Why Hotel Wifi is Broken

I’m never going to stay at the Hotel Felix again. Why? Lots of little things, which I shan’t bore you with. But one of them is their idiotic system of charging for wifi – the subject of Joe Brancatelli’s column today.

At the Hotel Felix, getting online is not only expensive ($28 a day!) but also incredibly time-consuming for all concerned: you first phone down to the front desk, and they then print out a piece of paper with a long and complicated username and an equally long and complicated password. They then give that piece of paper to a staff member to hand-deliver to your room.

One you have your username and password, you open a web browser and cross your fingers: if you’re lucky and the stars are correctly aligned, you’ll be successfully redirected to a web page where you can laboriously type them in. If you get it right, you’ll make it online. For about 10 minutes. At which point you’ll be kicked offline for no obvious reason. You then try quitting browsers, reopening them, etc etc, all to no avail: you can’t get on to that web page again no matter how hard you try. So you eventually look in your browser history, find the IP address, and enter that; presto, you’re reconnected.

Until you leave your computer and let it go to sleep. At that point, your connection is lost to the world, and trying to re-enter your username and password gets you nowhere. So you have to call back down to the front desk again, and they will print out a new username and password for you, and send it up to your room again, and the whole thing starts anew.

This is a great system if you want to achieve three goals:

  1. Absolutely, positively guarantee that no one will ever use the hotel’s wifi system without paying the hotel’s exorbitant rates;
  2. Maximize the amount of work done by the staff of the hotel;
  3. Send your paying guests crawling up the wall with frustration.

Brancatelli mentions the costs of bandwidth, which can reach a thousand dollars a month for a big hotel in a high-tech area. But that doesn’t sound particularly high to me. The problem with charging for wifi is that the charging system itself – which invariably uses up a huge amount of staff time when it doesn’t work properly, which it never does – is much more expensive, when you add it all up, than the bandwidth being provided.

If you have to charge for wifi – and there are attractive alternatives – then at least move to a more simple system: put a password on it, and charge your guests $10 or $20 when you give them the password. Wifi is one of those weird commodities which gets better the less it costs: when you’re paying through the nose for it, it never "just works" like it does when it’s free.

And please, please move away from the ridiculous model of charging by the hour. An anonymous hotel executive complains to Joe about guests "downloading movies, playing games, and doing video conferences" – those things eat up bandwidth, yes, but the amount of time spent online is a really bad proxy for bandwidth consumed. Most of us don’t do any of those things when we’re at a hotel – we just want to set up our laptop in the corner somewhere, glance over occasionally to see whether any new emails have arrived, or pop online to check on the opening hours of a local museum. That kind of thing should never require an elaborate log-on-and-log-off process designed to minimize the use of expensive online minutes.

But I fear that Joe’s right, and the problem of hotel wifi charges will only be resolved when mobile modems become as ubiquitous as cellphones. Once hotel guests regularly get online without any hotel amenities at all, wifi charges will be like those telephone charges no one pays any more. But even then, although hotels won’t be able to complain about bandwidth use any more, they’ll surely come up with some other reason to continue to keep the prices high. Or maybe they’ll start charging for access to electrical sockets.

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