Blogs & Comment

Why hotel wi-fi is so terrible, and what to do about it: Peter Nowak

Vote with your feet

Hotel neon sign

(Jimi Lanham)

If you’ve ever stayed at a hotel, you probably know that hotel wi-fi is uniformly atrocious despite sometimes costing a relative arm and a leg. Last month during the Consumer Electronics Show, for example, I stayed at a hotel on the Las Vegas strip where my connection topped out at 256 kilobits per second. That’s right—kilobits. In 2014. And that’s despite paying a “resort fee” of $19.99. I travel a lot and I only wish I could say that was unusual. Unfortunately, it’s commonplace.

West-coast news site Marketplace recently touched on the issue, asking why some luxury hotels charge for wi-fi while more down-market chains don’t. The simple answer is because they can, but it really has more to do with price sensitivity.

“The type of people that are going to be staying [at a luxury hotel] are typically there on business, which generally means that someone else is paying for it,” says one expert. “A $20 fee on a $400 room … is probably not a big deal when they’re paying $400 for a room,” says another.

People in more budget-friendly hotels, however, generally balk at paying those sorts of fees, so hotels provide wi-fi—even if it is crappy—for free.

That still doesn’t explain the speeds. I’ve stayed at plenty of luxury hotels that struggle to crack the megabit barrier. Certainly very few have good enough service to allow for Netflix streaming or even Skype or Face Time.

The most likely explanation is that internet access competes with the hotel’s own services, namely pay-per-view movies. As one Wyndham hotel manager says, “If a traveler wants to watch a movie, they will use Netflix or bring DVDs with them. The popularity of the pay-per-view movie is dying because people are watching more television programs in the guestroom.”

Hotels’ pay-per-view revenue—which includes porn, by the way—has been declining for years. Providing fast in-room wi-fi would only accelerate that trend.

On the upside, industry news website HotelChatter says the number of people who are basing their reservation decisions based on wi-fi is rising, which is correspondingly forcing more hotels to offer it for free. According to the site, about two-thirds of chains—including the likes of Holiday Inn, Kimpton and Howard Johnson—now offer it without charge. Most of the holdouts are indeed higher-end chains, including Hyatt, Marriott and Sheraton.

The site has a handy state-of-the-union infographic that’s well worth checking out. It details who is charging and who isn’t, with a few horror stories from around the world (beware Australia, where hotel wi-fi is often extortionate). Unfortunately, the report doesn’t really address speed issues.

At least one website has sprouted up to tackle the problem. HotelWiFiTest lets you perform and log speed tests on whatever hotel you’re staying at. You can also type in a city and see previous users’ results. Type in New York, for example, and you’ll learn that Pod 39 on East 39th Street has mind-blowing 75.4 Mbps connections—and for free, to boot.

The site is a good start and can help travelers make decisions, but it’s only as good as its database, which appears fairly limited at this time. An easier-to-use tool—like an app—with a deeper data set is sorely needed. I’m willing to do the work—is anyone willing to invest in the idea?