#TAM2012 Guide: Wireless Internet connectivity at The Amazing Meeting (TAM)

Clear pricing on USB sticks updated to reflect July 1 sale.

Every year I do a post prior to the The Amazing Meeting that has some handy links and resources everyone can use to better enjoy the show.  I started with a very modest post about TAM7 with just a handful of links. I expanded that considerably for both TAM8 and TAM9, covering many aspects of having a good experience at the show.

This year for The Amazing Meeting 2012, I’ve got even more information collected for you. To keep it manageable (for both you and me) and to get you some key details earlier, I’m splitting my pre-show guide into at least two posts.

This post is all about wireless Internet connectivity while at the show. You need to know this earlier, because there are some options you might want to consider which involve renting a device and having it shipped to you, and naturally that needs to happen ASAP as there are less than two weeks to the show.

Stay Connected!

We all want to stay in contact while at TAM, which means sending Tweets and Facebook messages, posting photos, emailing and so on. All of that requires access to the Internet.

Las Vegas is a major American city so of course it has coverage under all of the U.S. cellular services including AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon. I can report from personal experience that the 4G services on both Sprint (WiMax) and Verizon (LTE) work fine inside the hotel. I think that is true for the other providers as well. I have one old report that Edge worked better than 3G on AT&T a few years ago inside the hotel.

So if you live in the U.S. and the devices you are bringing with you (Smartphones, tablets, laptops) are 3G or 4G enabled on an U.S. provider, you should be fine.

Where it starts to get tricky is if one or both of the following apply to you:

  1. You are bringing a WiFi-only device like a tablet or laptop.
  2. You are coming from outside the U.S. and need to avoid data roaming charges.

If those apply, read on. If not, you might want to skip down below where I talk about power.

Internet Access at South Point

WiFi is a bit problematic in the hotel. Remember this is a convention hotel, and they are in business to make money selling services to convention goers. So the wireless internet is definitely not free, except in one small area. South Point is also a very large facility with thousands of rooms. So different WiFi options exist in different areas.

1. Lobby Area.  In the area around the hotel desk at the front of the casino, there is free WiFi.  There are a few places to sit here, and also a coffee shop on the other side of the front entrance.  So if you just need to upload photos once or twice a day, you might be able to get away with this simple option.

2. Hotel Rooms and Pool Area.  The guest WiFi at South Point is $12.99 per 24 hour period per device. (Update: bundled into the room fee as of 2013). Access covers the hotel rooms and the pool area. It is not supposed to be available in the conference areas, and Grand Ballroom where most of the talks are is quite a distance away from the nearest hotel room. But some have reported a weak signal in the hallway and near the back of the room. I wouldn’t depend on it.

3. Conference Center.  There’s separate WiFi pricing for the conference area itself, where all the talks, panels and workshops are being held.  This option is crazily expensive for some reason: $24.95 for 2 hours and $89.95 for 4 hours, payable by credit card. That is not a typo, yes the 4 hour price is almost twice the rate of the 2 hour price. I have no idea why. And you can’t roam from the room WiFi onto this one or vice versa. I don’t personally know of anyone who has ever used this option at TAM.

4. Business Center.  There is a small business center between the conference center and the casino that has a handful of computers. Access costs $4.99 for 15 minutes or $10.99 per hour. You can print here for $1 per page.  I don’t think there’s any WiFi here, just their computers. It might be useful for those who have intermittent light need to access the Internet while at the hotel.

(If you research online you may find information that indicates the national service Boingo covers South Point, but it turns out that coverage ended on July 1st, 2010).

Consider Your Phone as an Option

So clearly WiFi is not a super practical option for non-millionaires, especially if you want to live-blog during the talks. If you want to use your laptop or tablet without touching the hotel WiFi, you might look into ways to take advantage of your data-capable cellphone. You may have two options here, tethering and hot-spot.

Tethering is where you connect your phone to your laptop (typically via a USB cable) and the laptop uses the phone’s Internet connection. Some wireless companies don’t use the term “tethering”, for instance Sprint calls this practice “Phone as a Modem” in their billing scheme.

Hotspot is where your phone turns its WiFi radio into a hotspot that others can attach to.  You might be able to share your connection with several friends. I do recommend you set a password on it so you don’t share it with everyone in the Grand Ballroom – even at 4G speeds that could be trouble.

Both tethering and hotspot are often involve an extra monthly fee from your provider, but you might want to consider enabling that for the month of July and perhaps canceling it after. Again, you’ll have to check with your provider to see if this is possible.

But what if your cell phone data provider doesn’t support tethering or hotspot, or their solution isn’t compatible with your laptop OS or phone? There still may be a way.

I’ve had good luck with a program called PDANet by June Fabrics. It supports most of the popular smartphone types and can turn the data connection you are already paying for into a laptop internet connection via USB or Bluetooth. It works pretty well on my provider (Sprint) but your mileage may vary. It is worth noting that some cellphone providers have been clamping down on unauthorized tethering.

Finally, another option is to jailbreak or root your phone.  In some cases this allows you to enable the hotspot or tether feature even if your wireless carrier doesn’t allow it. Explaining how to do this is well beyond the scope of this article.

If none of that works for you, there is yet another option…

Rent a 3G/4G Device Just for TAM

If you don’t already have a 3G/4G device to bring with you, and you are dubious of signing a contract for a new wireless service just to get through TAM, you might consider the idea of renting a device during the show.

1. 4G4RENT.  Since TAM8 several attendees have used a service in Las Vegas called 4G4Rent. It is specifically targeted at convention goers in Las Vegas, and they are set up to send the device directly to your hotel for you. (They even list the specific hotels on their order form!) Their service uses the same WiMax 4G network as Clear and Sprint in Las Vegas. Their USB “stick” option has drivers for both PC and Macintosh computers; and they also have a WiFi hotspot option which can support multiple devices.

2. XCom Global. Last year I was told of a service called XCom Global. It is a similar service that is targeted at business travelers who need a device that will work at their destination. Like the other rental service, they have both a USB stick (for both Windows and Mac) and a WiFi hotspot. Unlike 4G4RENT, this service can be used in many countries, not just Las Vegas.

3. Clear. 4G WiMax is offered on the same infrastructure as Sprint by the company Clear. This company has been in some trouble lately, so they’ve been offering some very good deals such as no-contract plans and free shipping. So you could buy a device, pay a monthly fee, then cancel after TAM. They also offer a refurbished USB stick for only $20 FREE as of July 1! That’s right, free hardware with free shipping. They also have a “Basic” data plan that is $15 cheaper per month, is still unlimited data, but limits your bandwidth to 1 Mbps download, 500 Kbps upload.

4. NetZero.  Remember NetZero, the old dialup Internet provider? In March they introduced a new 4G Internet service that also does not require an ongoing contract. You have to buy the device ($50 for USB stick, $100 for the hotspot) but they even have a zero monthly fee plan if you can stay below 200Mb for the month. If you go with the non-free plan you’ll have to cancel after TAM.

The pricing for the four vendors is a bit different. The first two charge by day, while Clear and NetZero would be by the month. So I put together two comparison charts. I’ve included the South Point room WiFi in each chart, even though it’s not comparable because you can’t use it in the conference area.  These charts do include shipping and data fees, but there may be extra taxes and other fees depending on what options you choose when you order.

First, for USB sticks to run a single Windows or OSX laptop:

Vendor Data (MB) 3 days 4 days 5 days 6 days 7 days
4G4Rent Unlimited $83.97 $106.96 $129.45 $151.44 $172.94
Xcom Global Unlimited $74.75 $89.70 $104.65 $119.60 $134.55
Clear Refurbished Basic Unlimited $34.99 $34.99 $34.99 $34.99 $34.99
Clear Refurbished Full Unlimited $49.99 $49.99 $49.99 $49.99 $49.99
NetZero “Free” 200 $69.90 $69.90 $69.90 $69.90 $69.90
NetZero Platinum 4000 $119.85 $119.85 $119.85 $119.85 $119.85
South Point room WiFi Unlimited? $38.97 $51.96 $64.95 $77.94 $90.93

This is pretty competitive, but Clear seems to have the best pricing for longer stays, especially if unlimited data is important to you. Getting a free refurbished USB stick and going with the Basic data plan is an outstanding value if it works for you. (But of course you’ll have to remember to cancel after TAM).

Next, for hotspots, where you could run up to 5 or 8 WiFi devices. This could be a good option if you want to split the fees with a friend, assuming you are going to stay together most of the time. I’ve included the hotel WiFi here too for 2 through 4 devices:

 Vendor Devs Data (MB) 3 days 4 days 5 days 6 days 7 days
4G4Rent 8 Unlimited $494.94 $648.44 $798.20 $944.23 $1,086.51
Xcom Global 5 Unlimited $74.75 $89.70 $104.65 $119.60 $134.55
Clear Spot Basic 8 Unlimited $88.98 $88.98 $88.98 $88.98 $88.98
Clear Spot Full 8 Unlimited $103.98 $103.98 $103.98 $103.98 $103.98
NetZero “Free” 8 200 $119.90 $119.90 $119.90 $119.90 $119.90
NetZero Platinum 8 4000 $169.85 $169.85 $169.85 $169.85 $169.85
South Point room WiFi 2 Unlimited? $77.94 $103.92 $129.90 $155.88 $181.86
South Point room WiFi 3 Unlimited? $116.91 $155.88 $194.85 $233.82 $272.79
South Point room WiFi 4 Unlimited? $155.88 $207.84 $259.80 $311.76 $363.72

XCom wins on shorter stays, with the caveat of the 5-device limit. Clear wins on longer stays, mostly due to their free shipping. Of course you will have to remember to cancel your plan at the end, but you’ll have the hardware to keep and can re-activate at any time.

Don’t Forget Power!

If you’re planning to live blog, live tweet and so on at the show, be mindful of your power requirements! Most of Friday through Sunday at TAM is spent sitting in the large conference hall watching the main track of programming all day. In past years this has been set up with tables along some rows so folks can have laptops out and so on. (I’m not sure if that will be true this year).

But there are no freely accessible power outlets in the room! The ones that are there are a billable item from the hotel and are locked behind panels when not in use. They are also not close to where you sit. If you try to rent one from the hotel you will find they are not cheap.

There are a few outlets in the public areas if you look hard enough, but you’ll have to compete with others for access to these, just like at an airport.

The lectures and presentations run from about 8 to 6 or so, so that’s potentially ten hours in which you will have to be on battery power, with only the lunch break to recharge. Even if you are using a mobile such as an iPhone for these purposes, constant tweeting and communication will eat up your battery much faster than normal phone use. If you bring or rent a WiFi hotspot, it will need power as well.

The bottom line is: plan ahead. If your devices have removable batteries, buy extras and bring them with you! (If you are renting a hotspot from XCom Global, consider renting the extra battery pack). Be very diligent about recharging all your batteries each night so you start each day ahead of the game.

Bring extra charger cables for all your devices if you have them. If your devices can charge via a USB connection or from wall power, bring both kinds of cable. You never know when you might be short of power and sitting next to someone who is willing to let you charge from the USB port on their laptop or notebook computer.

External Batteries

For portable devices that can charge from a USB port, there are a number of options in the form of an external battery packs. You charge this up separately at night, and then you can keep this connected to your phone or tablet via a USB cable to augment the internal battery. Some have multiple outputs so you can charge multiple devices at once.

ZAGG just introduced this one that looks nice. There are a number of others you can find there on Amazon. Take care to note the specifications and what it is rated to charge. The iPad, for instance, pulls considerably more power from a charger than other devices so make sure you get something that will work.

Your exact solution, of course, will depend on what devices you have, whether their batteries are removable, and so on.

Conclusion & Notes

Unless you already have a 3G/4G device on a US wireless carrier, do not assume you can get free Internet connectivity while at TAM. If you need to stay connected with your laptop or WiFi tablet, you need to make arrangements such as those suggested above.

Thanks to Reed Esau, Jeff Wagg, Brian Dunning and Shane Brady for tips over the years that went into this article.

You can follow me on Twitter here.

13 thoughts on “#TAM2012 Guide: Wireless Internet connectivity at The Amazing Meeting (TAM)

  1. sgerbic

    Great tips Tim. I have a iPhone with unlimited data plan, and will be bringing my laptop (PC) I downloaded PdaNet to my laptop and that seems installed correctly as I get the little icon to use to connect to. But when I click that icon it tells me there is a problem as I need to make sure PdaNet is installed on my iPhone.

    I can’t find it on my phone settings or any of the applications. I don’t find it on iTunes anywhere and I just synced my phone. Still can’t find PdaNet anywhere on my phone. I went to the June Fabrics website and was confused, not sure if they are telling me to jailbreak my phone or not. I don’t want to jailbreak my phone, right?

    So if I”m missing something obvious please let me know. I’m going to Reno this weekend and would love to have my laptop use my 3G service on my phone.

    Otherwise you’re going to find me sitting by the lobby uploading pictures at South Point.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Yeah, unfortunately it seems that you have to jailbreak an iPhone to run PDAnet on it. I don’t recommend doing that unless you are technically adept. It’s not crazy hard to do, but it has to be done correctly and has implications for your other apps and how you deal with Apple upgrades from then on out.

    2. Tim Farley Post author

      I was just checking some prices right now after I replied to your post, and lo it appears that the refurbished USB sticks are now FREE from Clear as of July 1. You just have to pay for 1 months data. So I recommend that if you can get the device shipped to you in time. If you go with the limited bandwidth plan, it ends up being $35 for all of TAM, you just have to remember to cancel your account by the end of July.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Yes, there is some battery cost in turning on a feature like 4G. I used to try to manage that carefully by turning it on and off, now I just make sure to have extra charged batteries for my phone at hand when at conferences like this.

      1. sgerbic

        Lei and Tim. Gosh darn it, you should know better. All those skeptics in the same room is what drains those batteries. There is no hope. Just come hang out with me in the hallway.

  2. Bob Frankston (@BobFrankston)

    This kind of advice is useful but as a skeptic one should also wonder about policies premised on the idea that bits have intrinsic meaning. There are also economic and market issues but the basic idea of charging us to communicate conflates what humans do with what Shannon measured. More at http://rmf.vc

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