Last summer I wrote about my experiences using free Wi-Fi service on my local commuter rail (run by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority or MBTA). While the experience was pleasant enough for casual internet access, it would have been an ordeal had I needed fast and reliable service to perform work. My company hands out Verizon Mi-Fi devices, which serve as mobile hotspots for employees who need internet access while traveling, but these are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, require charging beforehand, and can be lost, stolen or broken. They come in handy when working in a remote static location, but I sought to test an alternative for when I’m traveling around an urban area with plenty of diverse wireless connectivity options.

While many institutions and enterprises such as the MBTA offer free Wi-Fi, results can be less than stellar as I explained. Business travelers require steady connectivity and better security, and paying for data on a per-session basis is time-consuming and unpredictable… while free Wi-Fi can be even most costly.

“It may be counter intuitive, but using free Wi-Fi is one of the most expensive things you can ask your employees to do, Peter White, Principal Analyst and Founder of Rethink Technology Research stated in an iPass press release from July 2015. “There are long periods, like In-Flight, when they cannot work, or where they are wandering around looking for a free connection. Also, around 50% of hotels who say they offer free Wi-Fi charge a premium for a service fast enough to actually work on. Employees forced to go down this route certainly won’t be as productive as they should be and they may well feel underappreciated and be more likely to leave.”

The press release led me to try out iPass, which is a mobile Wi-Fi service accessible from computers, tablets and smartphones. It’s similar to Boingo Wireless and Anyfi Networks and is based upon an application called Open Mobile (available for Windows/Macintosh/Android/iOS), which can also provide connection statistics, details about data usage, usage alerts and the location of available hotspots. It works across 50 million hotspots globally, including hotels, restaurants and commercial travel services such as trains and airplanes, and there’s even a portal for IT departments to view and manage mobility options for employees. Businesses pay a fixed per user, per month fee for unlimited access to iPass’ global network of hotspots.

More on this later in the article, but iPass also just launched a new capability that makes the connection process to Wi-Fi hotspots even more seamless. Their application detects Wi-Fi near users and will automatically connect the device to a hotspot that matches your historical connectivity needs.

Setting up iPass

iPass set up a trial account for me to use and provided a handy “Getting Started Guide,” and I got started by visiting Google Play and installing their app.

Once the app finished installation I fired it up.

I tapped “Get Started” which brought me to the next screen:

I entered my email address, which was linked to the trial account, and then the app prompted me to enter my travel preferences in order to facilitate the experience.

I selected “Americas” and the app began downloading data for hotspots and connectivity in my region.

The iPass main screen then appeared and I observed that it resembled a standard Wi-Fi configuration screen – it showed I was connected to my home network, I could view other Wi-Fi networks (none were available at the moment) and rescan in case new ones should appear.

Exploring the interface

As the prompt above suggested, I tapped the section of the screen which invited me to “Touch to see Nearby iPass Hotspots.”

The app showed me nearby hotspots arranged in order of proximity and I found I could also search for hotspots anywhere else based on location.

I looked at the full menu objects next:

The app offered more options such as a usage meter, a speed test, additional settings and help. I chose to review my usage data:

This handy graph showed me how much bandwidth I had used, what my total allowance represented and even how many days were left in my carrier billing period. As you can see, it separated Wi-fi and cellular data for quick and easy statistical analysis.

I then took a look at the speed test.

Tapping “Start” yielded the following screen which began with a network latency test to check for lags or delays in service:

The test initially showed 262 milliseconds (ms) but this was just a preliminary figure; this evened out to 164.4 ms as the test then checked download speed:

The test then finished with these figures on display:

To elaborate, higher latency means slower speed. As a comparison, a wired home broadband connection may experience 5-40 ms of latency, but cellular data can vary between 200 and 600 ms. The download/upload figures were acceptable for a Wi-Fi connection.

Returning to the menu, I explored the Settings option:

“Travel preferences” allowed me to adjust the screen related to this option which I previously covered. “Connection preferences” brought up the following screen:

The “Notifications” section had these items to offer:

The “Help” section provided access to details on how to use the service and the interface, a FAQ (frequently asked questions list) and the ability to report a problem:

So now that I’ve covered all the settings and options, how did the service actually perform?

Test driving iPass

I first tried out the iPass service when I was around town. I checked for nearby hotspots and beheld an Xfinitywifi access point:

XFiniti Wifi is a service provided by Comcast whereby paying customers can utilize various hotspots for connectivity. It’s not without a strong measure of controversy, however, because often those hotspots are actually residential customers whose internet service is offered up by Comcast for use by others (although they claim it won’t infringe upon connectivity speed of the actual owner).

I tapped “Login” to get online and it complied dutifully enough:

However, although I was connected to the hotspot I had no throughput. I have seen this phenomenon in the past with Xfinitiwifi. I don’t hold iPass responsible for this since their service is a conduit to those of others, and in my experience it’s a hit or miss with Xfinitiwifi. While I did manage a relatively decent Xfinitiwifi connection at another location, I found I could exclude iPass from signing in automatically to Xfinitiwifi hotspots by accessing the main menu, then choosing Settings, Connection Preferences and Excluded Network List:

Other networks to which I connected exhibited varying degrees of usability; the signal strength display and speed test option came in handy to determine how viable the network was if I ran into issues.

I noted a few other things in my test of iPass. If I connected to a bad hotspot and the app couldn’t detect an internet connection (or perhaps I needed to launch a browser to enter credentials or accept an agreement) it would inform me as such:

If I simply couldn’t get a good signal at all the app would show that I was using my 4G mobile connection and explain the problem:

Overall, I found the experience seamless and reliable – so long as good hotspots were available. iPass was helpful in locating alternatives and diagnosing issues, which made the process much less cumbersome.

Upcoming changes

A press release from November 2nd announced that iPass will be adding 9 million Wi-Fi hotspots through a partnership with Fon Technlogy. Furthermore, the release stated that “iPass enterprise users will have access to 50 million Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide by the end of 2015.”

In addition, iPass is seeking to create a “Wi-Fi experience as seamless as cellular” with a product called iPass SmartConnect (available by the end of December, 2015), intended to streamline the connectivity process to the best possible Wi-Fi source. The techniques behind this involve analyzing usage data, signal capability, popular hotspots and data speeds. This comes with a security function providing last-mile VPN functionality to securely encrypt connections between users and their internet access points. Given the amount of data breaches and stolen credentials that arise from unsecured public Wi-Fi, this feature can offer widespread benefits for travelers and local users alike.

Talking with the folks at iPass

I had some questions for the iPass team which Pat Hume, Chief Commercial Office at iPass, was happy to answer.

Scott Matteson: “How does iPass access work?”

Pat Hume: “The iPass Mobile Network is the world’s largest commercial Wi-Fi network, offering access to Wi-Fi hotspots in-flight, in hotels, airports and business venues globally. Enterprises sign up for subscriptions to iPass to enable their business travelers and mobile users Wi-Fi access that is unlimited (no data limits), everywhere and invisible. To get connected, business users download the iPass client on their smartphone, tablet or laptop and launch it to get and stay connected to over 50 million hotspots globally.”

SM: “Are there devices involved or just paid services?”

PH: “Currently, all that business users need to get connected is the iPass client. However, iPass partners with device manufacturers that include iPass in some of their devices as a value-add service to consumers. For example, every HP notebook and tablet shipped in the AsiaPac region includes a free year of access to iPass.”

SM: “Is it available on all airlines/flights?”

PH: “Currently, iPass is available on more than 2,200 airplanes, including those that offer GoGo Inflight wireless. Supported airlines include Delta, Lufthansa, Singapore airlines and more. In addition, iPass connects users at 95% of the world’s top 100 airports.”

SM: “What countries does iPass function in/not in?”

PH: “iPass offers connectivity in 120 countries, with highest presence in North America, Western Europe. In AsiaPac, the strongest presence is in Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea. iPass is headquartered in Redwood Shores and has offices in Paris, London, Munich, Amsterdam and Singapore.”

SM: “What kind of bandwidth can iPass users expect/are guaranteed?”

PH: “iPass does not throttle network speeds, but bandwidth will vary depending on the equipment and speeds available by individual network providers.”

SM: “Can you provide a baseline cost for iPass?”

PH: “Pricing begins at $25 per business user per month and is variable depending on the number of users.”

SM: “Is there a contract plan and if so for how long?”

PH: “Contracts are typically one year in length, but can vary based on individual business needs. iPass also offers contracts 24 and 36 months in length.”

Since 90% of the work I do as a system administrator and tech writer can be performed remotely, steady and reliable connectivity is the literal backbone of my employment. Having an application-based service for internet access makes more sense to me than yet another device to charge up and lug around (though the mobile hotspot component of a Mi-Fi means the connection can be shared by several users). I enjoyed my trial of iPass and think it has some solid potential, particularly if paired up with connection sharing for multiple devices.

See also:

Tips to get the most out of Wi-Fi on a train

A conversation about 5G with inventor of MIMO

Wireless garbage in, wireless garbage out

Photos: 10 Wi-Fi access points to consider before dipping into your tech budget