NEW YORK (MainStreet) Here is how bad hotel WiFi is: frustrated users have created a dedicated website called HotelWifiTest that lives to shame hotels into upping their speed. That's because the site lets hotel guests test their Wifi connections...then it encourages them to publicize the results on social media.
The results are grim. At a glance there's a Holiday Inn on W. 57th in Manhattan with a 0.67 Mbps speed rating -- and that is scarcely fast enough for email.
But here's the problem: many thousands of hotels across the country have appallingly slow WiFi. At a guess, Brian Caskey, chief marketing officer at Zhone Technologies, a company that provides upgraded fiber based broadband to hotels, claims that "85 to 90% of hotels have this issue."
The counterpoint is that, in research conducted by WiFi provider iPass, mobile workers rated WiFi as second in importance only to a comfortable bed in hotels - yet 81% said they had experienced poor WiFi in a hotel in the past 12 months.
Tim Tang, an executive with managed network service provider Hughes, told how we got into this sorry state: "Hotels haven't thought through their implementation of WiFi. Many people are using the same resource, at the same time. But the amount of broadband resources is insufficient for the demand. The first problem is capacity. Access is also a problem. It's a perfect storm for a miserable WiFi experience."
Joel Vicent, an executive with WiFi provider Aerohive, elaborated that at most hotels, management has not acknowledged that the paradigm has changed. Most networks, he elaborated, were built out to serve an expected one device per room, and that device was a laptop with multiple big, beefy antennas that could capably hunt for and access even weak WiFi signals.
Today, however, it is three to maybe more than 10 devices per room, and often those devices are iPhones, iPads, Android tablets with perhaps one feeble antenna.
A bottomline: experts are insistent that fixes won't come cheaply or easily, and the upshot is that most of us face ever worse hotel WiFi experiences simply because more of us will pile on more devices. Hoteliers, with hands firmly strangling their purses, are declining to invest in upgrades.
Cue up angry guests. What can you do about it?
* Demand a refund.
Simon Tam, a bassist with dance band The Slants, spoke for many when he wrote in an email: "We spend a lot of time at hotels when on tour, but we absolutely rely on Internet connection for travel information, directions and for our business. I notice that WiFi is especially poor at conventions, when there is so much traffic that the service is rendered pretty much useless."
Tam has gotten vocal about insisting on refunds whenever he has paid for inadequate WiFi, and, he said, hotels usually are cooperative about returning the dough - and that could be because they know the service they are providing is inadequate,
* Bring your own hotspot.
Many smartphones and some tablets allow the user to create a hotspot that can be accessed by other devices. This uses the cellular data network, not the hotel's WiFi. Check your data plan before going this route, and know that it may be prohibitively expensive overseas.
Blogger Joe Brancatelli, who operates business travel site JoeSentMe.com, commented that, ironically, the proliferation of bring your own hotspot may take the heat off hoteliers: "With 4G being so fast and increasingly ubiquitous, customers may soon not care what the hotel offers. They'll just bring their own WiFi. It's what happened with hotel phones. No one cares what hotels charge for in-room phones now, because we all have mobile phones. I think we are truly close to the day when whatever a hotel owner may have spent on Internet backbone may be wasted, because folks come with their own WiFi."
* Be prepared to pay up.
WiFi may want to be free - every survey shows that hotel guests chafe at paying for WiFi, much as they would if asked to pony up for air conditioning - but, predicted Ricardo Belmar, another Hughes executive, more hotels will introduce tiered services where a minimal WiFi, possibly useless for anything beyond email, will be free. Premium WiFi - possibly good enough for streaming Netflix - will be available for those who pay up.
But paid WiFi may be free, too, at least for members of the hotel's loyalty program. Kimpton Hotels, for instance, throws in free WiFi for members of its InTouch Loyalty Program. Other chains offer similar deals - so before paying up, check the Web.
--Written by Robert McGarvery for MainStreet