Pay for internet by-device? Not on my watch.
So as those of you who follow my twitterstream will know, I'm currently in San Francisco as a guest of Intel, to cover IDF 2012. Yeah, it's nothing to do with the Israeli Defense Force, so stop making cheap Mossad cracks. It's the Intel Developer Forum, an annual event at which Intel showcases their latest CPU technology and OEMs strut their technological stuff. Last year was my first hands-on with 'Ultrabooks', back when no one knew what an 'Ultrabook' was. (Uhm... y'all know now, right? I'm guessing that if you somehow found your way to this formerly disused blog, of all places on the internet, you probably know what an Ultrabook is.)
I'm not here to talk about Ultrabooks, or Intel, or CPUs. I'm here to talk about hotels pwning your wallet for in-room internet.
One benefit of this trip is that Intel pays for my internet, both in-room and at their press centre -- I can't report on their stuff, for better or worse, without internet. In-room, I have the choice of [astoundingly functional] Wi-Fi, or Ethernet. I'm not a fan of using unsecured Wi-Fi networks, so I chose Ethernet. Plug the cable into dear ol' EDI (the Mass-Effect inspired name of my 15-inch MacBook Pro), and I get the login page. Unlimited high-speed internet for US$12.95 (NZ$16) per day. Okay, fine. Except for one thing: that's per day, per device.
Whether you connect by Wi-Fi or Ethernet, when you pay for your internet, your day's worth of internet is bound to your PC's MAC address. That means if I unplug the MacBook from the Ethernet cable and plug another laptop into it instead, I'd have to pay again. Well, Intel would have to pay again, but I'm not going to waste anyone's money if I can help it.
It doesn't stop there. If I did want to use the Wi-Fi, not for my phone or Kindle but for the MacBook itself, the device I paid for in the first place, I'd STILL have to pay again. Why? Because your PC doesn't really 'have a MAC address'. Your NETWORK CARD has a MAC address. And in almost any modern laptop, you've got at least two network devices -- Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Each with its own MAC address. So, to be able to switch between vaguely-more-secure Ethernet and convenient-but-unsecured-WiFi at will, I'd have to pay at least US$25.90, or NZ$32 per day.
If I also wanted to hook up my smartphone and Kindle to the Wi-Fi, that'd be another US$25.90/day. So, assuming I set up my laptop for both wired and wireless internet, and connect my other two devices via Wi-Fi, I'd be paying US$51.80, NZ$64/day. For internet.
I know the hotel has to recoup their costs, but me having all three devices connected is going to use a hell of a lot less data, in total, than someone that comes in here and decides to download the entire series of Battlestar Galactica in 1080p using their one laptop. The only real cost I can see is that with three devices connected, I'd be using three of the available 'simultaneous connections' on whatever router/AP is providing this Wi-Fi to my room. Depending on the infrastructure in this building, that could be a problem, I guess. However, my first example, and the first thing I wanted to do -- have the laptop connectable by either Wi-Fi or Ethernet -- wouldn't cause that problem at all.
I'm inclined to think that rigging the connection by MAC address was just the easiest way to do it, rather than it necessarily being a money-grabbing scheme on the part of the hotel, or some kind of connection-limiting device (in the same way parking fees are used to limit use of high-demand parking spaces). But hey, for all I know, a sentient octopus that lives atop the building and is powered by a combination of solar radiation and lightning might have made the decision, because it needs extra cash to complete it's laser death ray and take over San Francisco. In saner words, I really don't know anything about the 'supply' side of hotel Wi-Fi, however often I'm on the 'demand' side.
So, I did what any rational and prepared tech-traveller would do: whip out my own router. Well, not my own, so much as a TP-Link TL-WR702N travel router I checked out of the PC World test lab before I jetted my way out of New Zealand. It's essentially this thing, that I 5-star Platinum rated, without the USB port to accept a 3G data stick. Which I don't need, because if I want to use my AT&T 3G internet, I'll just tether things to my phone. Apparently AT&T disallows tethering on my particular plan, but my unlocked NZ phone doesn't realize that, so wooooo!
While I haven't actually reviewed it yet, I'm fairly sure this router is destined for an equally great score as its 3G-capable sibling. Why? Because it solved my problem, and is probably pretty affordable given TP-Link's usual price band (points off if it actually costs a million dollars or something). Plug my own router into the hotel's Ethernet, and run my own nice, stable, WPA2-PSK secured Wi-Fi network for all my gadgets to connect to. As the router itself is the only thing directly connected to the hotel Wi-Fi, and thus it's MAC address is the only one the hotel's network sees, it takes me back down to that US$12.95/day for 'one device'. If that 'one device' happens to share its connection wirelessly with every other device in my room, then hey -- bonus for me.
Just one teency problem -- before I pulled out the router and got it set up, I made that fateful decision to connect my laptop to the Ethernet. Meaning, today's internet is registered to that MAC address only. Not the router's. Fortunately MAC addresses aren't as sacrosanct as they once were, and the TP-Link (along with any of its sibling-products/competitors worth their salt) lets you input any ol' MAC address, which it will then happily report as if that's the one it was issued at the factory. So, pop in my MacBook's Wi-Fi adapter's MAC address, and suddenly the hotel network thinks the router is my laptop. No extra charges, all my gadgets are now on my own Wi-Fi network, and I have something to blog about at 5:00 in the morning.
This is really too simple to be considered true O'Gyvering -- I didn't have to strip any wires or use anything in a way it really wasn't intended to be used. However, I did have to reset the router at one stage, and that required a paperclip. Close enough for me.