Collaborating against all odds (or when technology thinks otherwise)

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

One challenge the knowledge worker faces - sometimes daily - is staying connected so he can collaborate with others.  My colleague Sachin Anand recently wrote a Commentary in Basex:TechWatch on the trials and tribulations he experienced as he tried to stay connected so he could collaborate with his colleagues here at Basex.  As our work environments change more and more to the non-Dilbertian, staying connected will continue to be something we have to work at - at least until connectivity becomes truly ubiquitous and more like a walk in the park.


At the onset of the first real heat wave of the summer, Internet access in my home office was suddenly no more.  I therefore ventured out in Brooklyn to find a café where I could finish my  work in a more hip, and caffeine filled place (the prospect of braving a ride on a hot steamy subway to the office was not very appealing).  There are many cafés nearby that offer free WiFi to their customers, as well as some offering T-Mobile HotSpots for which I have a corporate account.  However, you get what you pay for and free WiFi can be a problem for the road warrior. 

But the road warrior can tire of Starbucks, and the ambience of Ozzie's Coffee and Tea in Park Slope was beckoning, even if I had to use their (not for free) WiFi provider, Urban Hotspots.  

Frequently the road warrior faces this very trade-off: free, but unpredictable, Wi-Fi versus supposedly more reliable paid Wi-Fi.  Choosing Ozzie's Coffee and Tea shop meant I was going to be using Urban Hotspots, which charged a fee ($6/day or $30/month) for its high-speed Internet service.  Upon launching my internet browser, I was directed to, where I was prompted to register, decide whether I wanted a day or month pass, and pay for the service through PayPal.  Opting for the day pass, I entered my new log-in information, and paid for it through the PayPal site.  Unfortunately, when I tried to use the Internet, I was repeatedly told my log-in was incorrect.    

At this moment in time, I recognized another problem with using pay for service Wi-Fi.  Since most of the pay for use Wi-Fi services in coffee shops are outsourced, there is little the coffee shop employees can do to help with your Internet crisis.  Instead, you must contact the technical support team that manages the WiFi service.  I rang the technical support number for Urban Hotspots and found out that the service team was actually one person.  The voicemail message informed me that all systems were up and running, and that I should leave a message if I needed any further assistance.  This I did, and waited.  

After letting 15 minutes pass, I called tech support again.  Luckily, my call was promptly answered.  My log-in problem must have been a common complaint because he had the answer to my problem immediately.  He asked whether at the end of my PayPal process I clicked the “Return to Merchant” link or simply moved on to accessing the Internet.  It turned out that this one specific part of the process determined whether your log-in information was registered with the Urban Hotspots database.  By not clicking this link, you were charged by PayPal but were never officially registered; leaving you with a lighter wallet but no Internet.    

After rectifying the situation, I started my browser and logged into Urban Hotspots.  The log-in process worked flawlessly, and the high speed Internet was now at my fingertips.  But this only lasted a few minutes.  The Internet connection slowed down so much that all my sites began to "time out".  This time the tech support worker could not figure out the problem, because it was clearly not a bandwidth issue, with only 2 other users on this particular network at the time.  Without any clear answer in sight, I relocated to my familiar Starbucks and my paid for T-Mobile account.  

Since my colleague Jonathan Spira has noted many times in his columns that paid Wi-Fi services can also be unpredictable, perhaps my difficulties with the Urban Hotspots service should not have come as such a surprise.  With unpredictable free and paid for Wi-Fi services, what is the answer for the virtual knowledge worker on the prowl for dependable, cheap Internet service while on the road?  One answer may be found in a third alternative, sponsored free Wi-Fi.

New York City will soon witness a large increase in the number of free Wi-Fi spots available in city parks.  A partnership between a small start-up, Wi-Fi Salon, and Nokia promises that knowledge workers (and other people) will be able to enjoy free Internet at 18 locations across 10 city parks by the end of August.  Corporate sponsorship may have the added benefit of reliability because the sponsor (in this case, Nokia) has a lot to lose (e.g. credibility) from a poorly managed Wi-Fi network.  The road warrior has benefited greatly from increased access to Wi-Fi networks at thousands of Starbucks locations, but what is the answer for the worker who just cannot stomach the prospect of yet another grande latte?  If nothing else, a shady oak tree in Central Park sounds rather appealing.

Editor's Choice
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Shane Snider, Senior Writer, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author