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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Verizon 4G MiFi Obliterates Hotel WiFi

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On day two of my 14 day visit to Miami Beach, I realized that the hotel WiFi at the W Hotel was not going to work for me. Once again I was at a Starwood Hotel, which I love, except for the abysmal WiFi and WiFi policies. In this case, performance of WiFi in my room sucked and the cost was $15 / device / day. Upon connecting my computer and Amy’s computer, I realized I was paying $30 / day for shitty WiFi. Nope – that doesn’t work for me.

I tried my iPhone 3G tethering. AT&T service was as bad as the WiFi – I literally couldn’t get a consistent signal in the room. I wasn’t desperate yet, but I was definitely uncomfortable. Amy was annoyed, as in “Brad, why doesn’t this shitty technology work?” and all the Skype calls I had set up looked like they might be a bust.

I had my IT guy Ross overnight me a Verizon 4G MiFi. It arrived the morning of day three and I never looked back. I plugged the MiFi into the wall, pressed the On button, connected each device, and never thought about Internet access again for the remaining twelve days. When I went down to the pool, where nothing worked at all, including the hotel WiFi, I sat for hours with my MiFi happily connected. Performance was great – I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t on a 50MB/sec connection.

I only ran into one edge case that was annoyingly bizarre. The MiFi allows five devices to connect simultaneously. But guess what – the two of us had six devices. Two Macs, two iPads, and two iPhones. The first time we realized this after getting weird “can’t connect” errors we each burst out laughing – c’mon, six WiFi devices in one room between two people? However, when you step back and think about it, the idea that there might be 10, or 20, or 50 in a few years is not beyond the realm of possibility.

So – instead of paying Starwood $180 / day for shitty WiFi, I ended up paying Verizon whatever my monthly fee is for excellent MiFi. Verizon wins this time. Starwood – you keep bumming me out with your WiFi policy. I’m already paying a ridiculous premium for your high end hotel – why not toss in the WiFi like the Marriott does. Or, at least get it to work.

Starwood and AT&T #FAIL And Bless Me With $180.76 Of Phone Charges

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Put this in the “every business traveller thinks this on a regular basis” rant category. Sure – I’m whining, but I imagine I’ll feel better after I get done. I doubt it has any impact on the universe, but hopefully it’ll be a story that rings true to some of you out there who travel as much as I do. And to my friends at Starwood and AT&T, you made my day yesterday, which was already intense, a lot harder than it needed to be.

I just woke up, made some coffee, turned on my computer, and noticed that my hotel bill was shoved under my door. Last night before I went to bed I tweeted “Dear AT&T and Westin Hotel Wifi: I give up. Good night.” I rarely look at my hotel bills but this time I was curious so I grabbed it. $323.10 for the room, $32.32 for State and County Tax, $9.95 for Internet Service, and $180.76 for 10 telephone calls.

Remember that I said I rarely look at my hotel bill. I travel constantly and I’m what I’d describe as a high end utilitarian traveler. When I travel alone I’m not terribly picky about the hotels I stay at, generally prefer modern to classic, just want a dark, clean room that I can make cold at night, and want to be left alone. I try to be super polite to the hotel staff while simultaneously very low maintenance.

I used to be annoyed that I’d pay $500 or more for a room and get hit with a $14.95 bill for Internet access. I stopped being annoyed by that a while ago and just view it as part of the cost of the room. I don’t watch television so my time in the room is spent working on my computer, talking on my cell phone (or my computer via Skype or Google Chat), sleeping, or being in the bathroom. That’s it. Oh – and I appreciate the free coffee service in the room since I get up at 5am and there’s rarely a coffee option anywhere until 5:30am.

Yesterday at about 2pm I arrived at the Westin Arlington Gateway. I’ve got a set of meetings tomorrow at the National Science Foundation so I’m staying down the block. My amazing assistant Kelly had scheduled a dozen phone calls between 2pm and dinner so I figured I’d just sit in my room and grind away on calls and email. A few of my calls where Skype calls and my phone number is a Google Voice number so I’d just sit in front of my computer and work in between the calls.

When I checked in at 2pm, the room they had assigned me to wasn’t ready. The guy checking me in was super nice, asked me a bunch of questions (do you want a high floor or a low floor, near the elevator or away from the elevator) to which I answered “I don’t care – whatever room you have will be fine, and found me a room. He informed me that my Starwood preferred number was on file (whatever that means) and was very  polite.

I plopped down in my room, took out my laptop, went through the “connect to the Internet” process which appeared to cost $9.95 for the day, and got to work.

After 10 minutes I knew I was screwed. The Internet performance was painfully slow. Since I had back to back calls, I didn’t have a window to call “tech support” and have them take a look so I put up with it for a little while. I figured I’d use my iPhone as a hotspot as the backup and switched over to it. That was even worse. I tried to make a phone call with my iPhone instead of Google Voice. It took three tries for it to go through and then it dropped after 60 seconds.

I was officially in RidiculousTelecommunicationStan. I struggled through the first few calls (anyone on the other end, especially the poor souls on Skype, could probably sense my frustration and theirs was probably higher) before giving up and switching to the landline in my room. Yes – a landline. I had to think for a moment whether to dial 9 first or 8 first (remember that I’m in a hotel), got it right, and simply made all the calls from that phone. Internet performance was still miserable, but by using Sparrow I managed to work “semi-offline”  and the emails went through what seemed to be simulating a 2400 baud modem.

Eventually I had 15 minutes between calls so I pressed the “Service Express” button on the phone to ask for Internet tech support. The nice person took down my info and said someone would call me back. They did 15 minutes later which overlapped with my next call. I eventually called them back just as I finished up but before I left for dinner. We did all the standard troubleshooting things which indicated that the Internet was slow and after an escalation, resulted in someone “resetting a router” remotely. I went to dinner, was about 15 minutes late, but was optimistic that when I got home I’d be able to jam through another hour or so of email.

No such luck. After calling Amy on the land line and saying goodnight, I struggled through 15 minutes of email before deciding to just screw it and go to bed. I tweeted out my frustration and quickly got a response from @StarwoodBuzz that said “Sorry about that. If you can DM us your stay details in full, we can do our best to help. We’ve followed you.” Nice, but I was done for the night, closed my laptop, and will DM them this blog post and see what happens.

And then I woke up this morning, started a cup of coffee, and noticed by $180.76 bill for 10 phone calls. Total stupidity on the part of Starwood where I’m apparently a “not very preferred guest.” It’s been a long time since I resorted to using the landline in my hotel room and it didn’t even occur to me that they’d rip me off like this. I remember staying in a Marriott near an airport recently and the cost for Internet and unlimited long distance phone calls was $9.95, so I’m doubly perplexed. And I don’t see any of those little plastic signs saying “if you use this phone to make a call we are going to charge you $2 per minute” (which is what it appears they were charging based on a few of the calls.)

I can’t remember the last time I made a fuss when I checked out over a hotel bill. I’m sure I eat some extra charges her and there, but whatever. This morning, when I head downstairs, I’ll ask to have all the phone calls taken off my bill. We will see what happens.

In the mean time, I’m going to keep reminding myself that this is 2012, not 1996, where we are just discovering the expensive magic of Internet in hotel rooms. I look forward to 2024 when I no longer have a landline in my room and the Internet works flawlessly for the $9.95 I pay a day to use it. Or maybe AT&T will work in the middle of Arlington, Virginia. Or maybe pigs will fly.

Update: The manager at the Starwood Arlington left a message for me that he had reversed all of the charges. So he did the right thing and I appreciate that. An AT&T customer service person also called and assured me he would talk to the hotel and explore if there is a dead spot in the area. I’m now on Acela to NY where their Wifi doesn’t work for shit but AT&T is tethering ok today. Now, if I could only get the soccer mom two rows up to stop telling stories about her 7th grade son’s soccer team I’d maybe be in a less grumpy place.

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