Starbucks Wi-Fi Service in Beijing (Starbucks, City Mall, Liangmaqiao)
There are plenty of alternatives to Starbucks in China, particularly Maan Coffee, Zoo Coffee and Costa Coffee. However, foreigners visiting or working in the Middle Kingdom instinctively stop by Starbucks due to the recognizable green sign and comforting familiarity of their cafes. The locals, having acquired the coffee drinking habit more out of a lifestyle choice than any love for coffee beans, also frequent judiciously placed Starbucks coffee shops.
Although there's a clear mandate from the US company that all Starbucks branches ideally should have a Wi-Fi service, it isn't surprising not all of them have a working WLAN in China. I've encountered a handful of Starbucks cafes without free Wi-Fi access in Shanghai and Guangzhou, so it's often a good idea to stand outside the shop and check for SSIDs using your smartphone if you need free Internet along with your Americano.
In Beijing, Starbucks uses a third-party service provider to act as a gateway for Internet access. Once connected to the WLAN, you authenticate via the Starbucks Wi-Fi home page using the now-ubiquitous SMS validation method. As with many establishments that provide gratis Internet, you are expected to have a phone number from either China Telecom, China Mobile, or China Unicom.
The authentication web portal is clearly not optimized for desktop browsers … or at least not optimized for Safari.
I was able to once again test the Starbucks Wi-Fi service recently, this time in City Mall, Liangmaqiao, just next to the The Westin, Beijing. The English portal to input your phone number didn't work properly and no SMS was sent to my Lumia 925. However, performing the same steps in the Chinese version of the portal, which is the default home page after connecting, had the SMS code to my smartphone in seconds.
The Chinese interface worked fine, but the English version didn't. No SMS arrived on my smartphone even after inputting my China Unicom number in the English UI, but the Chinese interface triggered SMS code transmission almost immediately.
I understand that plenty of businesses and establishments use the SMS authentication method to ensure consistency in the service and prevent Internet access abuse. However, I actually like the standard universal password better, which is the approach preferred by less ubiquitous franchises such as Maan Coffee, and of course, some hotels. Logging in with one password is somewhat more convenient than having to use an SMS code every time, which requires a China phone number.
I have a notion that the SMS code for the Starbucks Wi-Fi access not only has a timeout validity setting, but is also tied to your device's MAC address. After working for half an hour on my Linux laptop, I switched to my iPad for some casual surfing while finishing off my grande size Mocha. I had to input my China Unicom number a second time, but received the same SMS authentication code.