By grace of Starbucks

I’m back home in the U.S., getting online in the wee hours over a wi-fi access point that’s my wife’s laptop, which is on the Net at the moment using a Verizon EvDO card. The connection is highly asymmetrical (fast-enough downsteam, slow-as-dialup upstream), but it’s serving as our home connction until Verizon FiOS (fiber optic) cabling and service arrives on Thursday. Then we’ll have 20Mb downstream and 5Mb upstream.

Anyway, I spent my week in London at the Thistle Kensington Park, which lists high-speed Internet access among its amenities. It either failed completely or was slow beyond measure. I spent hours on the phone with tech support at the company that provides the service, and ended up refusing to pay the charges that the hotel manager insisted were not his to take off the bill. I’ve never had a heated argument with a hotel manager before, so this was a milestone experience for me. It was also the latest lesson in a series that keeps me coming back to Starbucks, where the Internet access experience is as predictable (and expensive) as its coffee. I hate to say its worth it to me to pay the monthly T-Mobile fee, but it is. Getting a fast-enough and reliable Net connection at pretty much any Starbucks one encounters is a mark of civilization, at least to me. (Though I do await the time when we look back on wi-fi access charges as a breed of extortion akin to that of the pay toilet. Meanwhile I do understand the economics involved.)

I’d give kudos to T-Mobile as well, but they charge 18¢/minute “roaming” fee for using their network at Starbucks in the U.K.  But I am grateful that Starbucks goes to the trouble of making sure that customers get Net access, somehow. And that the access is reliable.

My experience in hotels is highly varied. The worst by far was the Thistle Kensington Park, but I can’t say what the best is. Nothing stands out for me. Anybody know if there’s a Starbucks equivalent among hotels? After this past week of zero Net access from the Thistle, I’m ready to limit my patronage to hotels that have known reliable Net access for guests.

17 comments

  1. Martin Budden’s avatar

    I’ve had good experiences with Radisson SAS and Hilton hotels in Scandinavia. But that may be more to do with Scandinavia than those particular hotel chains. Still, I’d say either would be worth a try next time you travel.

  2. gregory’s avatar

    how odd… i have been living in small town india for years… now there is internet here… maybe realistically it is something like 10 Kbps, though they say it is 112.5…. but i had been assuming that in the great white west, and for all you tech wizards, broadband was everywhere… and it’s not? hmm….

  3. Julian Bond’s avatar

    Thistle used to use Swisscom and you’re absolutely right, they’re terrible. I think they’ve recently changed to OpenZone which is run by BT. It’s a bit expensive and a bit awkward to use, but at least it works.

    Roll on the days when major hotel chains provide Wifi as a service rather than a value added extra.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Martin. I’ve stayed in a few Radissons and Hiltons, and I don’t remember anything special about them. I do notice that quite a few hotel chains that promise “high speed” internet don’t deliver. Days Inn was one, for example, on the way across the country last month. But at least a connection was there, even if it wasn’t fast. Odd now we notice the exceptions on the bad side, rather than the good. I’ll try to change that habit in myself.

    The Thistle system used existing phone wire, not CAT5 or CAT6, for distribution. The modem hung off a splitter that connected both the room’s phone and the modem with ordinary 4-conductor phone wire. That was probably part of the problem right there.

    The service on the phone was terrible. The first call ended when the service person insisted the problem was caused by my cell phone or “something electrical” in my room, which was ridiculous. The second service person (the next night) said it was clearly a problem at the hotel, and that I should request that they change out the modem. The hotel did nothing. Given that they didn’t even fix a broken elevator, or clean filthy lobby restroom floors, and left their coffee station (with its very nice cappuccino machine) idle during the day, I wasn’t surprised. Worse, my only choice was calling either through the room phone or my cell. The room phone had a ridiculously high charge, so I took my chances with my US-based cell phone. It worked like a local call, but we’ll see.

    Julian, I don’t think the service company was Swisscom, but I don’t know.

    And Gregory, the “white west” isn’t all great, as I’m sure you know.

  5. David Kearns’s avatar

    Marriott, without a doubt, offers the most consistent (and good) internet access – and it’s usually “no extra charge.” Hiltons and Hyatts are spotty at best while Sheratons tend to be abysmal.

  6. Dan Guy’s avatar

    The Charlesmark at Copley in Boston, MA is my favorite hotel ever. Free, reliable wifi. Free, delicious breakfast. Nice in-room sound system. Excellent use of space. Free movie library. Relatively inexpensive.

  7. PXLated’s avatar

    Haven’t had much hotel experience so can’t add to that discussion but here in the Mpls. area I rarely visit a Starbucks (and pay) as almost every coffee shop has free wifi. Caribou and Dunn Bros. are almost always good but all the mom/pops are connected too. My favorite source for WiFi info has become… http://hotspotr.com/wifi …I always add new ones I find and they can be identified by venue type. One can also add coments about the venue (service, access, etc). Hotspotr relies on us to fill out and rate the venues so I encourage everyone to add their venues/experiences.

    PS: Another good, free source of WiFi is usually the local libraries, even in a lot of small towns.

  8. JTH (Chip)’s avatar

    I seem to recall reasonable service at Marriott’s and some Hilton’s (belong to both “frequent stayer” plans so little other examples of late.

    With visits to Chicago (family) I stay at the Palmer House
    ( a Hilton property ), and it works. Ethernet vs Wifi, but that’s OK for light work with a desk.

    Observation : good service is not a “surprise” nor should it be, bad service is what sticks in our craw.

    Your post triggered a quick search:
    Found
    http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2007/4/29/175723/520/hotels/Best_WiFi_Hotels_2007

    Ciao
    Chip

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I don’t recall any bad experiences at a Mariott, at least not in recent years. I seem to recall paying for the privilege, though. That policy may have changed. Generally Mariotts are out of my price range. (Which is from cheap to less cheap.)

    The Holiday Inn where we stayed a couple weeks ago near St. Louis had a very fast free connection, for what that’s worth.

    I’ve tried a number of Caribou Coffees. Their wi-fi, while free, has usually been slow. Same with Panera Bread. In some cases, their wi-fi has been present but not active.

    Thanks for the advice on the CharlesMark Copley and hotspotr. I’ll check them both out (or, in the case of the former, send folks there).

  10. Jean-Francois Noel’s avatar

    I don’t know if it’s all Hyatt, but I was at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco this summer and the wifi was provided by T-Mobile. I didn’t had to pay a separate fee for the access, but the coverage was spotty in the underground conference rooms.

  11. JTH (Chip)’s avatar

    Doc

    1) price range … I’ve moved up from no-name fleabag (G) to moderate to high (depending on budget at the time)
    2) price range too … See the hotelchatter, Marriott covers a range of offerings, I sometimes use Courtyard. Just depends on where I am.
    3) Copley can be pricey – the mall
    Use to use the Marriott next to the Aquarium, then, when family moved to Brookline – used one there, walking distance to daughter’s place.

    Also of note, seems to Muni-Wifi’s have not been living up to promise

    Ciao
    Chip

  12. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    My two hotels of choice in London right now are the ParkCity, a small boutique hotel in South Kensington (net £6 a night though) and the Hoxton, which is £99 a night (if you can get a room) with free internet. Both are very clean and relatively accessible.

    The ParkCity is in a residential neighborhood, and I’ve also had some luck ‘borrowing’ stray signals from time to time while staying there.

    Park City: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g186338-d621785-Reviews-Hoxton_Hotel-London_England.html

    Hoxton: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g186338-d621785-Reviews-Hoxton_Hotel-London_England.html

    FWIW, I stayed at the Radisson SAS in London and had to call an 845 number to get help on my Internet. A 90 second call cost £50!!!. They offered to reduce it to £45 and I said no, paid the bill, and never returned. Three years later I sent over a copy of £10,000 in hotel bills I had in London over the past few years and said ‘your short term greed for a phone bill has lead to this long term loss of £10,000 in business’. Never got a reply.

  13. unit2a’s avatar

    Hi Doc,
    I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I always have to travel cheaply. Last November we went to a conference in London and the conference hotel was prohibitively expensive for our wee little budget. At the suggestion of my in-laws via the Portland, Oregon newspaper, we stayed at the clean, fun, small-roomed but rather inexpensive Portobello Gold in Notting Hill. I don’t remember how fast the internet connection was, but it was free. There’s a restaurant/bar downstairs with friendly people; it can get a little noisy, but we didn’t mind. http://www.portobellogold.com/
    Tracy

    P.S. I am writing you from a Starbucks! Yes, they are expensive but they have saved me so many times over the years. Though I love the groovy, little neighborhood place that offers free internet, sometimes it just doesn’t work out for whatever reason. So far, SB hasn’t failed us yet.

  14. Stowe Boyd’s avatar

    Doc -

    When in London, I have been happy with the Club Quarters chain, with free wifi. The have hotels in several US cities, as well. Likewise, the Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch was equally good. But its very hit or miss.

    My solution in the States is to use a Verizon access card, so I can just circumvent the whole thing.

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    In fact I usually stay at Club Quarters, and will be there on my next trip over. But you’re right that it’s hit-or-miss with the free wi-fi. Speeds in my experience so far have ranged from slow to adequate.

    I also carry a Verizon EvDO card, which is very handy. I’m using it now, in fact. But the slow upstream speed minimizes upoading photos, which I like to do.

  16. Pandarooms.com’s avatar

    If you are looking for a place to stay in London please try pandarooms.com

  17. Sam’s avatar

    Starbucks, McDonalds and other free internet places are a lifesaver for people like me who rely on being online while on travel with work duties. There should be more wifi hotspots in the UK. :)

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