Hotel Wi-Fi: Luxury or Necessity?

Wi-Fi is a funny thing. Like few other technologies before or after, it’s shot into the common consciousness with such widespread recognition that there is almost nobody who doesn’t recognise it as a, or often the only, way to get online today. Its ease of use and near-universal implementation, coupled with an easy to remember name and simple branding have made it instantly recognisable across the globe, with nearly everywhere being connected today using the technology.

So, if it’s available at your home, office and local coffee shop, what about when you’re traveling? For many years, hotel Wi-Fi was seen as a luxury: hotels that offered it would typically only do so for a fee, and then coverage and speeds were hardly the greatest as they were typically shared between so many rooms (and therefore people) at once that it was a novelty to really do anything useful with it at all.

In recent years, things have changed. As more and more people have moved into increasingly digital lives, relying on their mobile devices for more and more aspects of their lives from entertainment to work and even replacing TV and radio, their need for high-speed wireless connectivity has stayed with them no matter where they are. This has led to dramatic improvements in hotel Wi-Fi.

Hotels invested in Wi-Fi at first for a key competitive advantage; if I were to choose between two hotels, one of the deciding factors would definitely be whether Wi-Fi is available, whether it’s free, and how well it works. To be honest, this is more important to me than most traditional hotel amenities. Perhaps I’m a bit of an oddity in this regard, but I’d rather have a dependable, fast and free Wi-Fi connection than a bigger room or a TV – and I don’t think I’m alone at all.

One of the first questions hotel check-in staff are asked today is ‘how do I get on the Wi-Fi’, and it’s quite common to hear complaints among other guests as you walk down the halls if the coverage is spotty or performance is slow. If the Wi-Fi is good, no-one mentions it; but if it’s bad you can be sure even as a fellow guest you’ll hear about it sooner or later, let alone if you have the misfortune of being in customer service at the time.

For most hotels today, Wi-Fi isn’t really a competitive advantage anymore. Instead, it’s more like table stakes; putting ‘we have Wi-Fi’ on the door isn’t going to make the place look any better to prospective paying guests than proudly stating ‘we have beds’. It’s not exceptional; it’s expected.

With that in mind, the race began to provide the best Wi-Fi without spending the most money. Hotel properties are already very expensive to own and maintain; just think of the number of staff involved in a large hotel, let alone spread out across a resort or chain of properties. Dedicated IT staff are thin on the ground, and can often cost multiples of a cleaner or customer service position.

So hotel Wi-Fi deployments today have to satisfy the following contradictory requirements:

1. Provide dense, high-performance Wi-Fi connectivity suitable for a hotel environment; this means roaming between access points with indoor and outdoor connectivity

2. Easy means for guests to connect that aren’t overly insecure or difficult for the guest

3. Cheap and simple to operate, ideally remotely to reduce the need for on-site staff

On top of this, in higher-end hotels the physical appearance of equipment must also be considered, which introduces new levels of complexity and potential performance issues.

As ever with wireless networks, the answer to providing dense high-performance connectivity has been to densify the network. Where one Wi-Fi access point used to cover a large number of rooms, the trend today is towards an access point for each room, often implemented either on the ceiling or in a wall plate. The latter has proven quite popular due to its ease of installation for hotel rooms.

Many hotels use open (non-protected) access for their Wi-Fi networks, with a small bit of security that benefits only their ability to ensure non-guests aren’t connecting such as requiring the entry of a room number and surname upon connection. This does nothing for protecting user data in transit, and in future hotel Wi-Fi networks will be pushed to evolve more protective measures to ensure the security of their users, but these must be balanced against user resistance to complicated sign-up procedures or even entry of a long unique password for the network.

Keeping a dense, high-performance network possibly spanning hundreds of Wi-Fi access points in a building operating at its best is not easy, and is typically a more significant expense for the hotel than the cost of the equipment itself over its operating life. This is really where cloud-managed systems come into their own, allowing a remote network operator (who may be spending a proportion of their time supporting each of a number of networks from a central location) to more cost-effectively monitor and resolve issues as they occur.

So, returning to the original question: is Wi-Fi today a luxury or a necessity for a hotel? I believe that today and certainly in the future, Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury. With everywhere from airports to cabs implementing free Wi-Fi, it is absolutely a necessity in the hotel, where people are paying to stay and will probably spend a majority of their time when traveling. More than ever, hotels will suffer reputation damage and poor reviews if guests become frustrated with overloaded, badly-performing Wi-Fi, making it ultimately an issue of competitive position for each hotel property.

As the increase in data consumption and the proliferation of mobile devices accessing online services continues, hotel Wi-Fi will only continue to grow in importance for guests and hotel operators alike. Without sound too hyperbolic, Wi-Fi access is becoming more and more like a utility, expected to be available basically everywhere like running water or air conditioning.

The hotels which recognise this and continue to improve their offerings while keeping operating costs down will pull ahead of their less-observant rivals over time, providing a business advantage.