Stupid WiFi business: T-Mobile hotspots at Starbucks

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My Internet life in London has always been a frustrating experience, and as counter-intuitive as it might seem, being the top web gun of one of the "big 5" IT companies doesn't really help.

I thought I could find a hotel equipped with WiFi but I found none that was both matching our expenses limits and be located where I wanted (Leicester Square). Lodging in London is very expensive and yet, it seems that few hotels have thought about the value that such a service could bring them.

I finally resorted to go to... Starbucks! I need to tell you that I avoid Starbucks like plague. Or like McDonalds, which is the same. But, hell, Starbucks was the only place in sight where I could hope to get a decent Internet connection through their hotspots. So I changed my French eating habits and took the plunge to the anglo-saxon utilitarian approach of lunch -- aka junk food quickly swallowed in front of a notebook -- at the Starbucks at Leicester Square.

The WiFi service of Starbucks in London is provided by the German operator T-Mobile, which sells the connection at the awfully expensive rate of £5 an hour. T-Mobile customers can "benefit" from a very special price of £1.5/15mn, which means £6/h (the reward for being a loyal customer I guess). I bought one hour with my VISA card (they don't accept Amex) and received my credentials (two mind boggling long chains of random characters) on screen. I logged in and started to enjoy The Web at last. After 20 mn, my joy faded as the connection dropped. The WiFi signal was present and strong, but I couldn't access any site. After fiddling for a few minutes, I decided to hit the logout button in that little T-Mobile popup window, the request to the T-Mobile site seemed to work and the popup window closed itself which I think I'm right to interpret as a positive sign of a successful logout). I quietly headed towards Hyde Park for a meeting. I got back to Leicester Square and before getting my luggage at the hotel, got back to Starbucks, decided to use my hour until the last minute. No luck, I was greeted with an "invalid password" error message, which I suppose is the IT equivalent of telling me that my hour had expired. Very nice. It meant that the logout request didn't come through because the network was down!

I browsed the few pages that T-Mobile allows you to see for free, which contain their terms of service, a F.A.Q and some troubleshooting instructions. Written by a lawyer in lawyer's language for most of them, those pages make it very clear that whatever happens, it's not anybody's fault but yours. Even the troubleshooting pages are written to make you feel like a hopeless form of life and one of the most useful piece of advice is that you should call your IT administrator if you're trying to configure your network settings on Windows NT (from a Starbucks?). And nowhere in this academic example of bad customer service one can find a way to contact someone at T-Mobiel. No contact form, no email, no nothing. We told you, if it doesn't work, it's your fault, so why would you dare to contact us?

The first lesson of the story is that unless I have no other choice between that and death, it will be long before I'm a customer of T-Mobile again, and one of Starbucks as a corollary. The second lesson is that those chains have not realized that you can setup a hotspot for about 100€, hook it to the internet connection that you most probably already have to run your business but are not using during open hours and offer the access to your paying customers for free. Then, why would one go to Starbucks when there are nicer places around that don't try to make a quick buck at every occasion with bad customer service?

I'm sure such places already exist. If a charitable soul could just tell me where they are, the padawan will be very grateful!

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12 Comments

"you can setup a hotspot for about 100€, hook it to the internet connection that you most probably already have to run your business"

As wi-fi is not the most secure network, I'm not sure about sharing it with the network I use for my business :)

Had a similar experience in Sydney, not many wi-fi AP there, the big difference was it was not at Starbucks, but at 'Chocolate by the bald man', which is a place where you can indulge in suicide by chocolate really easily.
No one in the café knew what wifi was, but there was a faint signal, it was AUD10 (euro7) an hour. You tend to use it for 20mn and tell yourself you'll use the rest later in another place mentioned on the web site (thexone.com.au), but you end up leaving without connecting again - part of their business model I guess.

Don't worry. In the very near future, Wi-Fi will be free of charge everywhere (except maybe Starbucks and McD's). Most hotels in the US now offer free Wi-Fi or wired broadband. A lot of independent cafes in SF, LA, Austin, Washington DC and NY offer free Wi-Fi. Cities are setting up Wi-Fi hotzones that offer free Wi-Fi. The trend will blow over from the US into Europe very shortly, actually faster than you might imagine.

I know of one place in London with free Wi-Fi:
the Bagel Factory, 18 Endell Street in Covent Garden. Very central, nice area for shopping and eating. In the States, so many cafes and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. Also, most hotels now provide free wired and wireless broadband.

There is a public open WiFI hotzone in Piccadilly Circus. I used it once and it was dreadfully slow even though I had a good radio signal. I think GPRS would hav ebeen faster which I now have but did not at the time.

Wi-Fi over in the united states if very fast. I work for a wireless provider and we have no problems with our internet being slow. Maybe its just Europe?!

Heather, it has nothing to do with geography. On that matter, you'll find that Europe has nothing to envy to the US in terms of broadband connection (they have 10Mbps ethernet to the home in Sweden!). It has all to do with bad implementations and/or providers and those are everywhere on the planet (my last experience was in San Francisco, and it wasn't terribly impressive).

The same happened to me at starbucks....they should put a big sign saying the prize....they don't know what "marketing" means!!I also payed with visa, althought I wished to pay with amex. And at Charles de Gaulle airport it costs me 5 euros....they're always trying to find ways to stole our money!

look up free hot spots in london on google. I put in the country then city and they wil tell you where all the FREE hot spots are. Best of all some of them are verified and checked by them as on, good conection etc no download limits, fast conection good for downloading big files etc. They actually state that, I could not beleive it. Good website, one to bookmark. Customer service doesn't exist in london!

I looked it up for you after I saw my comment didn't make sense. it is www.free-hotspot.com
great website!

I happen to agree with all being said that when in Europe to find a working hot-spot is a miracle but then you pay the price. I was just in Germany and paid an astronomical amount for 24 hours for T-Mobile Hot Spot. Well, probably because they own the RFs there in Germany. I'm sorry to hear I'm not the only "crazed traveler"!

i want a fast reply

dear Francois,

great blogpost, thank you. I am having a similar experience right now and I am glad to find yours here as it gives me at least some "confidence" :-)

I was using my username and password for hotspots that was sent to me as a text to my German iPhone - but I was using it at a T-mobile hotspot at exactly the same Starbucks you are talking about. Guess what: The screens look just as those in Germany and I thought this would mean the same price structure. Coming home, I get the bill: 500 Euros for using the Wifi there for about 2 weeks.

It was not mentioned anywhere on the login-screen, which is why I not even logged out...whereas I got tons of SMS telling me how much the calls and texts would coast due to roaming - and the data channel of my iPhone was automatically blocked to prevent me from using it...

Well...

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