Wi-Fi Hotspots: Are They For Real? Part I

By Gerry Blackwell

January 08, 2004

Our correspondent goes traveling cross-country with his Wi-Fi devices and reports on what he found.

Connecting to the Net wirelessly at high speed while sipping on a double latte has a very high cool factor, no doubt.

What happens, though, when you depend on public Wi-Fi services? What happens when this is the only way you can get online?

Until users, especially business travelers, can rely on Wi-Fi hotspot technology -- until it's more than just a novelty -- the market likely won't go anywhere.

Your intrepid correspondent decided to find out just how reliable -- or not -- the technology could be by traveling for one lost weekend, tapping into hotspots wherever I went, even en route.

The trip took me from Toronto, where I stayed in the luxurious Fairmont Royal York Hotel, by train to Montreal for one night, over to Ottawa, Canada's capital city, then back to Toronto.

Over 1,000 miles, round trip. In all I hit ten hotspots, from four operators in three cities, including one provided by telco Bell Canada and PointShot Wireless on the ViaRail train between Toronto and Montreal.

My bottom-line assessment: Wi-Fi hotspots have a ways to go. They will frustrate the heck out of first-time users. On the other hand, when they work -- which, in fairness, they mostly eventually do -- they work very well.

Authenticating at the Hotel

The trip started at the Royal York. We chose it because the Toronto-based Fairmont chain, which owns over 40 hotels and resorts in North America and the Caribbean, was a pioneer of hotel high-speed access and a pioneer with Wi-Fi.

The Royal York is also one of the grande dames of the hotel trade -- and it's right across the street from Toronto's Union Station, where I was scheduled to take the train to Montreal at 7 the next morning to test Bell's on-train Wi-Fi service.

I stayed on the hotel's 12th floor, the Gold floor, where rooms offer high-speed Internet access via a wired Ethernet connection, included in the room rate of about $190.

The Fairmont chain decided to use more reliable Ethernet technology in guest rooms when it first started offering high-speed Internet access services a couple of years ago, but it has always used Wi-Fi in public areas -- including in the grand lobby at the Royal York and in lounge-bars on its two executive floors. Now that Wi-Fi is maturing, the chain will begin to use wireless in guest rooms, too.

"I can see us switching increasingly to wireless," says vice president of finance Tim Aubrey who until recently managed the chain's IT department which developed the Internet access services.

I ran into problems right away on the Ethernet service in the room. First of all, the maid, or somebody, had unplugged the Ethernet cable from the wall jack -- which was under the desk, behind the curtains out of sight. It took a few minutes to figure that one out.

Even when it was plugged in, though, I couldn't get a log-in screen. I finally called the technical support number listed in the hotel information.

The support agent took me through the usual diagnostics -- checking network settings (they seemed fine), restarting the browser (no effect) and rebooting my Fujitsu Stylistic Tablet PC (apparently no effect).

As so often happens with technical support calls, the problem spontaneously disappeared in the midst of the call for no discernible reason. The Fairmont log-in page suddenly popped up, requiring me to simply enter an e-mail address for authentication.

Even then, the log-in process hung at the "initiating" stage. The tech support person had me restart the browser once more, and then I was in.

Total elapsed time: 25 minutes.

Once logged in, the service worked predictably well. Throughput measurements ranged around the 1Mbps mark. I could browse, and collect POP mail via the WebMail interface provided by my cable modem ISP, Rogers Communications.

Next, I went down to the lobby with my Wi-Fi-enabled Toshiba e740 Pocket PC. There I was able to get a log-in page right away - but it wouldn't accept my e-mail address for authentication.

At this point, I called Tim Aubrey, who dispatched one of the Royal York's onsite IT staff, James Carey.

Good technical support is vital to public Internet access services. Coffee shop hotspots obviously can't have onsite service, but it's important, as we'll see later, that users know how to get help and can get it at any time.

Turns out the problem in this case was switching devices.

The Royal York sells wired Ethernet service to guests on non-executive floors and it sells wireless service in the lobby to anyone who wants to use it. Once you pay for in-room service, or get it free as an executive-floor guest, however, you're entitled to use the wireless service at no additional charge.

This complicated array of user scenarios created some challenges for Fairmont when designing the authentication system. The system checks the MAC address of the device trying to log on as well as demanding an e-mail address. As Carey explained, the Fujitsu tablet PC was authenticated for free wireless service because I'd used it in the room on the wired network, the Pocket PC was not authenticated.

In the lounges on the executive floors, though, there is no wireless authentication required because it's assumed only executive floor guests and their guests will be there. In the 12th floor lounge, where I now retired for a well-earned drink, the Pocket PC was able to log on -- well, almost immediately. It took a couple of tries before I got a Fairmont screen. From there, it was clear sailing.

Other, differently configured systems might not experience all the hiccups I did at the Royal York, and the service did eventually work in all situations I tested. Throughput was more than fast enough.

The problems were irritating, though, and impatient and/or naive users would be put off by them, especially if they were paying.

Riding the Rails

The next morning, dark and early, I was sitting in ViaRail's 1st Class Panorama Lounge in Union Station. Bell offers complimentary hotspot service here. Both tablet PC and Pocket PC were able to get a good strong signal from the Bell access point, but nothing I did could coax the log-in page to appear.

I'm assuming the link from the access point to the Internet was down. The lounge attendant knew nothing about the service. I could find no information about it on display. Mind you, I was somewhat bleary-eyed.

The on-train service was a different story. It's also provided free by Bell and PointShot as part of a pilot. It's only available in 1st class cars on some trains running between Toronto and Montreal, though.

The PointShot technology, as described in an earlier story, uses Wi-Fi for the last 10 meters of connectivity in the train car. The PointShot RailPoint server, which houses the access point and other electronics, connects to an antenna cluster on the roof of the train car.

The system uses cellular service for the uplink and satellite -- Bell's Expressvu service -- for the downlink. PointShot president and CEO Shawn Griffin says actual throughput is typically "somewhere between a fast dial-up connection and a slow DSL connection."

I got a good strong Wi-Fi signal right away with both Pocket PC and Tablet PC. It still took a couple of tries -- closing down and re-starting the browsers -- before I got a Bell AccessZone log-in page.

Throughput was markedly slower than in all-Wi-Fi hotspots, of course. I wasn't able to measure it on either device using the usual Web-based tools. I'm not sure why. It may simply be that the service was running so slowly at the times I was testing that the Web tools timed out.

That said, the service seemed marginally faster than 2.5G cellular Internet services, most of the time. I was using one or other of the devices for much of the five-hour train ride, and did experience loss of service once. At other times throughput slowed to a crawl.

This was expected. It happens when the train passes through cellular dead zones in rural areas far from major population centers.

I was able to collect e-mail on the Pocket PC directly from my ISP's POP e-mail servers.

With some effort, I also managed to get MSN Messenger up and running on the Tablet PC. At first MSN wouldn't accept my Passport log-in and appeared to be insisting that I set up a new account.

In the end, though, I was able to log in on my original account and chat with my daughter in England while traveling down the track at about 70 mph. Very cool.

Next: The deep freeze in Montreal and Ottawa.

Originally published on .

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