Why Do We Tolerate Bad Wireless?

HotelSpeedConnection

If there is one black eye on the hospitality industry, it has to be wireless.  I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone that is truly happy with the wireless connectivity they found in a hotel.  The above picture from an unnamed hotel in Silicon Valley just serves to underscore that point.  When I was on a recent speaking trip in New England, I even commented about the best hotel wireless I’d ever seen:

Granted, that was due to a secluded hotel on MIT‘s university network, but the fact remains that this shouldn’t be the exception.  This should be the rule.

Thanks to advances in mobile technology like LTE, we have a new benchmark for what a mobile device is capable of producing.  My LTE tablet and phone outrun my home cable connection.  That’s fine for browsing on a picture frame.  However, when it’s time to get real work done I still need to fire up my laptop.  And since there isn’t an integrated LTE/4G hotspot in my MacBook, I have to rely on wireless.

Wireless access has gone from being a kitschy offering at specialized places to being an everpresent part of our daily lives.  When I find myself in need of working outside the office, I can think of at least five different local establishments that offer me free wireless access.  Signing up for mobile hotspot services easily doubles that number.  There are very few places that I go any more that don’t give me the ability to use WiFI.  However, there is a difference between having availability and having “good” availability.

Good Enough Wireless

I would never upload video at a coffee shop or an airport.  The sheer number of folks using the network causes massive latency and throughput issues.  Connections are spotty and it’s not uncommon to see folks throw their hands up in the air because something just randomly stopped working.  However, the most telling statistic is how often we will go back to that same location to use the free wifi again.

Hotels have a captive audience.  You’re there to attend a conference during the day or spend the night.  You are geographically isolated.  You get what you get when it comes to connectivity.  Newer hotel chains that focus on business travelers understand the need for wireless connectivity.  They usually offer it for free with your room.  That’s because they usually have the infrastructure to support wireless coverage from large numbers of guests.  Older hotels that aren’t quite up to snuff or don’t understand why travelers need Internet access usually charge exorbitant fees or bundle the wireless into a “resort” package that gives you a whole bunch of high-margin useless services to get what you want.  Sometimes they use those fees to upgrade the infrastructure.  Or they just pocket the money and go on with their day.

Internet In My Pocket

As much as we complain about terrible wireless at hotels, it’s not like we have an alternative.  Wireless hotspot devices, commonly called “MiFis” after the Verizon branding, are popular with real road warriors.  Why hunt for a coffee shop when you can fire up a wireless network in your pocket?  Most current mobile devices even come with hotspot functionality built in.  But the carriers haven’t gotten the message yet.  For every one that allows hotspot usage (Verizon), you have those that don’t believe in hotspot and want to gouge you with higher fees or data plan changes to revamp bad mobile data decisions in the past.  Yes, I’m looking right at you AT&T.

Mobile hotspots can fix wireless problems in isolated cases, but loading a hotel full of people on MiFis will inevitably end in disaster.  Each of them uses a portion of the LTE/4G spectrum.  Think about a large gathering where everyone’s mobile phones cause spotty reception.  Not because they are all in use, but because they just happen to be occupying the same space.  Towers get overloaded, backhaul networks slow down, and service suffers for everyone.  If you don’t believe me, try making a phone call at Cisco Live some time.  It’s not pretty.

As long as there are no options for solving the problem, hospitality will go right on offering the same terrible coverage they do now.  As far as they are concerned, wireless is best effort.  Best effort should never be acceptable.  You can fix this problem by going to the front desk and telling them all about it.  No, don’t yell at the desk attendant.  They have zero control over what’s going on.  There’s a better way.

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Ask for a satisfaction survey.  Fill it out and be brutally honest when you get to the “Are You Pleased” section.  Those surveys go right up the chain into the chain satisfaction ratings.  If they start getting disgruntled comments about bad wireless coverage, I can promise that some Quality Champion somewhere is going to look into things.  Hotels hate black eyes on their satisfaction ratings.  Bad reviews keep people from staying at a hotel.  If you want to get the wireless fixed, tell them how important it is.  Tell them you’ll stay somewhere else next time because you can accomplish anything.  Voting with your wallet is a sure fire way to make an impact.

Tom’s Take

I remember the old Cingular/AT&T Wireless commercials with the cell phones cutting out during calls.  I laughed and thought about all the times it had happened to me.  It because such a sticking point that every carrier worked to upgrade their network and provide better call quality.  No one would stand for spotty service any more as they began to rely on their mobile phones as their primary communications devices.

Wireless is the same now as cell phones were then.  We need a concerted effort to upgrade the experience for everyone to make it usable for things like Hotspot 2.0, which will offload traffic from LTE to WiFI seemlessly.  We can’t let terrible wireless rule us like spotty cell phone coverage did years ago.  Do everything you can to make wireless useful for everyone.