The hodgepodge of services ups the hassle factor and the cost
Now the bad news: Mobile Wi-Fi is a hodgepodge, which means separate charges at each spot in most cases. As an egregious example, the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix charges $10 per day for Wi-Fi access, but that access does not extend to its meeting rooms, for which a separate signup (and fee) is required. The Ritz-Carlton also won't let you have more than one device at a time access its wired or Wi-Fi connections -- a hugely annoying restriction if you want to keep both your laptop and your smartphone or iPod Touch up to date. I found the same per-device scheme at the Hilton in Universal City, Calif. -- and it's Wi-Fi signal doesn't extend into its conference space.
And have you noticed that the pricier the hotel, the pricier the Wi-Fi service? Motel 6 charges $4, while the W (at least in Seattle) and Marriott (at least in Plano, Texas) each charges $15 -- though none of these hotels limit you to one device at a time as the Ritz-Carlton and Hilton do.
Although I have an AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot subscription, it's the basic plan, so roaming is not permitted at airport locations from other airport providers (it does work at AT&T's airport locations). But I can roam on those same providers' Wi-Fi hotspots when I'm at non-airport locations. Likewise, if you have a T-Mobile Wi-Fi plan with your cell phone or a subscription for your laptop, the same lack of airport roaming exists for those airports that don't use T-Mobile's Wi-Fi service. It's a nightmare for travelers, accounting, and IT to track, manage, and support all these variations.
You or your business can easily spend $50 to $100 for Wi-Fi on a short trip if you pay for access at the airports, flights, and hotels you patronize. That's highway robbery. One option is to get a 3G card for your laptop, which costs $60 to $100 per month, and avoid the per-site Wi-Fi fees. Of course, you can easily exceed the bandwidth limits and pay a lot more, and you can't use cellular devices on airplanes. Connections are often much slower than with Wi-Fi, which can make large downloads and streaming media access impossible. And you need to pay separately for 3G data access on your smartphone, another $30 to $40 per month. Plus, PDAs such as the iPod Touch are marooned when you're out of Wi-Fi range. Still, a 3G card takes much of the hassle and pickpocketing of Wi-Fi signup at hotels and airports and cafés and can make sense for laptop-toting frequent travelers.
Another aspect of the hodgepodge problem is that the various Wi-Fi providers don't always get the fact that the computing world is heterogeneous. I can never connect to T-Mobile's airport service from my MacBook -- the server address won't resolve -- but I have had no problem connecting at the same airports (Dallas and San Francisco most recently) with my iPod Touch or Lenovo Windows laptop.