Makeover needed: Web access on the road

It's not that I object to paying for web access while I'm traveling. Yes, I emphatically believe that it enhances a place's image to offer Web access for free, the way running water and heat are part of the package. Still, connectivity costs money to install and maintain, so I can deal with renting as long as the fee is reasonable.

What stinks is how it's dispensed. The billing increments are usually completely disconnected from the reality of how people actually use the web on the road. And that turns a sensible fee into something idiotic.

Hotels. Every place I check into offers the web these days. The smart ones, such as chains like Hyatt Place and Hampton Inn and nearly every privately owned hotel, offer it for free. They see it as an easy way to bait the hook. And I bite. I admit I am more likely to choose a hotel with free access than one that makes me pay. I know I'm not alone in this. But the ones that charge do so stupidly. Access comes in 24-hour increments there.

Now, think about this. You're going to check in at around 4 p.m. at the earliest. And you're going to leave at around 10 a.m. in the morning if you're lucky. That's about 18 hours. Business travelers will spend even less time than that in their rooms.

The problem isn't just that you're paying for a product you'll only use 75% of. It also makes renewals an even bigger rip-off. If I'm staying for a few days, I might pay for the web for 24 hours, but invariably, I'll return to my room one night at 9 or 10 pm and find I need to renew. But if I do, it will mean that I'm only going to get about two hours out of my payment before I go to bed, and in the morning, I may be leaving. Rather than lose $15 for two hours' access (often, just checking my e-mail), I do without.

So the hotel makes a little off me in the beginning, but the rigged system means I refuse to pay any more. You'd think that the hotels could eke more cash out of me by pricing in meaningful increments I can actually use.

Airports. A few airports offer free (if usually molasses-slow) web access, and for that I'm grateful. But many more, particularly those in the biggest cities, make you pony up for access. And the increments available? By the hour, by a 24-hour day, and by the month.

By the day? Really? Can you imagine if laundromats charged in daily increments? Passengers are typically in the airport for two to four hours. Who's going to need a whole day of access? And I can't even conceive of who would use the monthly option unless it's for a national network that you can use in multiple locations. Yet most travelers can't know if they'll be able to use their access in their destination without doing a few searches online first. Catch-22.

An hour might cost around $7 and a day might cost around $10. So to be able to use the web for only the two hours you must kill before your plane leaves, you'll spend at least $10 for a day. That's just as much as the cheapest hotels charge for an entire 24-hour cycle, except you're only going to be using it for 8% of the time, and the airport's service provider knows it. Why can't these guys simply price in affordable 30-minute increments?

I get so outraged by the bad value that I almost never use paid terminal web access. I know I'm not the only person who abstains because of the rate. I think that if only these service providers would simply price access appropriately and timed to how its audience is going to use it, then they would get a lot more subscribers.

At New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport, T-Mobile HotSpot changes its rates depending on where you are. In terminal 1, it's $5 for 24 hours, which is reasonable and relatively affordable. But in Terminal 7, it's 18-cents a minute, or $10.80 an hour. Stay online for 2 and a half hours, which would be typical for waiting for a flight, and you pay $27. (Then again, next door in Terminal 6, JetBlue's space, the web is free.)

And let's not even talk about censorship at the airports. No, I don't expect to be permitted to surf porn in public, as if I would. But blocking the site of Vanity Fair magazine? Blacking out the nerd blog That's what Denver International Airport did for its free access, and it's stupid. Of course, most times, you wouldn't be aware that you'd be denied such mainstream sites until after you had laid your money out.

Just one more risk of hailing a web taxi. And just one more example of how the service industry needs think a little more about the service.

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