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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hotel wireless and second-order effects

During a trip last month, I had an opportunity to experience two different approaches to hotels and how they handle wireless Internet access. The first one gives out a code for people if you book a room on their "special" floor (with the limited-access club room). Everyone else has to pay.

The second hotel, however, does something even more strange. They charge for wireless everywhere but the lobby. There, you can get as much as you want for as long as you want. They even have a bunch of places in the three-story-tall lobby where you can sit down and plug in to get power. They've apparently also trained their bar staff to not be too interested in a laptop in use, too, since I wrote a couple of posts from there and didn't hear so much as a word about it. Even 10 years ago, whipping out a laptop at a bar table tended to elicit some comments from the servers.

It's the second hotel which perplexes me. They could charge their evil $13/day fee for all of their networks including the lobby, but they don't. They actually go to lengths to keep them separate, including using a different network name and telling you right up front that lobby Internet access is free.

The only thing I can figure is that they use it to get a certain amount of income for the people who want to look at naughty things up in their room. Perhaps their assumption is that they probably wouldn't do that sort of thing in a lobby where people are wandering around 24 hours a day.

When you're up in the room, it doesn't matter whether it's wired or wireless. They want $13 to unlock things from one noon to the next, and their walled garden seems to be pretty tight. Even the old trick of using port 53 to sneak data through to a helpful outside host didn't work. They were using some kind of transparent proxy rig that intercepted all UDP and TCP packets to port 53. I proved this by running a bunch of queries against networks which are totally dead to the world. I got answers for my queries, and that should be impossible.

They also intercept ports 80 and 443, but that's not too surprising. The port 443 business means you get a nasty little warning from your browser due to the certificate mismatch. Other ports like 25, 587 and 993 are just plain filtered. Any attempt to connect outward on them stalls forever as the packets are almost certainly being discarded.

All of this gave me an idea. Someone could have a device which allowed tethering and then run something on it which created its own little captive portal. It would take payment info and charge a credit card and then grant access to the owner's cell connection. They could put advertisements in the network name to entice people who are looking for a cheaper way to get online. I bet some people would actually try it... once, that is.

Trouble is, I don't think there's really much money to be made in rigging up such a device. I'm guessing few people will be foolish enough to try giving their credit card number to some random network in order to get online. Those that actually do it once probably wouldn't be repeat customers since it wouldn't be a very good connection. Unless the owner happened to be very close and left the device in the room at all times, it would drop out seemingly at random.

This then gave me a second-order idea. All you have to do is find people who want to "get rich quick" by selling crappy wireless to make money off their fellow travelers. Then you sell them a device which will let them do exactly that. As long as you sell a bunch before people figure it out and start posting about how nobody bothers to buy the service, you win!

I like to think of this as hyping up the notion of "gold in the hills" in order to sell lots of pickaxes to gullible miners. As the story goes, the people who actually made money in the gold rush were the ones running general stores and making supplies. The prospectors probably didn't do nearly as well overall.

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like the startup community.