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!