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

By Gerry Blackwell

January 13, 2004

Our reporter continues his travels with Wi-Fi encountering good and bad service along the way.

Reliability will be a crucial metric for successful Wi-Fi hotspot operators. If public access doesn't work half the time, demanding business travelers won't bother with them -- and business travelers are the early adopters who will make the market.

In Part I of this two-part series, your intrepid correspondent set out on an expedition to discover just how reliable -- or not -- hotspots could be. The trip started in Toronto, Canada and took me by train to Montreal, then to Ottawa and finally back to Toronto.

Three days and over 1,000 miles later, having tried 11 hotspots from four service providers, I concluded that Wi-Fi hotspots -- at least based on this sampling -- need to get a little better if they're to attract a broader, less tech-savvy market. I experienced far too many annoying glitches.

The train journey from Toronto to Ottawa, which gave me a chance to test Bell Canada and PointShot Wireless's cool on-train Wi-Fi service, was a highlight of the trip. Things took a turn for the worse when I hit Montreal.

It was nothing to do with Wi-Fi, though. Montreal is too damn cold.

Staying Inside

As a southerner -- a southern Canadian, that is, from the relative tropics of Southwestern Ontario -- it is not clear to me how people can actually live in Montreal year round. It was early December and the wind-chill on the streets was a face-numbing zero degrees Fahrenheit! Wise Montrealers were wearing balaclavas and furs. It was a good time to be indoors surfing the Net.

I stayed at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel, a boutique inn on Sherbrooke Street, a major thoroughfare and hotel alley near McGill University and downtown shopping. The Sheraton is one of five hotels in Montreal in which Tadaa Wireless has installed hotspots in public areas. Some of the rooms also have wired Ethernet service, but not the suite I was assigned.

Since the main (read, only) public area in the Sheraton is its cozy lobby and bar/restaurant, it wasn't hard to find the hotspot. Tadaa's is a for-fee service, but the company had issued me a demo user ID and password.

By this time, I was beginning to learn the ropes and knew enough not to throw my hands up in disgust just because I couldn't immediately get a Tadaa log-in page. As usual, it took one or two tries -- closing then reopening the browser -- but the page came up after a few minutes and I was able to log in using the demo account.

Tadaa president Daniel Yeboah has since told me that his company is testing new technology that will prevent the annoying delays and error messages I experienced at his sites and others. It caches pages in the access point so that even if the site is in "sleep mode," the user won't get error messages.

Other service operators, however, deny their access points go into a sleep mode. They can't imagine what caused the problems I experienced.

After I was logged in at the Sheraton, I had few problems. The McAfee connection speedometer measured the connection at 1.35 Mbps. As far as I could tell, nobody else was using the service at the time.

I did have some temporary difficulty with MSN, but have no reason to believe it had anything to do with the wireless connection. I was able to collect e-mail from both Web mail and POP servers.

Tadaa has about 25 hotspots around Montreal, in hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, including a few in Montreal's extensive network of downtown tunnels and connected shopping malls. That's where I headed next, with the idea of spending as little time as possible outside freezing my face.

One of the Tadaa hotspots is the Café Vienne on the fourth floor of the shopping arcade in the Montreal Trust building. I found it, noted the small Wi-Fi Hotspot sticker on the glass case by the cash register, and then settled into a seat in the corner with my trusty Toshiba PDA.

This time, I got a log-in page immediately and was in with no problem. The connection speedometer, which I was able to use for the first time with the Pocket PC, measured an impressive 1.175 Mbps. Again, there appeared to be nobody else using the service here.

I also walked 70 feet away from the café on the other side of an open gallery and stair well where there were some benches for tired shoppers. I got just as good a connection there.

Ottawa Wi-Fi

The next stop on my marathon Wi-Fi weekend was Ottawa, the nation's capital. First, I had to get there, by train, which took me back to the Montreal rail station -- where I found myself again in a ViaRail lounge.

Readers of Part I will remember that the Bell AccessZone at the lounge in Toronto's Union Station was apparently down when I tried it at 6:30 on the morning of my departure from Toronto. On this occasion I was able to log on right away. I had no time to test the service before being called to board the train, though.

The Bell-PointShot on-train service is only available on the Toronto-Montreal run, so the next time I was able to log in to the Net wirelessly came after I reached Ottawa. When I got there the city was not quite as cold as Montreal, but close. It grew colder as the weekend wore on.

Local start-up BOLDstreet Wireless Internet has led the way in rolling out Wi-Fi hotspots and dominates the local market. It has about 25 sites in the city, plus another 30 in nearby towns and in Toronto. Most are in restaurants and cafés, including a few chain outlets. The firm's one Ottawa hotel is the downtown Les Suites, where I stayed.

BOLDstreet uses infrastructure and services from Toshiba. Toshiba Canada started a Wi-Fi initiative shortly after the U.S. company launched its SurfHere initiative last year. It has since pulled back from it, however. BOLDstreet now deals with Toshiba in the U.S.

The 18-month-old company this year moved to a wholesale business model. It sells through independent local and regional ISPs who act as BOLDstreet agents. The company has signed 23 of these ISPs and is talking to many more. A few have already made significant inroads in their market areas, selling turnkey hotspot systems and backhaul services to local businesses.

BOLDstreet, meanwhile, continues to give the service away free to end users, both as a way of priming the market -- and because company president Tom Camps doesn't believe it's possible to rationally price the service at this early stage in the market's development.

There are hotspots in the Les Suites lobby level coffee shop and in a mezzanine area near some conference rooms.

Sitting in the lobby behind a pillar, I could not get sufficient signal strength. When I moved into the coffee shop itself, I got a BOLDstreet log-in page immediately and was able to log in and start surfing. Connection speeds again measured in the 1-Mbps-plus range. I moved upstairs to the mezzanine and got an equally good connection.

The Empire Grill, another of the BOLDstreet sites, is a trendy mid-range restaurant in the fashionable Byward Market area, a ten-minute walk from Les Suites and within view of Canada's Parliament Buildings. The food was delightful, but the BOLDstreet hotspot didn't work.

I tried everything, and then asked my waiter to check with management to see if there were any known problems. He came back professing bewilderment, but brought a little bi-fold card advertising the service -- which I suspect BOLDstreet would rather was sitting on the table in the first place.

The card provides somewhat simplistic instructions on using the service, and lists a customer service telephone number. This was early on a Sunday afternoon, but I was able to get a tech support person at the Toshiba network operations center right away -- this is one of the services BOLDstreet buys from Toshiba.

The agent confirmed that the Empire Grill, along with a few other BOLDstreet restaurants in Ottawa, was down. This doesn't exactly jibe with what BOLDstreet later told me, which was that the problems were caused by recent internal systems changes at the Empire Grill.

In any case, the Toshiba agent was also able to see that another restaurant just around the corner, Meditheo, was still up and running. I headed there for afternoon tea, just before cabbing back to the train station for the trip home.

Meditheo is funky little spot where one can imagine tech-savvy civil servants coming for lunch during the week and surfing the Web wirelessly. I was able to log in right away using the Toshiba Pocket PC and collect my POP mail. Being Sunday, there weren't a lot of really pressing messages.

Soon after, I toppled, glassy eyed with fatigue, into a cab and began the return journey.

Conclusion

Yes, Wi-Fi hotspots work, eventually. Yes, it's very cool to be able to surf the Web and collect your e-mail while sitting in a café far from home, or on the train.

How much would I be willing to pay for the service, though? I'm not sure, but not as much as I would if there were more hotspots in more places and you could count on them being available all the time.

Originally published on .

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