A Twitter friend recently wrote a blog post espousing the usefulness of the wireless network facility offered at Center Parcs’ Whinfell Forest establishment. It was a sort of by-the-by assertion in amongst chat about the proliferation of modern data devices.
I was recently at the self-same establishment, and had quite a different experience. I’ve been there three times now, and each time have enjoyed decent enough connectivity. So I wasn’t really in the mindset to unplug for the week. Plus, darling wife has an even stronger internet addiction than I do.
When I arrived at the lodge, first priority was to hook dear lady’s iPad to the WLAN. It went through smoothly enough, and she had little problem for the rest of the week – except on the occasions where she forgot that her phone doesn’t really work any more and left the iPad in the lodge. I pulled out the phone and was confronted with the unfamiliar “No Service” legend. No matter, I’ll just authenticate with the wi-fi and off we go. It was far from straightforward, with many flits between the screens of the logon process. But I stuck with it and got connected.
From an infrastructure point of view, the Center Parcs WLAN is – as pointed out by Mr Louden (above) – very good. Wireless LAN connectivity is available in all of the main buildings, including the Village Centre, Lakeside Inn and Sports Plaza as well as our lodge. I’m not sure how many of the lodges are so equipped, so check your details if you’re reading this prior to a visit.
However, simply presenting a WLAN is not good enough. Far too often I was presented with a screen like this:
No cell, full WLAN, no connection…
Drilling into the properties of the wireless connection I saw the dreaded 169.254.n.n address, meaning that while I was connected, I wasn’t actually connected. No data would be forthcoming. (Again, if you’re reading this as a current/future Center Parcs guest, you should be looking for an address in the 172.13.n.n range, with a gateway of 22.214.171.124).
This happened so often that I went into something of a sullen state. On day 4 I had realised that it wasn’t going to get any better. On day 5 I became recalcitrant. On day 6 I kept forgetting the hopelessness, trying again, and experiencing that bereft feeling once more.
The Windows 7 laptop was a little better at establishing and maintaining a connection, but still, far too often I’d get little pop-up notifications…
Having spent a few days investigating, it seems that Apple iOS devices with 3G capability really do not like intermittent connections. Trying to operate in an area where both wireless signals and 3G signals are present but almost unusable causes the device to go into some sort of paroxysm of truculence. The device appears unable to rapidly switch between connections that are in a state of flux. The Windows laptop, with only its WLAN to use, is moderately content to packet-queue through interruptions of service, where the iOS device just bins the whole transaction, only sometimes telling the app that this has happened. Also, the iOS device is quite happy to report that it’s connected with an autoconfiguration address, where the Windows box immediately flags a lack of full connectivity.
I can only imagine that the explosion in use of smartphones, tablets, netbooks and laptops has caused something of a nightmare for Center Parcs admins. They’re providing a service for 2006 utilisation levels, but now it’s 2011, and families are wandering into lodges with three or more fully internet-enabled devices, and a notion that data is always there.
It’s not really the lack of bandwidth that caused my data funk. It was the gap between expectation and availability. As a long-time cellphone user, I’m used to the notion that signal quality degrades with signal strength, and yet here I was, presented with a strong signal and no usable service. Articles such as Dave’s had led me to believe that Center Parcs was a data haven – a place where one could wander twixt court, pool and tavern, enjoying connectivity in a Martini style.
Instead, I found myself in a data black hole. It was depressing. Perhaps not as depressing as the little skip of joy my heart did when the car picked up a 3G signal some half mile from the exit of the park, but depressing nonetheless.
And what should Center Parcs do about this? One of two things: sort it out, or switch it off. Better to have nothing at all than the unmet promise.