Starbucks is a digital oasis for me.I usually pop in, fire up the Starbucks mobile card app, order a beverage, have my iPhone scanned to pay for it and then sit down to use the Starbucks WiFi access point (provided by AT&T) on a smartphone, iPad or notebook (or netbook). This plan usually works just fine. And, I’ve executed this plan more times that I would care to admit.

Today’s pit stop was for two hours while I waited for new tires to be put on my car. The plan worked fine right up to the point where I flipped the top of my MacBook Air up. I was able to connect to the Starbucks WiFi access point with the usual two click process.

But, something seemed wrong with the network. Web pages were taking forever to render on the screen. A couple of tests using clarified the problem. The test consistently showed a downstream speed of about 0.12 Mbps. That is about 120Kbps (old school ISDN-BRI speed). Ping tests made the data access story look even worse. It was all over the place between 254 milliseconds to a full second. It should be under 100msec. Speedtest gave this access experience an F grade. Repeated tests spread over 10 minutes didn’t indicate any relief was in sight.

Fortunately, I had a backup plan. And, you should too if you frequently need to work while parked in a transition location. I turned on the iPhone 4′s Personal Hotspot (WiFi tethering) option. This option requires an additional monthly fee to AT&T and doubles the 2GB monthly quota to 4GB. The Hotspot feature allows three WiFi devices to connect to it. It can also work over Bluetooth or via USB cable.

Access the Internet over the AT&T iPhone 4 Hotspot improved the downstream access speed considerably. Speedtest gave it a D- grade. But, this is comparedt to the typical multi-megabit per second speeds of wired broadband services. the 0.61 Mbps I got from AT&T via my iPhone was six times faster than what Starbucks could deliver this particular time. It was a sluggish experience. But, I was able to get work done (including writing this while sitting in Starbucks).

This experience is an infrequent one. But, it is good to be prepared for the few times I run into bandwidth problems at Starbucks and other hotspot venues.