs such as the iPod Touch are marooned when you're out of Wi-Fi range. Still, a 3G card takes much of the hassle and pickpocketing of Wi-Fi signup at hotels and airports and cafés and can make sense for laptop-toting frequent travelers.

Another aspect of the hodgepodge problem is that the various Wi-Fi providers don't always get the fact that the computing world is heterogeneous. I can never connect to T-Mobile's airport service from my MacBook -- the server address won't resolve -- but I have had no problem connecting at the same airports (Dallas and San Francisco most recently) with my iPod Touch or Lenovo Windows laptop.

Likewise, most Wi-Fi signup pages at hotels and airports assume you're connecting from a laptop, and don't bother to detect you're using a handheld and, thus, reformat the page automatically. You get pages that are hard to navigate on a mobile device, whose buttons are hard to click, whose page templates don't always allow zooming in, and that sometimes rely on Flash (which locks out the most popular mobile Web device, the iPhone). The airlines have figured it out, and there's no reason hotel chains can't do so as well.

Web developers, It is very easy to detect what type of device is accessing your site or page by using the .htaccess file on your Apache server or a JavaScript to detect the user agent (device identifier). Here are the common IDs you should be looking for:

  • *Mobile.*Safari (iPhone and iPod Touch)

  • *iPad

  • *BlackBerry8

  • *BlackBerry9

  • *MSIE\ 6.*Windows\ CE (Windows Mobile 6.x)

  • *Android

  • *Nokia.*WebKit

  • *Blazer/4 (Palm OS 4)

  • *Opera.*Mini/4

  • *Opera.*Mini/5

Inflight Wi-Fi Aimed at Handheld Users
About that Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi service: It was available on most flights I took on Alaska, American, Delta, and JetBlue; United and AirTran advertise it too. It's pricey, at $8 per segment for handheld devices for flights of more than 90 minutes' duration, and $13 for laptops for flights of more than three hours' duration. It's $5 for flights of less than 90 minutes' duration, and $10 for laptop access on flights of between 90 minutes and three hours' duration.

You can't log in via a laptop if you pay for the handheld service, though you can connect from a handheld if you pay for the laptop service; if you buy a $35 monthly subscription, you can use either device on any supported flight. Aircell, which provides the service, says it charges more for laptops because they use more bandwidth. Naturally, there's no roaming allowed outside Gogo-equipped planes.

Aircell forbids VoIP and discourages streaming media, warning that the service may get very slow or stop altogether if you stream video. Because it is a private network, Gogo can ration bandwith any way it likes. Thus, you should do your iTunes, Netflix, or what-have-you downloads before you get on the plane -- theoretically. A company spokeswoman says that streaming is the fifth most popular usage, after Web browsing, email, instant messaging, and VPN access. You can forget about using services like Skype, though I have to say I'm not unhappy that people can't be chatting all around me on the phone during flights.

It appears to me that usage is low so far. Aircell says it has had 3.1 million sessions since the service launched last year, out of tens of millions of passengers on those planes. The company won't disclose what the average usage percentage is, but my unscientific eyeball counts on half a dozen flights puts it well under 2 percent. Given all the pickpocket charges the airlines already impose on travelers, another $10 for Wi-Fi may be one fee too many.

What's interesting about the Gogo service is its orientation to smartphones and handhelds. It pushes the handheld/smartphone service in its promotions, which makes sense: On most airlines (JetBlue is a blessed exception), the space between coach seats is so short that you can't type on a laptop on your tray table and have the screen titled back enough to see. Therefore, you can't really use a laptop in flight in coach. But you can use a smartphone, iPod Touch, or iPad -- especially on the slowly increasing number of planes that have USB power connectors on their seat arms or seatbacks. You can power a handheld or iPad from such a port, but not a laptop.

Where we are today is that there's more mobile Wi-Fi available, but the fractured fiefdoms add hassle and cost. The providers need to figure out how to stitch their services together and stop trying to carve out all these separate silos -- they inhibit usage that way. I figure in another five years, this mobile Wi-Fi thing may finally work right.

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This article, "Mobile Wi-Fi slowly, awkwardly starts to come together," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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