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.

Causing A Network Ruckus

ruckuslogo

The second presentation of day 2 of Network Field Day was from Ruckus wireless. Yes, a wireless company at a non-wireless Field Day event. I had known for a while that Ruckus wanted to present at Network Field Day and I was excited to see what they would bring. My previous experience with Ruckus was very enlightening. I wanted to see how they would do outside the comfort zone of a wireless event. Add in the fact that most networks are now becoming converged from the perspective of offering both wired and wireless access and you can see the appeal of being the only wireless company on the slate.

We started off with a talk from GT Hill (@GTHill). GT is one of those guys that started out very technical before jumping into the dark side of marketing. I think his presentation should be required viewing for those that think they may want to talk to any Tech Field Day group. GT had a lot of energy that he poured into his talk.  I especially loved how he took a few minutes at the beginning to ask the delegates about their familiarity with wireless.  That’s not something you typically see from a vertical-focused field day like NFD, but it does get back to the cross discipline aspect that makes the greater Tech Field Day events so great.  Once GT had an idea of what we all knew he kept each and every one of the delegates engaged as he discussed why wireless was so hard to do compared to the “simplicity” of wired networking. Being a fan of explaining technical subjects with easy-to-understand examples, I loved GT using archery as a way to explain the relative difficulty of 802.11 broadcasts in 802.11n and 802.11ac.

The second part of the discussion from Sandip Patel about 802.11ac was great. I didn’t get a chance to hear the presentations from the other wireless vendors at Wireless Field Day 3 & 4. Picking up all the new information regarding things like channel bandwidth and multi-user spatial streams was very nice for me.  There’s a lot of new technology being poured into 802.11ac right now.  There’s also a lot that’s being prepped for the future as well.  While I knew that 160 MHz channels were going to be necessary to get the full bandwidth rates out of 802.11ac, I was unaware that you could have two 80 MHz channels simultaneously working together to provide that.  You learn something awesome at every Field Day event.  I think 802.11ac is going to push a lot of lesser vendors out of the market before all is said and done.  The huge leap forward for throughput comes with a great cost insofar as making sure that your wireless radios work correctly while at the same time accommodating noise and interference.  Companies like Cisco and Aruba are going to come out okay just by virtue of being so large.  Aerohive should come out fine as well.  I think Ruckus has taken a unique approach with their antenna technology.  That shows in these presentations, as Ruckus will be the first to tell you that their superior transmitting technology means that the signal will be cleaner between client and AP.  I want to see a real 802.11ac from every wireless company put together in a room with various noise producers to see what happens.  Maybe something for Wireless Field Day 5?

After we shut off the cameras, we got to take tour of the Ruckus testing facilities.  Since Ruckus had moved buildings since Wireless Field Day 2 it was a brand new room.  There was a lot more room than the previous testing area that we’d seen before.  They still had a lot of the same strange containers and rooms designed to subject access point radios to the strangest RF environments imaginable.  In the new building, there was just a lot more elbow room to walk around along with more tables to spread out and get down to the nuts and bolts of testing.

If you’d like to learn more about Ruckus Wireless and their solutions, you can check them out at http://www.ruckuswireless.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @ruckuswireless.


Tom’s Take

While the Ruckus presentation was geared more toward people who weren’t that familiar with the wireless space, I loved it nonetheless.  GT Hill related to a group of non-wireless people in the best way I could imagine.  Sandip brought a lot of info about 802.11ac to the table now that the vendors are starting to ramp up towards putting out enterprise APs.  Ruckus wanted to show everyone that wireless is an important part of the conversation when it comes to the larger networking story.  While we spend a lot of time at NFD talking about SDN or data centers or other lofty things, it’s important to remember that our tweets and discussion and even our video coverage is coming over a wireless network of some kind.  Going to a vendor without some form of wireless access is a demerit in their case.  I’ve always made a point of paying attention once I see that something is everywhere I go.  Thankfully, Ruckus made the right kind of noise to make the delegates sit up and pay attention.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Ruckus was a sponsor of Network Field Day 5.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 5.  In addition, Ruckus provided me with lunch at their offices.  They also provided a custom nameplate and a gift package containing a wireless access point and controller.  At no time did they ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.

Additional Network Field Day 5 Coverage

Terry Slattery – Network Field Day 5: Ruckus Wireless

Pete Welcher – Network Field Day 5: Ruckus Wireless Comments

Pete Welcher – Testing WLAN and Network Management Products