In cases like these, it's WiFI to the rescue, if you can find it nearby.
As of mid-September 2009, WiFi directory JiWire listed over 280,000 hotspots worldwide. Many hotspots are at individual businesses, as a service to customers. For example, Direct Tire & Auto Service, the Boston-area car repair shop where I've been bringing my car for service for over two decades has free WiFI in its waiting area for customers at all four of its locations. StarBucks, Panera Bread, and McDonald's offer WiFI; ditto Barnes & Noble bookstores, along with airports, hotels, train stations, libraries, intercity buses like BoltBus, LimoLiner and MegaBus, as well as some commuter rail and even some commuter ferries.
About 19% of hotspots are free, according to JiWire. The rest aren't.
As any attentive traveler knows, buying access to WiFI hotspots (or hotel Ethernet) can quickly add up. Per-session/day rates of $3-$10 or more are typical in the United States, more like $20 in Europe and other parts of the world. So you could easily rack up $30 to $50 of WiFI expenses in one day.
"It's becoming an issue, when people spend the equivalent of a night's stay at a hotel just for Internet access," says Basex's Spira. "More companies are now looking at this issue, rather than telling employees, 'attach somehow to the Internet.'"
For anyone away from the company or home network, that $30-60/month for 3G service (in the United States) quickly looks like a compelling deal... as long as the service is available where you need it... or unless you can access hotspots less expensively.
Better WiFi deals, thanks to bundlers and aggregators
What many people don't know is that there are ways to access hotspots more affordably.
First, many of the wired and wireless broadband carriers are offering free use of selected WiFi hotspots.
AT&T, for example, is bundling its "AT&T WiFi Basic" service for free to qualifying wired and wireless broadband customers; Verizon is bundling in access (www.verizon.net/hotspots,looks like around 15,000 hotspots around the U.S.) for its higher-speed FIOS and DSL users.
AT&T Wireless is particularly motivated to get its customers to use hotspots for data activity, since 3G data traffic from iPhones has been growing significantly; the more traffic AT&T can divert to WiFi, the less the strain on their 3G network.
Testing access aggregators
I've taken both Boingo and iPass out for brief "test rides" (using press accounts provided by the organizations), using a Lenovo S12 IdeaPad netbook running XP. Both companies' clients installed simply and easily.
Boingo, for WiFi
I used Boingo to connect to WiFi at two local StarBucks. The Boingo WiFI client found the hotspot and automatically popped up a "found, want to connect" box. It worked fine, no complaints or criticisms.
iPass: 3G and WiFi
The Sierra Wireless USB adapter provided by iPass includes a USB cable and a "clip stand" that lets me park the adapter at the top of my notebook display, to keep it out of the way and, I presume, help improve reception.
iPass includes Sierra's "Watcher" application, which detects service, indicates whether it's 1X or EVDO (basically, "older slower service" or "current, fast," toggles "connect/disconnect" requests, and shows connection status including speed.
In my home office and on parts of the Amtrak regional train ride from Boston to New York, I saw speeds of only 115kbps, reminiscent of dial-up. But elsewhere on the Amtrak New York/Boston run, iPass' Watcher app claimed 4.8MB down and around half a meg up -- more than enough, for example, to watch a few YouTube videos. Similarly, I had no trouble using iPass' 3G in and around Manhattan, including in the lower level of a New York Library building (which also had free WiFI).
However, even these bundles may not include access to hotspots where you will be -- or you may be with a different carrier or on a plan that doesn't include hotspot access.
Fortunately, there's yet one more option for affordable hotspot access, for consumers/single-users, SMBs and enterprises. (See sidebar: Testing Aggregated Access).
Many hotspots are likely to be available through multiple carriers and aggregators. "The carriers typically have between 85,000 and 110,000 hotspots," notes Kathryn Weldon. Principal Analyst, Enterprise Mobility, at Current Analysis. "This isn't surprising, since all the carriers are using the same partners."
Boingo - WiFI Aggregated Affordably
Boingo Wireless, Inc. aggregates and provides access to WiFI hot spots (see http://boingo.jiwire.com), including from AT&T, Wayport, iBahn, T-Mobile, BT Openzone, Orange France, Livedoor, Singtel, Telmex, Pronto, HubTelecom, Vex, Attingo, Bell Mobility, Net Near U, StayOnline, and Kubi Wireless.
As of September 2009, Boingo access includes "100,000+ hotspots around the world... more than 500+ airports, 20,000+ hotels, and 25,000+ cafes and restaurants around the world, including more than 14,000+ McDonald's restaurants."
Boingo's current single-user plans/prices are Boingo Unlimited (Americas) $9.95/month and Boingo Global (worldwide) $59.95/month -- Boingo's notebook software runs Windows XP and Vista, and (some) Macs -- and Boingo Mobile (for smartphones, including iPhone/iPod Touch, Nokia S60, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry, for U.S. and 70+ other countries), $7.95/month, plus some "As You Go" day rates. Additionally, Boingo offers Boingo Unlimited Group for consolidated billing, and Enterprise Edition plans, generally through partners.
If you've already got 3G service, or don't want it, Boingo is a compelling option. Given current hotspot prices, a Boingo account will pay for itself if you need to buy access even one to two times a month.
Unlike 3G usage, which is keyed to the device or adapter, Boingo use is per-user, not tied to a specific laptop. (Boingo is looking into an account and pricing by device -- if, for example, you're packing an iPod Touch and a netbook.)
Most Boingo partner networks have a 'roaming' login link -- a Universal Access Method, UAM -- so in case you're on a machine that doesn't have the Boingo client installed, you should be able to login via the web page.
iPass, For When You Also Want 3G And/Or Value-Added Services
iPass Inc., which Internet veterans may remember from the mid-90s as a dial-up aggregator, is aimed more at SMBs and enterprises -- particularly global ones. The company says its user base includes "3,500 enterprise and 400 Global 2000 firms." (iPass does offer single-user plans, through some of its resellers.
iPass aggregates/resells not only 3G and WiFi access, but also wired-Ethernet and also dial-up (which some, although fewer each year, still use, according to iPass).
iPass currently offers access to around 140,000 hotspots worldwide, including about 30,000 in the United States, and 60,000 in Europe. This includes hotspots associated with AT&T and T-Mobile, and at locations like StarBucks, McDonald's and Barnes & Noble, plus at airports, hotels, transit stations; and trains.
By using iPass, "We've reduced or eliminated the use of day pass access," reports Hay Group's Little. "The biggest issue was eliminating or reducing WiFi costs in hotels."
For anyone debating between iPass and Boingo, hotspot locations aren't likely to drive the decision. According to a Boingo spokesperson, "There isn't a very big difference between Boingo and iPass in the U.S. regarding hotspot coverage. There are more international examples -- Bell Canada, Telefonica, etc., where Boingo has roaming rights and iPass doesn't."
The big differentiators are iPass's additional networks, and IT/value-added services. iPass also offers 3G services in nine countries including the United States, plus wired-Ethernet, dial-up and other access. Additionally, iPass includes access to 2,500 Ethernet-accessed hotels, and around 24,000 dial access numbers across 165 countries.