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Joe Sharkey channels 2005: This travel column in the New York Times reads a bit odd. Nearly everything in the article, exception the proliferation of mobile devices with Wi-Fi built in, could have been written in 2005, or even earlier.
"The days when business travelers routinely fretted about the availability of Internet connections in hotels are gone, or rapidly fading." That started fading long ago, when most hotels had put in Internet service. Five years ago, the majority of hotels had some form of access, with most of that service in rooms. In the last five years, it's been backfill for the few remaining properties and rooms, with more Wi-Fi than Ethernet in the mix.
Sharkey even uses a term I haven't heard broadly used in years: "Others carry an AirCard, a small modem that can link laptops to the Internet using cellular networks." First, it's a generic, so it shouldn't be capitalized; second, it's a mobile broadband modem, a 3G modem, a USB cell modem, or whatever. Aircard was a mainstream media invented term for something that already had a name.
With more people traveling with 3G modems and devices with 3G access, the odds of needing hotel Wi-Fi is likely declining daily. Hotels have to cope with that loss of revenue, just like they lost long-distance calling and fax revenue over the last 15 years.
The only real news in the column is the increasing shift to free service, driven by a move in the United States (but not internationally) to more no-cost Wi-Fi. Most Wi-Fi hotspots in the US are now free or free-with-purchase (or Starbucks's deal: two hours free with a single purchase on a registered card).
This year's HotelChatter look at Wi-Fi: The look at best and worst hotels and chains' Wi-Fi experiences has a great note in the introduction: "...The majority of guests view WiFi the same way--as a must-have amenity, not something they should pay for. This is the conundrum for hoteliers today, how can all this demand for more access translate into a revenue source, without alienating guests?"
Vacation hacking, a new term invented in this article to scare folks: It's Fox News, yes, but this article needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. The article claims that you're going to be hacked because of "phony Wi-Fi hot spots" all over the place--"in airports, in hotels, and even aboard airliners."
This article recycles what is now a pretty dismantled myth that the Free Wi-Fi networks you see around are havens of hackers. They're not. Instead, it's Windows XP broadcasting a peer-to-peer network by that name that the user of the system once connected to in order to get free Wi-Fi (which didn't exist). Ad hoc networking in Wi-Fi under XP spreads names like viruses by advertising the names when the peer-to-peer networks aren't active. You can easily test this yourself if you have an XP box by creating an ad hoc network named Free Wi-Fi, turning it off, and leaving your XP system not associated with a regular (infrastructure) Wi-Fi network.
Here's a nice summary with details at an Aruba Networks blog. Note that Aruba sells technology infrastructure to corporations, which includes security elements, but doesn't sell security as a separate piece. Thus, the firm has a good place on which to dispel such a myth.
The folks from security companies are offering quite broad-stroked statements here that I don't buy as well. For instance, Symantec's "Internet safety advocate" is putting out the line that "hackers" are setting up shop in hotels, airplanes, and airports because there are Wi-Fi networks available. Think about that for a moment. Most people who use airports and hotels are passing through. It's hard to linger for too long without being a guest or passenger. So what this is really saying is that there are hackers traveling around who turn on scamming software whenever they're in a public place with lots of people. That's not an unreasonable speculation for some small number of people, but I also doubt this is happening on a large scale. I also think that thieves are exposing themselves to detection in places where they could be easily detained, which makes it less likely.
Now, I always maintain you should use public Wi-Fi networks as if there were always someone sniffing and recording signals around you, but that's more of general advice. I don't believe that there are always hackers around, just that if there's a small statistical chance you should act as if the opportunity for loss of passwords or other data is 100 percent. I may be paranoid, but I'm not crazy, as the saying goes.
The Fox News article then dredges up a 2008 AirTight survey that looked into security at airports, both in airport operations and in user behavior and settings. The article gets it mostly wrong, including stating that "fake Wi-FI hots spots" had been set up by hackers. I found the original AirTight report, and it talks about the "Free Wi-Fi" locations in the same manner I do above. (I wrote about this report back in March 2008. You can disable this in XP by using wireless settings to turn off the ability to join ad hoc networks entirely. That's a great start.)
What AirTight actually discovered was a very low rate of use of VPNs by users (under 3 percent in its testing), and extremely poor operations security, with closed networks and WEP being used to prevent outside access to private networks. The Fox news article conflates VPNs and secure networks together, making a muddle.
I've talked to Rick Farina of AirTight before, I believe, and his quote in the Fox News article is too absurd to believe without it being taken out of context. He notes that people engage in "all sort[sic] of dangerous activity," but he includes banking and buying stock in that list. So long as you're not working with a bank or stock-trading firm that's stupid enough to not deploy extended-validation (EV) SSL/TLS security--the green bar in most browsers that shows a verified identity--your risk of being taken advantage of is essentially nil.
However, I do heavily recommend the use of VPNs, because it prevents two separate problems: first, if you're using a system that has a history of vulnerabilities to viruses (yes, I'm talking about Windows XP), being on a public network with other local users seeing you as an available node is a terrible increase in risk. If you have firewall software installed, it's possible that joining a wireless network will make the software think you're on a safe LAN if the local Wi-Fi network uses the same private IP address space, which is highly likely.
If your company doesn't offer (and require!) a VPN, you can use services from Witopia, AnchorFree, and others on subscription or ad-funded basis, depending on the firm. With a VPN active, if you connect to an evil twin (a malicious double of a real network) or an accidental ad hoc network, the VPN either won't connect properly (but won't reveal your login password or credentials either), letting you know something is wrong; or, it will connect securely, meaning that even if your traffic is being intercepted, it can't be deciphered!
The last part of this article has five tips for security from Symantec that aren't bad, but most don't relate to Wi-Fi security.
My advice? Don't join ad hoc networking, disabling that capability if you can, or using cues in Mac OS X or Vista to avoid them. Use a VPN.
The latest report on the state of Wi-Fi in hotels from HotelChatter: The site rounds up information each year, focusing both on cost and availability, although cost is the main criterion. HotelChatter writes up its best and worst hotels chains, as well as summarizing which properties offer free service and which offer paid Wi-Fi or Internet access. There's also detail about whether hotels have Wi-Fi in rooms or in lobbies.
There's a telling quote in the worst list, topped by Thompson Hotels ($10 or more per day for Internet access in lobbies or rooms), from the COO:
"This is an a la carte service that not every guest was using and we were paying for it whether they used it or not. That's why we have started charging guests for internet."
That's a terribly silly thing to say. If the service is contracted out, the hotel should only be paying for actual sessions, and shouldn't be paying much these days unless the chain wrote a terrible contract. If the service is run in house, then the hotel firm has largely fixed expenses that it should be dividing out by more users.
Some hotel executives have said they have to build the $10 a night into every room rate, even if the service isn't used, and that's ridiculous, too.
The hard cost of a day's access by a guest is likely well under a dollar for a venue in which there's no cost to access. Charge, and you have vastly less usage, and thus your per-guest cost goes up. If hotels work with aggregators, they're already getting pennies per session, not dollars, so that reality already exists. Sell an extra room night per night or having the ability to bump rates up slightly for everyone because access easily offsets the cost of the service.
Ultimately, the balance will tip and most hotels will offer Internet service at no cost, at which point all remaining hotels will be at a competitive and loyalty disadvantage.
More hotels have Internet service, while fewer charge for it: A hospitality industry trade group says that 91 percent of 10,000 hotel properties surveyed have Wi-Fi service, a 35 percent increase over 2004, while only 16 percent of those polled charge for in-room service, down from 19 percent in 2006 and 22 percent in 2004. Many hotels offer wired connections in the room (sometimes at a fee), and Wi-Fi in lobbies and public spaces (often free). But clearly, the trend is for more Wi-Fi and less charging.
A second study focusing on information technology received about 250 responses, and indicated that Wi-Fi was present in 86 percent of those surveyed, but that 20 percent of the remaining hotels would add it within five years.
I guess I was a day or two prescient with my comment that Wayport and iBahn had stalled on the scale of their hotel networks: On Monday, I wrote about Wayport, after they announced a Yahoo portal deal on advertising and content, and noted that they and other firms that were founded to bring Internet service (often first wireline then Wi-Fi later) into hotels had reached something close to saturation on the number of properties they could provide service to. The only way to increase revenue is to have more usage or to add more services. And, lo, Wayport and iBahn have now separately announced their entrance into the hotel video, gaming, and billing markets.
Wayport announced Entertainment-on-Demand on Tuesday, which brings video on demand (VOD), including some high-definition content, to hoteliers' TVs alongside Internet access and other features. The VOD would be IPTV based, meaning that video is streaming over the IP network, and offer digital video recorder (DVR) features like play, rewind, pause,a nd bookmarking, as well as a program guide. In other words, something like HD TiVo for your hotel room.
iBahn, meanwhile, revealed yesterday that they are acquiring ETV Interactive, a hospitality firm with operations in the UK, Latin America, Australia, and India, that offers in-room entertainment and telecom. They'll use this firm's operation to launch a US service.
iBahn and Wayport will be competing with established in-room entertainment and integration firms, like LodgeNet, which I believe is the giant in this field. LodgeNet provides broadband, so they're already in competition with these other firms. iBahn and Wayport, of course, have their Internet infrastructure in the hotels they already serve, so it may be an easier transition for them to bundle the business and win it, too.
Wayport will display Yahoo content, ads on its Wi-Fi hotspot gateway page: The Wi-Fi hotspot industry has been slightly transformed by the introduction of a variety of advertising options that enable free or reduced price service access or that increases revenue to the venue owner. In this case, Wayport operates around 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in its primary business in hotels and other venues, and will be offering the Yahoo ad/information deal to those partners. It's hard to know how significant this is because of the small size of the hotel market compared to other sorts of venues; it's too early, in general, to know whether people will trade attention for access or information for clicks.
Hospitality Wi-Fi operators have seen their growth stagnate as many mid-range chains opted to build out free service, and as the potential for bringing in service to more properties dropped as a larger percentage of hotels have added service. This isn't meant to knock Wayport, iBahn, or others. It's just a fact of the market: it's small and saturated.
A good hunk of hotel Wi-Fi (or wireline service) is offered free to guests, a trend that's about four years underway. Someone has to manage that free service, but it's seen as a much lower priority (i.e., not worth paying a premium managed services provider) when there's no cost attached, even though every study on the matter shows that guests who have problems with Internet service, even free, are much less likely to stay at the hotel or chain again. Some percentage of hotels don't have Internet access, and won't offer it for reasons of resources, attitude, or remoteness. There's a chunk that has their own IT departments or other contractors that handle a for-fee service, too.
The US Census Bureau reports that in 2002, there were about 47,000 hotels and similar accommodations in operation. You can review Wi-Fi Free Spot's listing of chains and stand-alone hotels that offer free Wi-Fi, and see that many thousands of properties are represented. There's just not much room for growth. Overseas, perhaps there's much more potential, but the costs in wiring or unwiring the last parts of a market segment are always higher. London may need competitive costs for hotel Wi-Fi, but I understand there's no paucity of access.
In Wayport's case, no segment of their market has grown significantly; they've built out their original commitment for McDonald's and somewhat beyond that for AT&T WiFi (formerly FreedomLink). They didn't disclose the breakout in today's release, but they report 12,000 locations they operate; over 8,000 of those are McDonald's, the previously stated approximately 1,000 are hotels and other disparate venues, and the remainder belong to AT&T WiFi. iBahn claims over 2,100 locations, which is more than double what they reported in late 2005. But that's probably near the top of what they'll offer except through some natural growth in the number of hotels in chains they work with, or acquisition of other firms. Their Web site notes that they offer event networking, and have handled over 3,000 meetings and conferences; that's likely their growth factor.
What Wayport, iBahn, LodgeNet, and others are likely seeing is continuous increases in use month over month at each location; some of that may be offset by aggregation agreements as heavy users move to plans like those offered by Boingo and iPass. Wayport also picked up Nintendo. Update: On Tuesday, Wayport announced Entertainment-on-Demand, its flavor of in-room "video, gaming, Internet, and interactive service" that runs over their network. In other words, a way to increase revenue without increasing the number of rooms they cover.
The hotel market used to be quite exciting, but the focus has switched to hot zones, mobile WiMax, and other larger-scale networks that business travelers will also (or instead) rely on.
The New York Times builds a story out of anecdotes that rings all too true: There aren't any numbers in this piece about how frequent business travelers find gaining Internet access a hit-and-miss proposition--do 50 percent of travelers surveyed by firm X have trouble in most stays? We don't know. But the stories presented are quite familiar. Although I haven't traveled much in the last couple of years, I've found that regardless of what a hotel promises, the truth is often sketchier. Two of my officemates, who produce book events, spent a couple of hours on the phone in a four-star Manhattan hotel recently trying to get online with the in-room service. They wound up at a Starbucks close by, instead.
It's odd that Wi-Fi is singled out; marginal connections are often an issue, but the problems I see are in authentication and network operation, not in signal strength or physical medium issues. The reporter also claims, "most large hotel chains work with dozens of Internet service providers, some of them small local operations, leading to an inconsistent service experience for guests." That's news to me, but it could be accurate. Hotels that manage their own access, such as chains that offer free service in their budget and medium-range properties, may be turning to local providers instead of building their own operations or working with a national services firm, like arms of Motorola, IBM, or HP, or with an hotspot infrastructure builder like iBahn (mentioned) or Wayport.
The acquisition of StayOnline by LodgeNet quintuples its broadband coverage: LodgeNet has primarily offered in-room entertainment, with broadband being a much smaller component. StayOnline, the other way. The acquisition adds 140,000 rooms with broadband service (mostly wired) to LodgeNet's portfolio, for a total of 175,000 rooms. LodgeNet works with a variety of chains, including Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, Omni, Intercontinental, and Historic Hotels of America, the release says.
In researching AirFone's history, which dates back over 20 years, I found this Associated Press story in an old telecom journal: The story, filed in Oct. 1982, describes a not-far-off future in which businesspeople would have access to terminals for data exchange using "electronic mail" on board planes and at hotels. (Search for AirFone to find the article in this long set of text journals.)
This most amazing paragraph belies the next 24 years: "An unrelated company, Airfone Inc., hopes to begin testing the nation's first commercial air-to-ground telephone system next month. Assuming the experiment works, Airfone officials say it's a small step from an airplane telephone system transmitting voices to a phone system transmitting computer data." (AirFone was 50 percent owned by Western Union at that point, then sold itself to GTE, which was transformed into Verizon. It's remained somewhat of a separate division from what I can tell.)
This is even sadder: "While there might not be many people carrying portable computers now, that is clearly something envisioned by Airfone. The company says that one day airline travelers will be able to use their own terminal or a portable device provided by the airline to work during flights."
One day 20 years later for Boeing on over-water routes, and what will wind up being about 26 years later not for AirFone, but for AirCell on domestic flights.
Interestingly, AirFone's founder, John D. Goeken, also previously founded MCI, is partly responsible for the AT&T breakup, started FTD (the floral delivery service), and founded another in-flight phone company after selling AirFone--In-Flight Phone Corporation--which used all-digital phone communications with a network operational in 1991. That was the same year that AirCell's business was sparked for air-to-ground telephony, according to their corporate history.
Shades of Wi-Fi in this paragraph: "Dallas-based Travelhost Inc. plans to begin placing small computer terminals in hotel and motel rooms in January. The company is convinced it can entice hotel operators to place 500,000 terminals in the field by mid-1985." (An obscure young reporter named J. Markoff wrote about Quazon in the June 1983 issue of InfoWorld, still noting the 500,000 terminals.)
Suffice it to say, Travelhost's Quazon terminals didn't take off. I was unable to find out what happened via Internet searches. I found a 1983 Wall Street Journal article mentioning a deal with Nynex. There's a May 1983 article in The New York Times written by David Sanger talking about the first 5,000 hotel rooms with Quazon terminals and plans for 100,000 by the end of 1983 in Quality Inns, Hiltons, Marriotts, Sheraton, and so forth. Service would run $3 plus 34 cent a minute (peak time) or 17 cents a minute at night. The device had a touch-sensitive keyboard and no word processor, but included a flight directory, up-to-date news, and some form of email.
The folks at UStec sent out a press release about an Aug. 2000-filed patent being approved: The patent covers sticking a wireless transceiver on an in-wall port that has some kind of backhaul. The problem with patents is that while this sounds somewhat trivial, unoriginal, and well-known at the time the patent was filed, it's all about the details, and this patent has a lot of interesting particulars. The particularly carved-out space might allow this patent to stand and yet define a very small number of cases where they could license or ban the use of their technology because of it. At least this isn't a business-model patent.
The main claim describes creating a distribution architecture comprising a main node that is essentially a router ("a plurality of external signals") with more physical layer complexity than common routers; that central node distributes to individually addressable nodes that are mounted in walls. The wall-mounted unit has a wireless transceiver defined in each of the claims as being based on Bluetooth, any RF transceiver, 802.11, infrared, and so on. The backhaul could be wired or wireless, use mesh between nodes, etc. It's a bit like Ethernet combined with the potential for combining analog and digital signals over the same
The idea is that a single wired or wireless central receiving point would handle all the different kinds of telecom, video, and data traffic regardless of what method it used to arrive at the facility, and then distribute it over whatever kind of backbone was needed to individual wall units that would be paired with wireless transceivers designed to decode each type of broadcast. So you could have Wi-Fi and an analog transceiver that would plug into an analog input of TV set, and a POTS (plain old telephone service) transceiver plugged into the RJ-11 port of the phone.
Where this patent might break down is that in 2000, the idea of combining and distributing many protocols, digital and analog, to devices each with their own kind of paired transceiver might have made sense, but we're in an all IP world today.
It's very unlikely that a new investment would be made for this kind of technology when blanketing a hotel or other property with Wi-Fi and then running IPTV, VoIP or VoWLAN, and Internet access would make much more sense. Some hotels have done part of this; I don't know of a hotel or retail business that's using IPTV over Wi-Fi yet, partly because of bandwidth, and (I'm sure) partly because of IPTV sets that will be appearing this year.
There are probably properties and homes that this approach would make perfect sense for, but I question the mass-market appeal that would allow affordable manufacture of the central system and components--especially when there's momentum behind powerline networking, multimedia over coax, and Wi-Fi, each of which are now tuned for multimedia (through quality of service) and voice.
The press release notes, "It avoids the undesired transmission of signals through walls and over distances. Radio Frequency (RF) signals can be optimized to levels that guarantee performance in each individual room." In homes, signal reach is an issue, but security is the answer. 802.11n will help with range, and newer tools for automating WPA Personal will help with security. In hotels and universities (two markets cited in the release), there's little "undesired" transmission. For offices, security is a better answer than RF restriction; those who care about RF line the walls with chicken wire equivalents.
HotelChatter offers its best, worst Wi-Fi hotels, while one commentator badgers £20 pounds to zero pence: A lot of buzz in the last few days about clueless and clueful hotels and hotel chains, including the £480 a day rate at one hotel for conference attendees (£10 for 30 minutes), and Peter Cochrane's Silicon.com commentary on beating free Wi-Fi out of a hotel. (It's a good story. He's a fairly high-end consultant, and was irritated to discover that his expensive hotel demanded £20 a day for Internet access. He threatened to change hotels, and magically the rate dropped to £0. He maintains that dropping EU politeness for American forthrightness helped.)
HotelChatter published their summary of top hotels and chains for Wi-Fi--and the worst offenders for access, too. Among the best, Kimpton ranks tops for their efforts to provide high-quality Wi-Fi and for the staff's general enthusiasm and interest in making sure guests get a signal that works. Omni receives a nod for its free lobby Wi-Fi, and the hotel chain's apparent effort to encourage visitors to use the lobby. A few high-end properties receive kudos, but Holiday Inn Express and Marriott Residence Inn are singled out for good access and free service.
The worst, which makes better reading, starts off with Marriott Flagship because of its inconsistent pricing with plans for the lobby and upstairs having separate components. The Kor Hotel Group and the W Hotel are excoriated for their charges, varied pricing, and separate lobby/room charges. And W has only wired in-room service. The W needs better chain-wide understanding of access, too, HotelChatter reports: "For instance, we called the W's 1-800 number to inquire about which properties have wireless. The kind woman on the other end informed us that all of the hotels have wireless in the rooms and in the lobbies. Hmm. We knew this wasn't true, but we gave W a mulligan."
Two Sheraton hotels are trying out free computer usage, free Wi-Fi and Ethernet: Yahoo is sponsoring tests at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina and Sheraton Boston; Sheratons in New York City and Stamford are testing simply free Internet access in rooms. A section of the lobby has Internet-connected computers, free for guests, that have branded Yahoo information services and an enticement to paid Yahoo services.
Many budget and lower-end leisure hotels offer free Wi-Fi and wired Internet access, including chains like Holiday Inn, but business hotels have been more reluctant. Wyndham, for instance, charges for access unless you're a member of their free affinity program, so it's a matter of knowledge to save money.
Many industry analysts in the hotel and connectivity markets have suggested for years that Internet service would evolved in an amenity, and if the Sheraton/Yahoo branding partnership makes sense, then the hotels don't have to pay for that amenity to provide it to its guests.
The two big papers duke it out over paying for Wi-Fi in hotels: On Sept. 27, New York Times business travel columnist Joe Sharkey wrote about the tendency for big hotels to charge big bucks for in-room and public space Wi-Fi and wired broadband. Two weeks later, he followed up with responses from readers who have found all kinds of ways to avoid those charges, from using nearby free Wi-Fi at places like Panera to parking at nearby hotels to get work done. One hotelier in London at the Dorchester said that subsidizing Internet access would lead to a rise in all room rates.
Now we all know that's not true. The cost of providing Internet access is roughly a fixed expense, although some Internet providers who help hotels offer no-fee access charge based on usage plus fixed rates. The Dorchester charges £18.50 per day for high-speed access ($33), according to Sharkey's second column. Their likely depreciation and hard costs per month are almost certainly no more than $3,000 to $4,000--or 100-odd room nights' worth of Wi-Fi.
What Wyndham Hotels and Resorts along with other hotel chains found is that if you make Internet access free you go from "the needs of the minority" as the Dorchester technology director described it to the needs of the majority: Wyndham saw usage quadruple when they made Internet access free to members of their no-cost affinity club.
In that scenario, Internet access fees spread across all rooms aren't a penalty to be borne by those who don't use it. Rather, it's an expected amenity that a traveler may or may not use. I honestly don't always take a Jacuzzi bath when there's one in my hotel room.
Over at the Wall Street Journal tomorrow, reporter Avery Johnson files the obverse piece noting that the majority of hotels offering Internet access now charge nothing for it. He looks at the bottom and middle on up. The irony has been for the last couple of years that the cheaper the hotel you stay in the more likely that Internet service is an amenity like crummy soap than an extra charge. There's an excellent chart at the bottom of the article examining major chains.
A few years ago now, John Yunker (when he was at Pyramid Research) got grief for suggesting that the trend was for more and more hotels to offer service at no charge as the ramp-up from a few Internet-equipped hotels moved to most Internet-equipped hotels. I thought that a captive audience might not be the best one to make threats, but it turns out that enough competitors decided to not add the complexity of charging for access and there's enough free service around in cafes that hotels can use free access as an advantage. (Some say that charging for Internet service doesn't make you more in the end because you're really trying as a hotel to get more people staying and the more full you are, the less you have to discount.)
Journal reporter Johnson points out that the average room night has risen to its highest level since 2000, so the hoteliers have a little more money to throw around on extra amenities. A great statistic is worked into the story, too: we all know that hotels used to suck money from guests for telecom charges. Cell phones have killed that business: 55 percent of the telecom revenue was lost between 2000 and 2004.
One thing not mentioned in either article is that the spread of 3G cellular data networks means a further demise in Internet fees at hotels. I've been waiting for this to really hit home, and it will probably be by mid-2006 that it slams hotels entirely. With EVDO prices already down to $60/month (2-year commitment, voice subscription required), a business traveler who otherwise doesn't need EVDO data has to make the simple calculation that four nights of Internet access more or less pays for their EVDO subscription each month.
Now hotels often have one or more T-1 lines or the equivalent and EVDO speeds are far below T-1. But for all practical purposes, EVDO is a fine replacement technology for hotel Internet. The big difference is that if you're an Internet pusher--moving data back to the home office--the 50 to 100 Kbps upstream speed on EVDO is inadequate compared to 1.5 Mbps on a T-1 line.
Great travelers think alike, too, obviously:
WSJ: Some travelers are perplexed by the disparity. "What really irritates me is that at the lower level of hotels, Internet will be free, while at the highest end, it can be as much as $15 a day. I have no idea why," says Arthur York, a 70-year-old retired executive who lives in Villanova, Pa.
NY Times: Eric D. Horodas, the president of Greystone Hospitality, a San Francisco hotel company, was not buying that. "I am very annoyed when I check into a high-end hotel and find I have to pay extra to connect to the Internet," he said. Business travelers, he said, should "demand complimentary Internet access."
Interesting side point to the Internet access: if you have free Internet access, you can very easily use Internet telephony. Some hotels may block this just as they block outgoing email. Enter corporate VPN, Google VPN, or VPN-for-rent services: it imposes a little load, but it enables VoIP and Internet calling.
Perhaps in response, some hotels bundle in unlimited domestic calling (local, long distance, and toll free) as part of a nightly data fee, a resort fee, or as part of the free service they offer to affinity club members. Given that hotels can now get the same advantage of paying practically nothing for long distance, free calling is just another amenity, too.
Travel columnist provides overview and links: A Washington Post travel columnist answers a reader's question about using free Wi-Fi at hotels with a long list with links and phone numbers of the chains that have extensive free installations of Wi-Fi. Also noted is SBC's statistic that 25 percent of travelers plan to use "wireless electronics" (one assumes Wi-Fi) while on the road.
USA Today labels Wi-Fi as so yesterday: Actually, they list Wi-Fi as an amenity that was once considered cutting edge but is now de rigeur and walk through what's now au courant.
The flip side of good is bad: Hotel Chatter lists its five worst hotel chains for Wi-Fi and Internet access: The good list is simpler--free, widely available, no fuss. The bad list is a variety of complaints: high prices, proxy servers with undisclosed bandwidth usage caps, and the general complaint that lobby Wi-Fi costs extra--sometimes for guests who paid for Internet access already. [link via Gizmodo]
It's a nice, concise list from a site dedicated to talking about hotel customer satisfaction--according to customers: The list is very reasonable, and while Wi-Fi isn't available in all rooms at all of the five chains they suggest--Kimpton, Omni, Marriott Residence Inn, Best Western, Holiday Inn/Holiday Inn Express--it's available in all the lobbies. Internet access is free in all the rooms in these particular chains.
In researching hotel Wi-Fi recently, I have one giant pulsating piece of advice to hotel operators: put a page on your Web site for each hotel that describes, in detail, all of the Internet connectivity options at your hotel, including lobbies, restaurants, and rooms, and including the cost. Show me pictures of your lobby. Tell me your day rate. If guests visit me, can they use Wi-Fi in the lobby, too, and at what cost? Do some rooms have Wi-Fi and some Ethernet? Can I request a Wi-Fi room, as some resorts (such as one in San Diego) offer?
And don't hide the cost. Hotels that tell me what the gym costs, what other amenities cost, pretend that "Internet access available" is going to sucker me in. Nope. I call the front desk, and with some dithering, eventually get a price. One hotel tried to convince me that the cost was $10 per 12-hour period--that was the reservation line. When I finally got to the front desk, it was much simpler: $10 per 24 hours. [link via BoingBoing]
You see him here, you see him there, you see him Wi-Fi everywhere: Nigel Ballard is Portland's Wi-Fi king: Nigel doesn't offer service himself, but he's behind or beside--with many other volunteers--the most public and popular free Wi-Fi installations in Portland, Oregon. He's also a commercial Wi-Fi guy at his day job, in which capacity he installs service at resorts, golf courses, marinas, and, yes, hotels and motels. Captive venues, let's say.
Nigel wrote this linked analysis at the always interesting MuniWireless.com. He notes that truly captive hotspots can charge $10 a day (or more, I've found). They have their audience where they want them, and unless they're non-exclusive--like having a choice of similarly priced hotels--they don't have competition for those spaces. (Well, not yet anyway: as 3G spreads, people may opt to spend $20 to $80 per month for unlimited 100 to 400 Kbps service instead of $10 per day for captive higher-speed access. Depends on the applications.)
For more competitive locations, like coffeeshops, Nigel argues it's a race to the bottom to charge nothing for service. And he has numbers and years of service to prove his contention. Personal Telco Project (PTP) gets a venue set up for about $60: they buy a router and use a donated PC that Personal Telco has rehabilitated. The folks at PTP recommend business DSL, about $45 a month, which gets around the shared-access issue.
Nigel also makes a good case for why T-Mobile's plan of unwiring Starbucks makes sense: ubiquity and consistency. This is a message I've put out for years, too. If you need high-speed--there's a T-1 in each location--and you want an almost certain chance the service will work and be available in many places wherever you travel, T-Mobile is the service for you.
But Nigel addresses the PTP "customer": ...you just want a good cup of joe, a comfy chair and free access to a Wi-Fi node, then the community model may well serve you and your wallet better.
From the financial angle of the venue, Nigel points to World Cup Coffee's experience in trying to charge for Wi-Fi with Toshiba SurfHere's service. They lost customers to PTP nodes nearby. Turning off SurfHere had results he doesn't report--they're obviously happier--but they only had a handful of customers pay for service off months of having it on a fee basis.
Wading into more challenging waters, Nigel points to SBC's $1.99 per month unlimited FreedomLink Wi-Fi hotspot service that SBC introduced recently to SBC DSL customers. I believe he's incorrect about the billing and customer service costs: this is incremental to the existing overhead of servicing DSL customers, which already pays the associated expense for those factors. $1.99 is just more revenue.
Nigel wonders where this rate leaves Wayport, T-Mobile, and Boingo. In pretty good condition, I'd wager. Wayport has already turned their ship, moving from per-session fees to per-month-per-location fees. If an aggregator wants to roam onto McDonald's or, soon, Hertz locations operated by Wayport, that aggregators pays a fixed amount per month for access to those locations. They don't have to recover a per-usage fee, which means that they're free to offer it, as SBC is, to millions of customers without increasing their cost basis.
Wayport will eventually try to shift all of its contracted hotspots to the Wi-Fi World model, they said months ago, and they'll have the SBC usage data to show hotels and airports why it makes sense. Airports might be hard to convince because they're truly captive outside of cellular. (And they make money by charging cell operators to have good reception in the airport terminals.)
T-Mobile still has the factor of ubiquity now coupled with a greater international presence. Wi-Fi is not racing to free outside the U.S., and that's part of T-Mobile's worldwide advantage. Because T-Mobile just added 802.1X authentication, that gives them an additional leg up: T-1, business-grade security, high reliability, and per-user unique encryption over the local link. It's an IT person's dream, and at $20 per month unlimited use or per-session resale through iPass, it's not a sufficiently high bar to cross for road warriors and their companies' expense-approving managers.
Boingo Wireless is only nominally a customer-facing service, and until free is really ubiquitous, Boingo's client software is the best thing out there. At some point, SBC's portfolio of hotspots might be better than Boingo's, but Boingo might also be reselling SBC and Wayport Wi-Fi World locations when that point would be reached. At $22 per month for unlimited usage worldwide (for virtually all locations), Boingo is probably the best bet for an international traveler visiting countries that they serve. Boingo feeds out Wayport, which gives you inclusive access at many hotels and airports, too. Again, not a hard decision. In any case, Boingo has a large business building private-label and back-end software, so it's unclear if long-term their strategy is offer a retail price and retail brand.
I agree entirely with Nigel that free is making huge inroads, and most spectacularly in the hotel industry which I would find surprising if, outside of certain independent or boutique properties, breaks Internet service out as a separate fee within a year or two. Some hotels will definitely continue to try to charge, but as the majority of them offer free Internet and free Wi-Fi, the number crunchers will find that unless they try to compete solely on room rate, they can't make it work.
Wayport's Dan Lowden told me Monday that certain Wayport hotel properties now see 25 percent of guests using Internet service in a given night. Wayport operates both fee and free properties, including the Wyndham chain which offers free Internet to members of their no-cost guest club. Even if the highest usage is at Wyndham, it still shows that the Internet is a service that's being used at hotels, and thus the race to free is certainly going to continue there.
A hotel customer survey shows that offering bad Wi-Fi is worse than no-Fi: A majority of the 486 hotel customers surveyed by Jupiter Research said that they wouldn't return to a hotel if the Wi-Fi were slow or unreliable. Forty-four percent blamed the hotel for the problem, too, regardless of who is offering the Wi-Fi. Worse, 25 percent would spread the word. [link via InternetWeek]