The Changing State of Hotel Wi-Fi

New York Times: As someone who is derided by relatives and friends for not knowing how to text on a cellphone, I approach the task of evaluating technology as warily as a man wading into the Everglades with a pork chop tied around his neck.

Sure enough, a few alligators gathered via e-mail after last week’s column, which said that Wi-Fi service was deteriorating in many hotel guest rooms because of the mostly unanticipated bandwidth demands of smartphones and, particularly, video-hungry iPads.

What drew some ire was the suggestion that the time may be coming when hotels would purchase a lot more bandwidth from their Internet providers, but then offer Wi-Fi to guests in a tiered-fee system. While the Wi-Fi service might be free for the basic level of use, like e-mail and casual Internet browsing, fees would rise in increments for higher levels of data use, especially for video streaming.

Travelers, in general, hate hotel fees. So I expected some negative reaction — and got it. “iBAHN is Netflix!” one reader wrote. “Businesses don’t prosper when the customer feels cheated.” He was referring to comments about the tiered-fee idea by David W. Garrison, the chief executive of iBAHN, a company that provides Internet service to a quarter-million hotel rooms around the world.

A few other reactions were even more vociferous. To one of the grouchiest of those, let me just reply that there are only two “e’s” in the word “imbecile.”

Basically, though, most of the responses were reasoned. In general, business travelers seemed to have two reactions. Most agreed that the hotel room Wi-Fi experience was deteriorating, regardless of whether the hotel charged for the service. And many added that there were other options for ensuring good Wi-Fi service on the road that did not include paying a hotel fee.

“Why don’t you get mobile broadband via a 4G USB modem from Verizon for $50 a month, and put your on-the-road data needs to rest?” Joan Ross wrote. “4G is stunningly fast, and you will have access any place within the Verizon phone network.”

Jonathan S. Kleinman said, “I think the solution for many individuals, as 4G phones proliferate, will be to use them as their Wi-Fi hot spots.”

And Kent Phelps wrote, “What happens when 4G services offer faster access than even premium in-hotel Wi-Fi services?” That likelihood “might explain why hotels are hesitant to make an investment in the technology and infrastructure needed to provide such tiers” of fee-based service, he said.

Mr. Garrison at iBAHN acknowledged in a follow-up conversation that were “lots of different ways to connect” and that resorting to various 3G and newer 4G services available from cellular providers was a “very feasible” alternative to the in-room Internet connection. “In most cases it works fine, but it’s not particularly fast,” he added. “On an iPad, for example, the 3G experience is not nearly as good.”

More to the point, he said, there is a price for that. Cellular service providers are also being hit with major strains on their systems from the data-heavy demands of smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled personal devices, which have changed the economics of the industry. After the first wave of Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones hit, wireless providers began revising the way they billed to account for use, in some cases instituting tiered-fee systems based on monthly data consumption.

If more hotels do upgrade their Wi-Fi services, and put in place a tiered-fee system depending on which bandwidth level customers decide they need, the hotels need to do so carefully. And they need to make sure that the price and the product are clearly spelled out. Those annoying airline fees, for example, are widely disliked — but at least you know what you’re paying for.

At hotels, many customers start with the feeling that existing fees, say $12.99 a day for basic Internet service in a $350-a-night room, or $6 for that bottle of water conspicuously left on the desk, are an outrage. Business travelers have a lot more choices among hotels than among airlines, and can be a lot more exacting about what they’re paying an extra fee for.

“In many hotels I stay at, the Wi-Fi speeds are close to dial-up, even at 5 a.m.,” Eric B. Janofsky wrote. He added: “I wouldn’t mind spending a reasonable amount for reliable, reasonably high-speed Internet. However, if there are multiple-tier Wi-Fi speeds, will the free or lower-cost Wi-Fi be so poor that the free tier would be useless? Are the hotel fees rational?” 


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