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7/20/2005
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Wi-Fi On The Road Leaves A Lot To Be Desired

Despite its unpredictable, frustrating nature, wireless Internet access has become more than just a nice perk available at some savvy hotels. It has become downright necessary to compete for corporate travel business. But based on my experiences with wireless while traveling, there really isn't any reason to rush just yet.

Despite its unpredictable, frustrating nature, wireless Internet access has become more than just a nice perk available at some savvy hotels. It has become downright necessary to compete for corporate travel business. But based on my experiences with wireless while traveling, there really isn't any reason to rush just yet.Egged on by powerful business customers, hotels are being led down the Wi-Fi path as a matter of necessity. It should come as no surprise that Intel has become a key proponent, having embarked on a mission to drive Wi-Fi adoption at all of its 400 preferred hotels, thereby ensuring that traveling employees can be as productive as possible while on the road. The approach, detailed in a report last month on the Business Travel News Web site, is simple: If a preferred hotel doesn't have Wi-Fi, Intel's sales, marketing, and IT teams descend upon the property and work closely with hotel management to implement a wireless network (using Intel equipment, of course) that reaches lobbies and guest rooms.

When the effort started 18 months ago, just 9% of Intel's preferred hotels had Wi-Fi in place. By the end of 2004, it was 85%, and that number will inch up to 90% by the end of the year, global corporate travel manager Sy Price told Business Travel News. Naturally, Intel stands to benefit beyond employee productivity. With the chipmaker long having been heavily committed to bringing wireless technologies to market, more Wi-Fi networks in places where laptop-toting business travelers congregate means not only equipment sales to Intel's hotel partners, but also more demand for its wireless chipsets.

But what all this apparent wireless progress obscures is how maddening public Wi-Fi networks still can be. I've never stayed at any hotel where wireless access in my room actually worked, and anyone who's attended a conference at a Wi-Fi-enabled hotel surely recognizes this scenario: As the morning keynote commences, huge numbers of conference attendees have their faces buried in the their laptops, staring at the network-connections window in the control panel, deluding themselves into thinking they can solve a surprisingly complex set of issues by clicking on "advanced," pressing the "refresh" button, or relentlessly opening and closing their browsers in the hope of striking broadband. Frequently, we turn to each other for sympathy, linked in helpless song: "You able to get online?"

Often, wireless cards will pick up various other networks--the Starbucks across the street, another conference in a ballroom down the hall--and no matter how many times one tries to remove those peripheral networks and establish the conference network as the default, the card keeps picking up those other networks. Adding to the excruciation is the fact that the little connection icon in the system tray keeps displaying pop-up messages about the availability of a network with a signal described as "very good." Never mind that it's the wrong network, and you don't have access to it.

Even a happy ending usually requires enough time that I've missed most, if not all, of the keynote address by the time the appearance of the Google page provides long-sought relief. But more often than not, I end up with no connectivity and am forced to run up to my room at each break to file stories using a--dare I say it--remote dial-up connection.

So I guess my point is, when it comes to accessing Wi-Fi while on the road, I count on nothing, and I give up quickly. Accepting that defeat is probably the biggest productivity boost of all. Instead of wasting my time fighting with a phantom network, I can actually concentrate on what I've traveled for, and it doesn't involve gazing into--and cursing--my laptop.

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