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I’ve never paid for it in my life... we are talking Wi-Fi, right?

Let’s have us a public congress, darlin’

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, I’ve found some public Wi-Fi that’s free at last!

When I say free, I mean I didn’t have to pay for it by giving away my email, address, date of birth or inside leg measurement, nor have to invent yet another unique password for the privilege of getting online at this location just for this one occasion and never again.

Nor do I need to ponder over those options that say: “If you don’t not want not to not receive no information from our carefully chosen (ha ha) partners, do not add an untick here unless you don’t not want to not to.”

Don’t get not too not excited, though, because the free Wi-Fi in question is in a hotel lounge in Amsterdam.

For I am here in the land of The Shmoke And A Pancake for two professional membership tech conferences that began yesterday and continue through the rest of the weekend. I do enjoy a good congress. Ooh matron, etc.

Clip from Austin Powers film featuring the “schmoke and a pancake” line.

I am among friends here and therefore on my best behaviour. This is proving very difficult. Being rude comes naturally, and when I’m in IT hack mode, asking awkward questions in such a way as to cause maximum public embarrassment – for me, for them, it’s all the same – is how I generally earn a living.

Especially taxing was forcing myself to behave after a surprisingly absorbing talk on the first evening from a dude who develops European satellite constellations for improving data comms via space. Normally in this situation, I would pose unashamedly hypocritical and frankly unfair questions such as “How much is this costing me?” and “Does it bother you morally to work for the military?” but instead had to sit tight. Did I say sit tight? I was squirming in my seat like I was desperate for a pee. Thankfully, no-one noticed since I’m often desperate for a pee, so I looked perfectly in character.

Earlier that afternoon, I might not have summoned the willpower to remain respectfully silent. It had been one of those stupid days filled with stupid people doing stupid things at me, and I had to fight my way through them like a Victorian explorer hacking through the Amazonian jungle.

It begins at my local train station from where I had planned to set out on my journey to the airport. I roll up there at 4:30am only to find a small crowd of fellow commuters standing outside. The station’s fancy glass sliding doors are locked shut. Through them, we can see the platform departure displays showing us that our train is due to arrive in 15 minutes. No problem, we can wait for the station staff to realise their mistake.

Five minutes later, we are shuffling outside the locked doors like zombie film extras.

Another five minutes go by. We begin knitting brows and huffing and puffing.

After a couple more minutes of Big Bad Wolf impressions, we decide to take matters into our own hands and physically force the doors open. As we dash across the concourse and down the stairs just in time to catch the first train of the day, a platform guard pops his head out of his cubbyhole to find out who the bloody hell let all this rabble in to his nice clean station. He makes a mental note to use heavy chains and electrified razor-wire next time.

Changing services at another station, a small group of us with suitcases watch with dismay as the late-running four-carriage train that we were waiting for trundles all the way to far end of the platform furthest from the station entrance (and us) before coming to a halt. “Why’d he do that?” I ask a platform guard as we lope with our suitcases for the half-kilometre between us and the nearest carriage. He shouts to me that it’s to prevent congestion. On an empty train. At 5.24am.

At the airport, I realise that it’s my last chance to dispense with overnight emails before heading to the gate. Overnight emails are the worst: automatically generated bills, requests for stuff that was due in three weeks’ time but has suddenly become immediately urgent for no apparent reason, offers of well-paid work with a response deadline of “this morning”, and so on. And so, with a heavy heart, I wearily raise my metaphorical machete and prepare to hack my way through the idiot world of everyday public Wi-Fi.

Next time, I’ll take two machetes. I’ll use one of them to cut my own head off.

A sponsored message welcomes me to the airport’s “free” Wi-Fi. Do I have an account? Yes, I believe I do, so I enter my email and password…

Oh, it says I don’t have an account after all. No worries, I’ll just register a new one.

Bloody hell, now it wants me to give them shitloads of personal data. No worries, I’m using a tablet, so let’s go… age… address… mobile phone… car registration number… eye colour… distinguishing marks… waist size… number of toes… tick next to “circumcised”… and I’m done!

Oh for heaven’s sake, it’s now telling me that I do have an account and that I should log in with that instead. OK, I’ll click “Forgot password”… Great, now it tells me that it has sent me my password. And not only has it done so in ordinary unencrypted email, it’s a bloody email, which I can’t read because I can’t get online because your stupid fucking idiot dipshit wanky Will.I.Am so-called “free” arsehole nob-cheese Wi-Fi won’t let me.

So now I’m forced to start all over again using a diddy little smartphone and 3G. And when I do finally get online – just as I’m striding through the airport corridors towards the gate as a voice on the tannoy threatens me, by name, with having my baggage removed from the aircraft – the first email to pop up is a reminder to pay a Virgin Media bill. This diverts to the Virgin Media website, which asks me to log in and then my account homepage is suddenly obscured by a nag screen overlay about something called Web Safe. It is impossible to get out of, too, at least I believe not without an act of extreme physical violence involving a pick-axe, a coal-miner’s lamp and Richard Branson’s backside.

Three hours, one gym session and two doubles of Jack Daniels later, I have cooled off. I read a bit of El Reg on my iPad, download the latest MAD comic, generally chill out. Calmos. Peace. Zen.

Just enough time to join that Skype conference call I’d promised to attend.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen! What a day I’ve had! Anyway, the good news is that the Wi-Fi here at the hotel is totally fr…”

You have reached the end of your hour of complimentary Wi-Fi. Please pay €9.95 to continue.

... Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He appreciates there is no such thing as a free lunch. But if public Wi-Fi access was lunch, the waiter would wave it around in front of you, whip it away just as you reach over with a fork and then, just when you determine to pay for it, empty the plate on your shoes and run away giggling.

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