Business Owners: Can You Depend On Wi-fi When You Travel?

"Don’t worry – wi-fi is everywhere these days!"

That opinion is widespread, but as I prepared for a 10-week sabbatical road trip from Massachusetts to Alaska and back, I didn’t give it much weight. I would be traveling to some of the most remote areas of North America and need to check my email each morning and night to keep my business affairs humming along smoothly.

Because I found it impossible to get reliable information on Internet access along our route, I prepared for worst-case scenarios. And I’m reporting my findings here to help others plan for a similar trip.

Before we left home, I equipped myself with a wi-fi card in my laptop and purchased a handheld phone/computer device that could access wireless Internet too. The laptop also had a modem that could be used for Internet access through a phone line. And for further backup, I had a virtual assistant whom I could call to request her to check email for me if I were stuck someplace where neither wi-fi nor dial-up worked.

My husband and I stayed in mid-priced or budget motels, lodges and bed, and breakfast inns. We also took a few overnight ferries. While we took day hikes, we never camped out in the wilderness. Here’s what we experienced:

Wi-fi in motel or B&B room, worked fine: 34%
Wi-fi in office or restaurant, not in the room: 12%
Wi-fi in room worked intermittently: 14%
Wi-fi took more than 20 minutes to get working: 8%
Wi-fi did not work after considerable fiddling, used modem instead: 6%
Wi-fi downtown-wide from storm or outage: 4%
Wired high-speed Internet in the room: 4%
Wi-fi available but forgot to ask for the password: 2%
No wi-fi available used modem instead: 12%
No Internet connection at all available: 4%

So, only one-third of the time did wi-fi work conveniently and right away in the room where we were staying. Another third of the time we were able to use wi-fi with some delay or inconvenience. And the other third of the time, we would have been without Internet access had wi-fi been our only option.

In those no wi-fi situations, hooking up the laptop to the phone line was our next option. Most of the time, this happened in isolated places where finding a coffeehouse with wi-fi for patrons was totally out of the question. And in nearly all of those cases, the laptop modem came to the rescue.

In Watson Lake, Yukon, however, a town of about 1500 people, the high-speed Internet network was DSL and did not work because phone service throughout the town was down. This meant that my backup plan – calling my virtual assistant – wouldn’t work, either. There was nothing I could do about it until we drove on to another waystation on the Alaska Highway where my hand-held device picked up wi-fi at a truck stop.

In Alaska, we stayed one night at a rustic lodge in the middle of nowhere that said they had wi-fi in the restaurant, but it didn’t work, and our room did not have a phone line to which we could plug in the modem. The lodge did not have a pay phone, either, for a call to my assistant, so again we hunted down a wi-fi connection in the next couple of towns the following day.

We were in luck – these nights and the nights we slept on ferries that didn’t have Internet access – didn’t generate any of those angry "Why the didn’t you answer my email?" messages that any business owner dreads.

One bonus bit of advice: In many places, motel clerks stared at me blankly when I asked if they had wi-fi. But they all understood the question, "Do you have wireless Internet?" Use the longer question, especially outside of metropolitan areas.

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