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January 1, 2010 Hotel WiFi Should Be a Right, Not a Luxury

I'm  in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee for Christmas and on a drive between Memphis  and Nashville I noticed that every $30/night hotel offered free wireless  Internet access. Further, when we got to Nashville and checked into the  relatively low-frills Holiday Inn Express we had better wireless Internet  access than I've had in hotels around the US and the world'some of which I paid  double to stay in.

What gives with hotel WiFi?
This  is a ten-year-old technology that has improved in speed and quality nearly  everywhere in homes, in offices, in public spaces, in coffee shops, in airports  even on planes. You can even get free WiFi at Krystal, a fast food chain that's  on par with White Castle and sells hamburgers for less than $1 each. Over the  past two years I've stayed at more than two-dozen hotels around the United  States and the emerging world. I've noticed a trend that seems to fly in the  face of basic economics and technology adoption: The pricier and fancier hotel,  generally the worse quality the WiFi, if it exists at all.

On  a trip to Boston two years ago my fancy downtown, five-star hotel had no  wireless access. The brand new W in Santiago, Chile has no wireless access. In  India, Rwanda and Argentina I've had to buy expensive 24-hour WiFi passes,  which can add up to hundreds of dollars per stay, for a connection that was  just OK. But I knew better than to complain: The quality of the connection is  almost always better in emerging markets than Western Europe.

London  is hands-down the worst: I've stayed at the Sanderson in London twice and  always had a hard time getting online, and I've also stayed at the Malmaison  where even the wired connection didn't work. I had to go down to the lobby to  get a signal. Even then it was like the early days of wireless where you  wandered around holding your laptop looking for bars like you were panning for  gold.

Arrington  may have his silly germaphobe, fist-bump movement. MG may be determined to hold AT&T accountable for  its embarrassingly bad iPhone service. Here's my outrage: Why in 2010 do so  many hotels have zero, unreliable or outrageously expensive wireless Internet  access?

This  is clearly not a cost issue when economy hotels like Holiday Inn and Days Inn  have no problem offering free wireless access from the middle of nowhere in the  South. (Not to mention Krystal.) This is an issue of greed or tech ignorance on  the part of luxury hotels and consumers and business travelers need to start  showing some outrage.

On  the greed point, Paul Carr whose parents are hoteliers and lives in hotels now says  the sky-high prices are largely the result of hotels losing fees from business  travelers making phone calls, now that we all have mobile phones. The only way  to make up the cost was to start charging for Internet access. I wouldn't have  a huge problem with that if the access was good. But I get angry when you  charge me $20 a day for a connection that barely works when I can get a better  connection at a coffee shop next door for free.

Why not do what the Royal Orchid in Bangalore does? They  offer a basic connection for free, and offer a paid rate if you want a faster  speed. That still allows a way for the hotel to make money off business  travelers with expense accounts, gives guests who need a high-speed connection  an in-room option and offers price-conscious guests a way to do the basics like  checking email for free.

The  other issue is technology. A lot of hotels deeming themselves too tech-ignorant  to install and manage wifi networks themselves entered into pricey service  relationships with third party providers. Hotels say it's those providers who  saddle us with the high fees, and in my experience, not very good connectivity.

If  hotels feel they absolutely can't manage these networks themselves, there have  to be better options. What about big Web portals and search engines like Yahoo  and Google, or for other countries the local equivalents? Google was ready to wire  up all of San Francisco for free access in exchange for ad placement and a  Google start page, why not do that for, say, a chain of boutique luxury hotels  instead? Or at a minimum, outsource to a service like Boingo that is pretty consistent in service and that many travelers already have a  subscription for anyway. It makes the fees hurt less when you can buy an annual  pass that's also good at coffee shops, airports and other public spaces.

These are just a few ideas, and no doubt those  of you with more experience setting up networks for big spaces have more. The  Internet is fully woven into our lives now. It is the primary way people stay  in touch, work and entertain themselves. There is no reason we shouldn't expect  a decent and preferably free connection when we pay upwards of $150/night for a  hotel if a $30/night hotel can offer it. I, for one, would forgo the pillow  mints, free HBO and mini-shampoos if that helps with the margins.

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