By Perry Wu
The Wired Traveler would like everyone to have the impression that he is forever jetting around, sipping his Gin & Tonic in First Class, while simultaneously communicating with his minions, deployed across the globe, making and breaking fortunes, all via his trusty laptop. In reality, when he is released from his little office for good behavior, the Wired Traveler has recently to be found traipsing around Beijing in search of the BBH–the Bigger, Better Hotspot.
What is a hotspot, or, more importantly, what is a wireless hotspot? Well, 'hotspot' is the common name given to a location that offers wireless Internet access. This access can be offered for free as a service of the location, or require users to pay for time online. Typically, a location like this uses a 'captive portal' which requires the user to at least agree to some terms before moving on to the Internet. Anyone with a compatible Wi-Fi network card or device will be able to access the Internet while in the hotspot. Most new laptops today have integrated WLAN capability. For those which are not, wireless cards that slot into one of your laptop's PCMCIA slots are available.
China is currently trying to enforce its own WLAN standard, or WAPI, that is incompatible with Wi-Fi. It is certainly going to play an important role in the future of mobile and business computing.
With this in mind, it seemed about time that I fill you in on my progress to date, focusing initially on those well-known, and more mainstream locations in Beijing that offer hotspots to business travelers like myself.
Starbucks, China-World Tower 1
First stop is one that virtually all of you will eventually use more than anywhere else. Starbucks is about the only location that has consistently advertised its hotspots and, as it's going to be hit or miss whether your hotel has its own connection, you're going to end up here sooner rather than later. And if you're doing business in Beijing, you'll probably find yourself at one of the two joints to be found in the China World Trade Center.
Starbucks earns brownie points because, pretty much all their staff can point you in the direction of their own little brochure entitled 'High-Speed Wireless Access: Now Being Served'. Of course, it's just as well there is a booklet, as the staff knows nothing else about the process at all–training has obviously gone as far as 'point to booklet' and no further.
Under the 'Mobile Office Usage Guide' you will find a simple list of steps to get online, even reminding you to start the Internet browser. Do not be deceived, however, as one sentence is set to cause some problems for the first-time visitor–"Obtain Mobile Office user account from CNC sponsored service outlets". We'll get to that in a minute. Anyway, knowing full well I had not obtained such an account, I decided to try to get online anyway, just to see how far I could go.
My laptop automatically identified the hotspot, and from there it was only a couple of clicks to get me online. Once you connect, you are automatically taken to a page asking you to input a Username and Password–details from the aforementioned Mobile Office user account–without that, I could go no further. Starbucks staff had no idea about where to get an account but that wasn't a problem, as a telephone number was thoughtfully supplied in the booklet. Calling up China Netcom was easy enough and the quality of their English language service was excellent.
Problem: China Netcom staff, while knowing that I have to buy a prepaid card (much like an IP card), do not actually know where the nearest place to China World is that sells these cards. Actually, they don't know anywhere, instead directing me to "please visit the mobile office website (www.mobileoffice.com.cn)". Now this is great–how am I supposed to access a website when I'm not able to get online in the first place? Serious demerits in order!!
Figuring, however, that the China World Hotel's Business Center is likely to have encountered this problem before, I pack up the laptop (now wishing I'd spent the extra few hundred bucks and bought the slim-line version), grab my quadruple espresso, and traipse over to the Business Center. The unfailingly polite staff instantly knows what I'm talking about, understand that I need to buy a card, but also have no clue where to buy them. Using more charm than I knew I possessed, I persuade them to let me at least check out Netcom's website and, sure enough, find a listing of locations in Beijing where I can purchase a prepaid card!
There is, according to the website, only one place. The Kerry Hotel?!?!
At this point, my review of this hotspot breaks off. I plan to visit the Kerry Hotel and will use a card to check out their hotspot, but my patience with Starbucks at China World Trade Center is at an end–expecting newly-arrived guests to go over to a different hotel in order to get online, no matter how close it is, is simply ludicrous. I am sure the China World hotspot is just as good as the Kerry's turns out to be, just as I am perfectly sure that there are other places to buy the cards, but my patience for this one is at an end. Not a good job, guys!
GL Restaurant (China World Trade Center, B1)
The idea of food and Internet in one place was too much to resist, yet offered me only two real choices–the Be There Or Be Square chain (review later), or GL, a Hong Kong restaurant at the China World. Figuring that your average businessman was perhaps a bit likely to be around the China World at some point, and was probably going to be as frustrated with the Netcom service in the Starbucks as I was, GL seemed like a logical second port of call.
GL offers its hotspot for free, which is a great bonus, and even though you're going to need to order some food to stay there, that's fair enough. They've got decent beer and a very good wonton selection, so the Wired Traveler was feeling no pain!
Getting online couldn't have been simpler as there was no need for registration, prepaid cards or suchlike. My laptop immediately identified the hotspot (cytech) and rated the connection strength as 'very good' (unlike my dial-up at home which would probably register as 'you gotta be kidding'). Sites popped up at impressive speeds–Yahoo and Hotmail posed no problem, Google was fine, and so were a bunch of more obscure places. International sites were a bit slower than the local ones, obviously, but not painfully so. A quick traceroute turned up an average 640ms between hops to get to the ChinaTechNews.com homepage–not at all bad considering that most of the time was spent pinging between half a dozen CNC nodes in Beijing.
And that was it–that good, and that simple! Now, a restaurant is clearly not the optimal location for all business work and, in that respect, even a coffee bar could be more fitting, but overall GL provides an excellent service with zero fuss and zero cost. Good work!
That's all for this episode. Stay tuned for Part II in the not-too-distant future when we will investigate other places in China's capital city that get you online.
About the author:
Perry Wu is a writer and correspondent for ChinaTechNews.com and can be reached here at the site. Perry Wu does not hold any positions, long or short, on any of the Chinese or American company securities mentioned in this article.