Does the home of the free embrace that concept enough to only use public Wi-Fi for practical purposes? Last week, I hit the streets of New York to find out.
Lifehacker has covered the kind of bill shock you can experience when using global roaming data many times before, including our top ten tips for avoiding roaming bill shock and the best ways to get free Wi-Fi while out and about. In New York last week it occurred to me that I had the ideal opportunity to dogfood the whole "use free Wi-Fi" approach.
As such, I very deliberately didn't check online sources for "free" hotspots; not only can they date badly, but I wanted to simulate what you'd do if you found yourself in a strange city and needed to go online quickly to check mail, get map directions or engage in a little light social networking.
The iPhone 4S in my pocket was set to disable data roaming, although I did note with some amusement that when it roamed to a US network for call/SMS purposes, it also flicked over to looking for "4G" networks, rather than "3G" ones. That's down to US carrier AT&T and Apple agreeing that HSPA+ is "4G". I'd beg to differ, and so would the ACCC, but then again, I was in their country, so their rules applied. 4G data also went the way of the Dodo, because if you're not actually using data there's no point in polling for connectivity that way.
I did do one very important bit of prior preparation before the trip, changing every single password for every single account I was going to test with the service -- and then changing them again the moment I got back to Australia. You can never tell who's going to listen in on a public hotspot, but having a decent strength unique password for each account should be a must; for more on this topic, check out Lifehacker's total security guide. In theory I could have matched my randomised passwords to a VPN for the best possible security, although as I found, the real world speeds I got matched to a VPN could have made for some terrible connections.
Things didn't get off to a good start when I landed at New York's JFK airport. Los Angeles Airport has free Wi-Fi (but terrible food choices), while JFK has nothing that I could find in the way of free connectivity; it may be different if you've got lounge access as it often is, but I was purely going for the budget play here.
It then went a little bit more critical; the hotel I was staying at did have in-room Internet that functioned, but for some strange reason about 75 per cent of the time, it wouldn't poll my email account properly. Given the time difference between New York and Australia, this meant I needed to find some public Wi-Fi sources on a regular basis just to keep up with my correspondence!
First port of call were the typical kinds of places you'd hit for "free" Wi-Fi, namely cafes and restaurants. You might figure that New York would be abuzz with Wi-Fi networks, and to a certain extent you'd be right; scanning around found countless networks, but almost to a fault, they were locked down. There were posters around for a "free public Wifi" service, but I could never connect to it.
Things got a little better when I hit the chain places -- more specifically McDonald's and Starbucks. Both offer free Wi-Fi for customers after a sign-in process, although here some research would have saved a little time. Rather than name their access points after the store name, they're instead using a service provided by AT&T, and therefore the connections have an SSID of "attwifi". This isn't signed or noted anywhere I could see, and I only found out about it when another Aussie journalist, Adam Turner, pointed it out to me.
There are two problems with hitting Starbucks for some free Wi-Fi action. Firstly, it meant I had to buy some Starbucks coffee. I guess you've got to suffer for your art. The second problem is that, for whatever reason, while Starbucks venues are insanely saturated throughout Manhattan -- I did hit that near-cliche of spotting three at once at one point -- they're also remarkably popular at pretty much any point of the day or night. That means that the service offered is often just as saturated with users, and that means it's very slow most of the time. Typical connections were well below 1Mbps download and much slower on upload duties. As such, they worked well enough for quick Google maps checks and just about to check Twitter, but email and Facebook often confounded it.
I was beginning to think I'd just have to send a whole lot of apologies on the email front when I returned to Australia, and went for a bit of a walk with my phone in my pocket. Checking out Grand Central Terminal, my phone began buzzing like crazy; at first I figured it was some kind of SMS backlog; a not entirely unknown phenomenon when you're roaming on another network.
But it wasn't. It was my email coming in at a very acceptable rate, because I'd bounced onto a fairly quick and free wireless network. This confused me for a second, until I looked over the station concourse. The entrance I'd walked in via was pretty much your average railway entrance point, but across the way sits an Apple store. My phone had been connected to an Apple store's Wi-Fi in Sydney in the past, so it had automatically tried to connect and succeeded as soon as it came into range.
For what it's worth, I tried the same tactic at the somewhat iconic "glass cube" Fifth Avenue store with markedly less success. Again there's a saturation problem -- people know it's there and use it a lot -- but also unless you walk underground into the actual store, the signal propagation is very weak.
So what's the practical value of such an experiment? Just using the free Starbucks/McDonald's connections was enough to do regular tourist things; I could quickly check Google Maps to make sure I was going in the right direction, or find which subway route to take. I couldn't as easily check email unless I was willing to sit, wait and drink woeful coffee for quite some time, though.
The same basic approach could work in most Australian capital cities -- leaving aside the obvious limitation that Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart lack Apple stores -- and my own ad-hoc experiences of those situations suggest you might actually get a better connection too. Any readers had experience in using "free" Wi-Fi for getting by and tips they'd care to share?
Disclaimer: I travelled to New York as a guest of Motorola to cover the RAZR HD and RAZR M launches.
The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.