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Hot spot service: More than just installing equipment

Jan 19, 20043 mins
Cellular NetworksHotspotsNetwork Security

* Musings from the coffee shop

I’m writing this from a café in downtown Campbell, Calif., called Blendz Inc. Here, wireless hot spot Internet access is free. You can get a smoothie with antioxidants and ginkgo in it. You can listen to great oldies (the Beach Boys’ “Catch a Wave” is playing now).

Perhaps most impressive, though, you don’t get dismissed by confused employees as you struggle to access the wireless LAN – as is the case with the Starbucks next door.

My area has experienced a power outage that is now dragging into its second day. So even though I can barely stomach the smell of coffee, I finally decided to bite the bullet and head out to a local Starbucks so I could actually get some work done while trying to get warm.

You’ve probably noticed, if you are a hot spot enthusiast, that the Internet access business is completely divorced from the coffee and biscotti business at Starbucks. You’re basically on your own. If you can’t associate with an access point, all the personnel can do is point you to a T-Mobile brochure.

I actually called several Starbucks before heading over, just to verify that each indeed did offer the hot spot service (you know what happens when you assume…). All the Starbucks employees hemmed and hawed and said they thought I had to have an account and a card from T-Mobile before being able to sign on to the network, waiving any responsibility for knowledge of the service. Which sort of takes the spontaneity (and thus, often the usefulness) of having public access services in such locations.

Luckily for me, when my laptop couldn’t associate with any access points at the Starbucks I eventually landed in, the coffee-pourer nodded her head to the West and whispered: “You get can it for free next door.”

So here I am. The employees at Blendz ask if you need help getting on the WLAN. If you can’t, they get the owner to help you. (And guess what? I can see the T-Mobile access point next door at Starbucks from here, but couldn’t see it from Starbucks. Go figure.)

So what’s my point?

Technology and marketing and laundry lists of features are all well and good. But we’re supposed to be living in a service society. The part we seem to be missing frequently is the “help” part. My cellular plan is ancient because I can’t motivate employees at the AT&T Wireless store to show an ounce of enthusiasm for explaining the latest plans to me. My AT&T long-distance subscribership is moribund, because the company can’t manage its billing. We won’t talk about my feelings toward the electric company at this juncture.

Side note: the Blendz store manager just walked by and asked if my Internet service was working OK.

Service – real service – like this matters. Good service usually requires some level of training (read: cluing employees in that you have a service and how it works, in case customers ask). It requires that employees give a flip if customers can get and use their services conveniently and are billed in a comprehensible manner.

This is not a problem unique to the wireless industry. But since the wireless industry is fairly new, perhaps it could learn a few lessons before it degrades down to the level of those that have gone before it.