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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Wi-Fi Versus Soap And Towels
Why providers simply need to clean up their acts if they're to survive...

For some reason the last six weeks have seen me running at a pace close to that of 1999/2000, with daily international travel and communication on the fly. But the connectivity of my laptop to the rest of the world has moved from the fixed and mobile telephone at 9.6-56Kbps to LANs and Wi-Fi at more than 1Mbps.

I just visited nine cities in 14 days across North America and in eight of my hotels I was able to connect for free at speeds of between 3 and 6Mbps. Only one hotel charged - a modest $9 per day - to connect and there was always Wi-Fi in the lobby. Moreover 12 of the companies I visited offered a free LAN/Wi-Fi connection that was either inside or outside their firewall.

Returning to Europe it is hard to explain the level of frustration engendered by hotel rooms that don't provide LANs and often don't even have a telephone with a suitable connection for dial-up modems. In the past 20 days I have stayed in seven EU hotels: two had LANs to the bedroom; three had telephone access; and two had nothing.

Of 10 companies I visited only one offered a LAN connection, another had telephone line only and eight offered nothing. In fairness one hotel did offer Wi-Fi but at a ridiculous $60 per day. So I thought I would try just for fun. But three attempts with three different credit cards resulted in no connection - and $60 saved. My solution was to walk down the street and pick-up a Wi-Fi site for free.

What is happening on the Wi-Fi and wire LAN scene and how come one continent can offer free service and another cannot? The true cost of the provision of LAN connectivity to hotel bedrooms and Wi-Fi to lobbies is about $1.00 per day, while the provision of towels, hot water, soap and shampoo comes out at about $6.50. If hotels don't charge for these bathroom items individually at when they're than 10 times more expensive than LAN/Wi-Fi connection, why should anyone want to charge me for that facility?

One US hotel did not provide free internet access. They charged a nominal $9.00 per day for 3Mbps. Contrast this with a typical EU LAN charge of $20 for a 250-500Kbps ADSL dribble, with a fan-out of well over 100, providing a service only slightly better than a 56Kbps dial-up modem.

Don't these people get it? Don't they realise there is a revolution underway in the world of networking and those providers of extremely expensive and poor performance LAN services are not only going to lose money, they are ultimately going to go bust?

I well remember the first roll out of Wi-Fi with pricing programmes that included 200 non-contiguous minutes for a mere $20. I signed up for these because I could go airport to hotel to coffee shop and use my $20 per 200 minutes gradually, session by session - and 200 minutes of high speed interconnect is worth $20.

What I am not prepared to do, and what other users are not prepared to do, is to spend $30 for a 30 minute session that has to be eaten on the spot and cannot be used by instalments as they travel. When companies have pricing plans that are more than $100 per month for mobile connectivity, at criminally slow speeds that they proclaim to be fast, is there any wonder they are not making any money and are starting to question the strategy of rolling out Wi-Fi as a service at all?

The true cost of provision of any high-speed service is not dominated by the line-plant because that already exists. The copper wires and optical fibre are in the ground today and have been amortised over decades of use for telephony and other services. We all know it isn't the price of modems because we can go to a store and buy them.

So when companies wish to charge us for a service where all the costings are very visible, I think it is entirely reasonable that the users rebel and we then see the rise of a parallel world. It is a world of free access provided by those who wish to help, rather than hinder progress. The true provision of a high-speed connection on a wired LAN is about $1 per day, while Wi-Fi never exceeds $1.50 per day.

The inflated connectivity costs in the EU see the initial outlay for LAN provision to a hotel bedroom, lobby or airport lounge and coffee shop recovered by fewer than 10 mobile customers using the service. I can only assume that greed is driving pricing policy. No mobile worker and/or user of the technology would do this.

They must also be totally unaware of the number of organisations and individuals who purposely leave their Wi-Fi sites wide open for public use. It is an increasingly common practice in the US and Canada for companies to provide free Wi-Fi access for visitors on the internet side of their firewall - namely the dirty side - while on the inside they have extremely secure facilities for their employees.

It seems that one fundamental difference between Europe and North America - one is an inclusive society that reaches out to provide facilities for people in order that they can engage and enjoy the fruits of technology and trade; the other practices an exclusive policy to restrict and constrain access. This is not a healthy philosophy in an increasingly competitive world and can only lead to substantial damage to industry.

In the last five years my mobile phone bill has fallen by 80 per cent but not through the good grace of the operating companies. It is instead through the increasing provision of free Wi-Fi and LANs. My mobile phone is now relegated to the occasional telephone call with very rare usage for internet connection.

From hereon the pressure is going to get worse and accelerate as more people fund, understand and install their own wireless LANs.

This column was dictated directly into a digital format while flying BA098 Toronto to London. It was later despatched to my PA via my home LAN, to return as typed text a day. It was then revised and despatched to two days after that.