Wednesday
Oct262011

Why most hotel wi-fi sucks

The deplorable state of hotel wi-fi is a recurring joke. Over this past week I’ve heard Merlin Mann complain about it on his Back to Work podcast, saw Richard Stallman devote six paragraphs to making sure that the hotel he stays at has some way to access the internet in his speaking rider, and I even saw a tweet by Chris Ziegler from The Verge about how he had to drive to McDonald’s to upload something because the hotel internet was unusable.

There was also a piece by Joe Sharkey on The New York Times’ website about how this is the fault of the iPad: how the surge in iPad popularity, especially among travelers, has overwhelmed the networks of many hotels. While there’s no doubt that the hotel networks are completely overwhelmed and mostly useless, the fault lies mostly with the hotels.

I’ve worked the front desk at two hotels. The first was a budget hotel with less than 80 rooms. It was owned by a couple, the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for. Though there wasn’t much in the way of amenities, the rooms were clean, there was breakfast in the morning, and the prices were reasonable. When I started working there, the wi-fi wasn’t great, but it was decent. It was a series of wireless access points strung in series along the length of the building connected to a Time Warner Cable business-class internet connection. As the owners were nearly always on the premises taking care of guests and other things that needed doing, one day I approached one of them and told them that I wanted to improve the wi-fi in the building. They agreed, and I purchased three high-powered routers from Newegg, flashed them with DD-WRT, and had the maintenance guy set them up in the attic. They worked brilliantly.

I installed three Buffalo WHR-HP-54G routers. They worked amazingly well.

In contrast, the second hotel I worked at appeared to be a higher-end place to the observer. There were over 130 rooms on 3 floors with an elevator. The entire place was smoke-free. And yet, the wi-fi was truly and utterly terrible in every way.

First off, when you connected to the wi-fi, you would get the terms of service page. And it wasn’t just the first time, either. Every 4 hours you would be kicked off the internet and have to reconfirm the terms of service. If you were watching a streaming video or downloading a file it would appear to stop loading for no apparent reason, and you’d have to reload a browser page to see that you had been kicked off.

Second, the actual wi-fi access points were utter garbage. At any given time, about a third of them just did not work; you could see the SSID and maybe even connect, but you’d never get an IP address. Regular guests knew which floor and side of the building to stay on to get the best wi-fi, and which hotspots to avoid even trying to connect to. And yes, each access point had its own SSID instead of using one SSID for the entire hotel.

Third, though the wireless itself was free to use, in a pathetic attempt to make some money there were ads on the terms of service page and occasionally injected into the pages you were viewing. Yes, they actually intercepted the HTTP response and injected their own ads. Seriously.

And finally, these 130+ rooms and the front desk shared a single T1 connection (~1.5Mbps). In fact, there was an “upgrade” to the front desk system that switched from a desktop application to a web application. So we would be trying to check in guests on the same super-saturated network that had slowed to a crawl for everyone in the building, causing much delay and embarrassment as you pleaded with the system to let you check people in.

An actual photo of the floor where everything was hooked up. Seriously.

All in all, completely terrible. Everyone that stayed there and everyone that worked there knew it. Unfortunately, everyone, including the general manager, was powerless to fix it.

Instead of being owned by a couple like my previous job, this hotel was just one of many hotels owned by an out-of-state corporation. So instead of having the individual hotels install and manage their own internet and pay-per-view systems, they contracted it out to (presumably) the companies that put in the lowest bid. And as long as guests tolerate the system enough not to revolt or write nasty comments on hotel review sites about it, they don’t care how bad it is.

Admittedly, my experience might not be typical, but given how pervasive the complaints about hotel wi-fi are, I suspect it is. It’s not because suddenly people are bringing iPads with them, it’s because the companies that own the hotels absolutely do not care how good their wi-fi is. The only thing they care about is their not spending a penny more than they think they have to, and they don’t care how bad it is as long as people continue to rent rooms.The ironic thing is, I’m sure that whatever they were paying the company to manage the network was much more than it would have cost for Time Warner Cable internet, some networking equipment off Newegg, and a few hours for me to set it up.

However, there are a few hotels out there, like the first one I worked at, that do genuinely care about providing a good experience. The sad thing is, it’s impossible to tell which ones they are by looking at online reviews or star ratings - you have to actually go there, or know someone that went there, to really tell. I tend to think that you have a greater chance of finding one if you look for smaller, budget hotels, but unfortunately you also have a greater chance of finding a truly dreadful one, so be careful.

1: In fact, back when I first started there, we had a room that was out of commission during a very busy season because the TV broke. Management couldn’t just go out and buy a new TV from Walmart - they had to wait until the corporation placed another batch order so that it could save some money on the cost. Yet the cost of the TV could have been paid for many times over by renting that room for the month it was off market.

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