Here's one of the great puzzles of the modern age: why is it that lots of low-cost small hotels around the world provide their customers with wireless internet access free, while most of the big flash ones charge an arm and a leg?

Likewise, how come some international airports can offer free wireless, but most don't?

I first began musing on this mystery a couple of years ago when my wife and I were travelling around France.

We stayed at several nice little hotels in small towns, many of them slightly scruffy but nearly all providing great food, and most offering free wireless access to the web.

Generally there was a choice: you could agree to pay and go online straight away, or wait a few minutes while a few advertisements were displayed and then link up. I chose to have a coffee while the ads were running and pay nothing.

We also stayed at a couple of very fancy hotels where, once again, there was lots of great food on offer but the choice for wireless was rather limited: you paid up, a lot, or you couldn't go online.

Why? If a small hotel can find someone to provide free wireless internet how come a big hotel can't?

The riddle broadened when I visited parts of South America earlier this year. At airports like Guayaquil and Quito the wireless internet was free so you could check your emails while waiting for a flight. But at Auckland and Santiago you had to pay.

There's a similar mixed picture all round the word according to, which offers fairly comprehensive information on wireless internet availability.

According to them, the world's favourite airports like Hong Kong and Singapore have free access while everybody's pet hates like Los Angeles, London-Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle charge.

Closer to home, the website shows Adelaide as providing free wireless access but not Sydney, Auckland or Christchurch (except in places like the Koru lounges).

Now I know there's no such thing as a free lunch. I paid for my free internet at those French hotels by purporting to look at advertisements. I've been to pubs where you get free access if you buy a beer.

But it strikes me that if some hotels and airports can find an operator willing to provide their customers with free access on that basis, then surely the others could if they wanted to.

I can't imagine that wireless at hotels and airport is a huge money earner. So it rather gets down to ideas of service.

The folk who run the Vancouver, Vienna and Bangkok airports want to offer their passengers the widest possible range of services.

The folk who run the airports in Rome, New Delhi and New York La Guardia obviously don't.

- Jim Eagles

Pictured above: Why only some airports and hotels provide free wireless, while others charge an arm and a leg, remains a mystery. File photo / Paul Estcourt