By Steven H. Wildstrom
No doubt about it, connecting to the Internet is getting a lot easier for road warriors. Not long ago, you had to scrounge around your hotel room for an analog phone jack into which you could plug a modem and, once you found one, put up with a hotel phone system that throttled transmissions speeds to 14.4 kilobits per second and sometimes less. Now, modem ports are nearly universal and speeds are generally much better. But best of all is the growing availability of Ethernet connections in hotel rooms that provide high-speed Internet connections, typically at a flat rate of around $10 for a 24-hour period.
The ability to get to the Internet easily has created a new problem of its own. People who use high-speed Ethernet connections in hotel rooms, or use the wireless Ethernet systems that are cropping up at airports and in hotel public spaces, often discover that while they can fetch messages from Internet e-mail accounts, they can't send any mail out. That even includes responses to messages they have received.
The problem is caused by good intentions. In an effort to cut down on junk e-mail, Internet service providers are under great pressure to restrict the use of outgoing mail servers to registered users. The goal is to shut down "open relays," servers that anyone can use to send out a flood of junk. They do this by requiring that senders prove their identity via a log-on to mail servers.
Unfortunately, many ISPs have chosen to do this in a way that creates a lot of grief for road warriors. They allow you to send mail only if you are logged in to their system, which, as a practical matter, generally means that you have dialed into their system. If you reached your ISP through a hotel Ethernet service such as LodgeNet or CAIS, however, or through a wireless provider like Wayport or MobileStar, you're out of luck with this approach. Your mail program will simply tell you that it failed in an attempt to send mail and give you no good explanation why.
The easiest solution to this problem would be for the providers of public high-speed Internet connections to offer an outgoing mail server for their customers, along with the relatively simple instructions needed to set up a mail program, such as Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express, to use a different server.
Failing that, travelers have some choices. Usually, if you use a high-speed service to connect to a corporate network through what's known as a virtual private network, you won't have these problems because the VPN has to know who you are long before you get anywhere near a mail server.
However, if your employer doesn't use VPNs for remote access, one possibility is to find an ISP that uses a more travel-friendly system for authenticating users. The simplest is a system called receive-before-send: The mail server will accept outgoing mail sent from another system, provided the customer has first logged in to the system to download incoming messages. This can create a minor problem if you have worked on messages offline, during the plane trip, say, before you got to the hotel. Most mail programs will attempt to send any messages created offline as soon as you connect. Because you haven't yet logged in to receive mail, attempting to send will generate an error. Ignore it, download your incoming mail, and then you will be able to send any messages that have piled up in your outbox.
If you are stuck with an uncooperative ISP, your best resort is to use a free Web-based mail account, such as Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail, to handle outgoing messages. It's a pain because you may have to forward messages from your regular account to a Web account in order to reply to them. But both Hotmail and Yahoo! let you set preferences so that any mail you send will look like it came from your regular account and replies will go to your ISP inbox.
Like so many things related to computing, all of this is a lot harder than it ought to be. But if you understand how the system works, you can take steps that make your life on the road simpler.
Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online
Edited by Beth Belton