Lessons from the road: 'Free Hi-Speed Internet'

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One of the luxuries of my job is that it can be done from virtually anywhere…as long as I can connect to the Internet. I spent much of August working from the road traveling about the country with my family on “working vacation” road trip.

I drove more than 7,000 miles over the course of about three weeks--traveling from Houston to Denver, the Badlands of South Dakota and Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon before looping back to Houston. What I learned during my epic road trip is that I’m a bit spoiled living in suburbia with my 35Mbps broadband Internet. The reality in many places is that connecting to the Internet is often easier said than done.

Just because the billboard says "free Wi-Fi" doesn't mean you can actually connect to the Internet with it.
If you drive down any stretch of highway in the United States for more than a few miles, you’re likely to see billboards advertising hotels and motels at the exits coming up ahead. Many of those signs proudly proclaim “Free Wi-Fi” or “Free Hi-Speed Internet”. What you find when you get there, though, may not live up to the hype.

We did extensive research regarding where to stay for each leg of our trip, and we had our itinerary mapped out in detail, so I wasn’t making my decisions based on which hotel had the prettiest billboard. Even with all the planning ahead, though, my experience with Internet access while lodging across the country was not stellar.

Free Wi-Fi

Let’s start with the idea of “free Wi-Fi”. First of all, the term “free Wi-Fi” itself is vague. Is it 802.11B, or 802.11G, or 802.11N, or perhaps it’s a truly cutting edge establishment that has already embraced the new 802.11AC standard.

Why does it matter? The speed provided by the wireless network could vary greatly depending on which type of wireless network is being used. 802.11B can only deliver 11Mbps, while 802.11N can push ten times that. Even if your laptop or mobile device has 802.11N, it can only transfer data based on the capabilities of the network it’s connecting to.

Hotels also frequently lack adequate wireless access points, or the ones they have are positioned poorly. Often, you’re lucky if you can detect and connect to the wireless network at all thanks to the flaky signal strength. Of course, the performance of the wireless network at a hotel or motel is also a function of the Internet connection it’s riding on. So, let’s talk about the “hi-speed Internet”.

Free Hi-Speed Internet

To begin with, I think we need to recognize that we’re not all working from the same definition of “hi-speed”. I live in suburban Houston where I have multiple Internet providers to choose from. I use Comcast, which starts at speeds of 3Mbps for $40 per month, and ramps up to 105 Mbps for $200 per month. The service I pay for is somewhere in the middle and gives me a snappy 35Mbps.

However, my in-laws live in the mountains just outside of Denver. No cable providers have invested in the infrastructure to lay cable up to 7,800 feet in the mountains, so my in-laws are limited to satellite options. Their version of “hi-speed” Internet is 1.5Mbps. That is painfully slow by my standards, but blazingly fast compared to the 56K dial-up they had previously.

The farther you get from a major metropolitan area, the more likely the definition of “hi-speed” could be questionable. My experience staying in hotels and rental homes across Texas, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona suggests that many lodging facilities proclaim that same paltry 1.5Mbps as “hi-speed”.

I can live with 1.5Mbps for short periods of time. The problem, though, is that the hotel is getting 1.5Mbps—not my room. Whatever broadband connection the hotel has to the Internet is being shared with every other room in the establishment, which can quickly bog that 1.5Mbps down to nearly nothing. If other patrons are watching Netflix or streaming Youtube videos you might have difficulty getting to the Web at all.

Security Concerns

To be honest, though, I prefer not to use the hotel networks at all if I can avoid it. Sharing the available bandwidth isn’t the only concern. When you connect to a shared hotel network—whether wired or wireless—you are exposing your computers, mobile devices, and any information you transmit or access to risk.

The other computers attached to the same network can potentially connect to your devices or intercept your data. A shared hotel network may be fine for checking the news and weather, or doing some research about nearby sights and attractions to visit, but you should never use a public network like that to log in to your bank account, or check your credit card balances.

Working from the road turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Road warriors need to have a backup plan to connect to the Internet when hotel Wi-Fi and “hi-speed” Internet won’t do the trick.

I recommend using a mobile hotpsot (or using a mobile device as a personal hotspot), however I discovered that isn’t as easy as it sounds either. We’ll cover that in more detail another day.

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