It’s 2014: Why is hotel wi-fi still so terrible?

03 Feb
    Novotel St. Kilda in Melbourne has some of the worst wi-fi in the world, according to Nearly $30 a day, with a data cap and throttling if it's exceeded.

The Novotel St. Kilda in Melbourne, Australia has some of the worst wi-fi in the world, according to Nearly $30 a day, with a data cap and throttling if it’s exceeded.

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?


Posted by on February 3, 2014 in internet


4 responses to “It’s 2014: Why is hotel wi-fi still so terrible?

  1. Jean-François Mezei

    February 3, 2014 at 4:50 am

    While a hotel’s connection to the internet is likely insufficient, one must not discount the difficulty of Wi-Fi to penetrate rooms through often concrete walls. Poor wi-fi signal will make high speeds very difficult too. One could test the difference between tge bedroom and open areas such as lobby or if you can spot a wi-fi antenna on your floor. This way you can do a test near the antenna and one on bedroom to see how much the wi-fi itself is slowed down due to thick walls.

    • Ry

      February 3, 2014 at 9:06 am

      Signal is the other problem. While a laptop gets poor signal, but still connects, any phone or tablet usually gets no signal, unless I’m close to the door.

      I see more and more personal hotspots these days.

    • Peter Nowak

      February 3, 2014 at 11:20 am

      As the Pod 39 example above illustrates, in many cases this is likely a financial issue and not a technical one. When a hotel is charging $20 per day (and sometimes per device), it can surely afford to put a router in every room.

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