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In-room Wi-Fi proves to be a business adventure

Fearless Wi-Fi warrior and Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira says hotels should proceed cautiously with WLANs because having them fail might be worse than not having them at all.

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Last week I spoke at the Smartphone Summit in San Francisco, held in conjunction with the CTIA show, the wireless industry show that focuses on integrating wireless technologies into the enterprise, as well as the wireless entertainment industry, encompassing everything from digital cameras to interactive cameras to music downloads.

The summit featured leading executives and product managers from such companies as Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Samsung, Qualcomm, JPMobile, and PalmOne, among others, looking at the issue of handhelds and smart phones in the enterprise, and discussing whether the current crop of devices meets the needs of enterprise users. (Verdict: getting close, but not yet.)

An unfortunate characteristic of a hotel stay in San Francisco these days is that many of the leading hotels have locked out their housekeepers and porters in a contract dispute. Hotel rooms in San Francisco during major events are always hard to come by, and I found myself staying not in my usual haunts -- such as the Palace or the Fairmont, both of which were all sold out -- but in Club Quarters, a full-service business-oriented hotel in the Embarcadero District.

About the author

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and chief analyst at Basex, an analysis firm specializing in collaborative business knowledge in the enterprise. Click hereto contact Basex.

 My experience at check-in was a portent of the troubles to come during my stay. The hotel has several check-in kiosks across from the main reception area. However, every guest attempting to use them, myself included, required assistance from someone at the front desk. This meant that front desk clerks were continually shuttling between the kiosks and the front desk. Contrast this to the kiosks I use to check in for my flights on America Airlines. Any credit card with my name identifies me, and it is a very rare occurrence to have to seek assistance from an agent.

Club Quarters promises "free high speed wireless Internet access throughout the hotel." They also promise "instant registration/fast checkout," but who's counting?

When I arrived, I used the IBM Access Connections "find a wireless network" feature to find the hotel network. It found two access points, both with fairly weak signals, but it connected. The access point supplied a dynamically-assigned IP address, but there we stopped. I could not see the Internet, log into IBM Instant Messaging (nÉe Lotus Sametime), or visit a Web page.

I pointed my IBM ThinkPad T42 (with integrated Bluetooth as well as Wi-Fi) to my mobile phone's GPRS data service, and replicated my e-mail as well as some documents I had worked on during the flight. I then rang the front desk.

The clerk first told me that this happens when the hotel is full, although that explanation was implausible as insufficient capacity would certainly slow the system down, but not shut it off completely. Another clerk advised that they had no access either, and a few hours later, they reported to me that this problem was an ISP outage which would be fixed in a few hours.

Since I had arrived on a Saturday, I did not begin to feel Internet withdrawal symptoms quite yet. Club Quarters has an "accept" screen that users see before accessing the Web; it states that the "Club Quarters Wireless High Speed Service is provided on an 'as is' and 'as available' basis. Club Quarters does not warrant that the Club Quarters Wireless High Speed Service will be uninterrupted, error-free or free of viruses, or other harmful components," yet clicking "accept" is not required to access the service. At no time during the outage did the hotel personnel invoke the disclaimer; they did offer to provide free local calling for dial-up Internet access without my prompting, and when I told them that I was using my mobile phone and GPRS, they offered a complimentary breakfast instead, which was a sign of true customer service.

Sunday morning came and went with no change; returning from a walk around the city Sunday afternoon, I tried to access the hotel's WLAN and -- it worked! To be sure, it worked for ca. two hours, and then stopped. The system assigned me an IP address, but that was it. The front desk put me in touch with the hotel's IT manager (back in New York) who suggested I try using a data cable (no one mentioned that the rooms had wired as well as wireless access). With cable in place, I encountered the same problem. The IT manager would reboot various components and get back to me.

Without going into the minute-by-minute details, this continued throughout my stay (I was there for five days). Sometimes I was able to connect with a cable; other times, the WLAN worked, and occasionally I had to use my GPRS service.

Club Quarters was the first hotel I stayed in to offer in-room Wi-Fi Internet access, as opposed to the many establishments where one can find a Category 5 plug peeking up from the desk. By and large, hotels have gotten the wired Internet access concept figured out, and these systems usually perform flawlessly.

As much as I embrace Wi-Fi both at home and in the office, I think that hotel operators need to think very carefully before deploying such systems, as they are still more fragile (and subject to interference from other electromagnetic sources) than the wired systems upon which the road warriors of the world place such great reliance.

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