Sunday, March 11, 2007

Wifi at the Airport

Is this a market that needs a disruptive new player, or what?

Here's something interesting I've noticed: from my travels (a limited sample, I admit) it seems like smaller airports understand that wifi is becoming an amenity like bathrooms and water fountains, and larger airports just don't get it. So I've used free wifi at Palm Beach International and in Syracuse, New York, but found that at Cleveland, Houston, and Newark, you have to pay.

There doesn't seem to be any quality difference. In Newark last week, I went through Boingo's annoying sign-up procedure, which left me utterly frustrated and cursing them and their overly-cute name. (It's the kind of name that, when things go wrong, makes you think, "Boingo? The name alone tells me that I'm dealing with a pretend company, not a serious business.")

Apart from the irritation of having to create a user account for something you will hardly ever use, their signup procedure is so Web 0.0 - I went through five usernames being told that the username was taken. Um, couldn't you check that before I filled the whole damn form out? And then I started getting server errors. Stupid.

Syracuse had some issues with its free wifi; it seemed to think that every time I opened a new browser tab, I was a new user, and gave me the obligatory "accept our terms and conditions" form. (After that you come to a brief airport user survey - just a couple of questions - and that's smart, although the 15th time I saw it I was a bit sick of it.)

I wonder what's going to happen when Houston's municipal wifi network is built. It's supposed to reach every corner of our sprawling city's 600 square miles, and that includes the airport. If I sign up for city wifi service, will I be able to use it there? Why do I think that Sprint will try to keep that from happening?

Not that I ever actually pay for wifi at the Houston airport; like everybody else, I huddle near the door of the Continental President's Club and use their free wifi.

If you want business travels to think of your airport as a 21st century travel facility, rather than a backwater hellhole, the wifi signal should be strong, free, and accessible all over the facility. West Palm Beach gets that. Syracuse gets that. (The economy hotel I stayed at this trip which charged $42 a night even got that. Free wifi included in that bargain price.)

Are you listening, Cleveland, Newark, Houston, and everybody else?

A side note: while I checked out the wifi situation in Cleveland, I saw this:

See those "free public" and "tmobile" networks? They're computer-to-computer networks. Which made me very suspicious; I suspect that someone was trying to lure travelers who didn't pay enough attention to connect to their machines for some nefarious purpose. Watch where you connect, folks; you don't know where that wifi signal's been.

(UPDATE: Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle's TechBlog offers an explanation of those odd computer-to-computer networks.)

1 comment:

GlennF said...

The reason for these varying systems is that it's not about you, it's about the airport authority realizing revenue from a captive market--the same reason that food typically costs enormously more in some airports. (There is now some justification for somewhat higher prices because of the cost of security and other handling that in-airport stores have to deal with.)

In the case of Wi-Fi, airport authorities typically negotiate long-term contracts in which tens of millions of dollars are spent by vendors to provide a multi-tiered network, often incorporating cellular, new public safety bands, and both public and secured Wi-Fi. The latter is used for baggage handling, airline operations, airport operations, and so forth.

All that said, there's probably a good case for Wi-Fi as an amenity because of it's relatively low operational cost after installation. On the other hand, why should all airport visitors pay indirectly (via airline fees and bond issues and such) for Wi-Fi if only a subset of passengers user it? (Long arguments on both sides here.)

For small Wi-Fi installations, it can be very cheap to put it in and run, especially if it's just a public network.

As for Boingo, for business travelers, they have a fixed-rate $22 per month plan for unlimited use of airport, hotel, cafe, and other Wi-Fi. So it's a good deal and worth the tiny pain if you use more than three Wi-Fi connections a month, especially at airports.

(I write about Wi-Fi all the time at Wi-Fi Networking News, a blog/reportage site.)