Travelers need fast, free Internet connections — why can’t they get it?

I’m writing this from the Vista Café on Deck 4 of the Disney Dream. But it’ll probably take half an eternity to post it, because the “high speed” wireless connection on the ship is significantly slower than what I’m used to on dry land.

Actually, that’s being generous. I’d give anything for a reliable a dial-up connection right now.

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No disrespect to the ship. After all, only a few years ago, you couldn’t get online from a cruise ship. But it got me thinking about travelers and Internet connections.

I’ve been on the road for the last month. (My cats don’t recognize me when I come home, or maybe they just refuse to.) If there’s one thing that all of the destinations have shown me — from Northwest’s Florida’s Beaches of South Walton to Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, where I am now — it is this: There’s no such thing as too much bandwidth.

I was reminded of how dependent we’ve all become on fast wireless Internet access while staying at the Indian Springs Resort in Calistoga last week. They have very fast Wi-Fi access in their rooms, but on my first evening, everyone wanted to log on, and suddenly the signal went from terrific to terrible.

No, the other guests weren’t just checking email – these folks were streaming videos, making Skype calls and downloading God knows what onto their laptops, all at exactly the same time. The resort doesn’t charge extra for Internet access in its rooms, thank goodness.

And wouldn’t you know it, the next morning it was smooth sailing online.

There are hotels that take advantage of our bandwidth appetite. At the casino resort we stayed at in South Lake Tahoe, they charged $11 per day per device for a so-so wireless connection. When I pointed out the absurdity of paying an extra $50 for two nights, a manager shrugged and said the access was provided by an independent company, and that if they removed the charges from the bill, the hotel would be on the hook for it.

I didn’t believe it.

I know, I know. Why not get a card and be done with it? Well, that’s problematic, too. Some forward-looking wireless carriers either offer a wireless card with your cell phone as a bundle, or they let you tether your phone to your PC.

But my carrier (AT&T/iPhone) has resisted, until recently. The latest version of the iPhone operating system allows tethering, but as of now, no one knows how much it will cost.

The correct answer: It should cost nothing extra. I’m already paying for the signal, and should be able to use it on any device I want.

Anyway, none of that would matter while I’m at sea. My iPhone woke me up this morning with a text message saying I was outside the United States, and that an outrageous international rate would apply to all calls.

Thanks, guys.

In an always-on world, travelers require reliable high-speed wireless access, 24/7. They don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed every time they power up their cell phones or computers, and increasingly, they won’t even put up with a slow connection.

Parts of the travel and hospitality industry are standing in the way of progress by charging for wireless Internet access or providing sluggish connections.

I’m not an historian, but I can imagine hotels making a similar argument when indoor plumbing and electricity were new and considered “amenities.” Even color TVs used to be considered a premium, as was cable TV. That argument being that Wi-Fi is an amenity for which you have to pay more.

Today, no one would argue that a TV or electricity or indoor plumbing should cost more in your room.

There’s also a technological solution, which will be the next generation of wireless broadband. A single hotspot can connect a city, and there’s hope that a forward-looking technology company like Google will build such a network, turn it on, and let the bandwidth be free.

Such a move would end the hotel industry’s wireless exploitation of guests and could even shut down the American wireless industry. That could be interesting.

But back to the Disney Dream. It’s a huge ship, and I’m on her christening cruise with my son. The centerpiece of the vessel is a waterslide/rollercoaster called AquaDuck, and I’ll be writing something about it for National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel blog this afternoon.

Until then, I am dreaming – of a faster Internet connection.

(Photo: a grof fman/Flickr Creative Commons)

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