The Hotel Wi-Fi Ripoff

These days, a business hotel without wi-fi is as inconceivable as one without electricity. But should we be paying for its, asks Mark Frary
In the past week alone, I have spent £41 on wireless internet access in hotels across the world. At the Observatory Hotel in Sydney, I paid A$39.95 (£16) for a day’s access while at Taj’s Blue hotel, across the city, I paid A$24.95 (£10).

After heading to San Francisco, I sneakily connected to someone’s private wireless network for free for a day. Moving to eastern California, I then paid US$9.95 (£5) a day at both the Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite and the Village at Mammoth.

Although I don’t travel as much as this every week of the year, the prospect of an internet access bill running into hundreds and possibly thousands of pounds by the end of the year is scary. As a result, the excitement I experience when I find a wireless network with a strong signal that is unencrypted is second to none these days.

The thing is, the rates I have been paying these past few days – except perhaps the first – are not particularly exorbitant. US hotels, in particular, are far ahead of the UK in providing cheap, broadband internet access – in some cases free. For example, America’s Kimpton Hotels chain makes a point of not charging for access and is committed to providing wireless access throughout its hotels and not just in the common areas.

Many UK hoteliers seem to have cottoned on to the idea that internet charges are the new phone charges, a great way of ripping off hotel guests. In its 2007 edition, The Good Hotel Guide slammed wi-fi charges in Britain’s hotels, citing some places that charge £5 an hour for access.

Among Britain’s business hotel chains, Radisson SAS and Britannia both offer free internet access to guests. Many Best Western properties are also free. At the other end of the scale are chains like Marriott and Hilton, which charge £15 a day.

One of the big problems for travellers visiting a number of destinations, such as people in sales and those involved in marketing roadshows, is that there’s very little in the way of roaming. You can sign up to global internet roaming schemes such as Tempest Telecom’s Unlimited WiFi+ Plan, but it’s fairly expensive and individual hotels often are not signed up, preferring instead to set up their own networks and charge what they like for access.

Hoteliers argue that providing internet access is expensive. Certainly, wiring up a hotel with hundreds of rooms with broadband can be a costly exercise but wireless technology has brought down the cost of implementing a hotel-wide internet access solution. However, anyone who has set up a wireless network in their own home will be aware of the problems in getting good coverage. Despite giving a theoretical maximum range of 100 metres, the typical wireless access point blankets an area considerably smaller than that because of a building’s construction and interference from other devices that use the same part of the radio spectrum, such as microwave ovens, cordless phones and Bluetooth gadgets.

Imagine trying to do that in a hotel with hundreds of guests trying to connect from hundreds of rooms. A £30 wireless access point from PC World is just not going to be sufficient – coverage will be patchy and connection slow. There’s also the question of security. The basic security provided by cheap routers will not be enough.

Typically, hotels have to use several industrial-strength access points. Still, you are looking at an investment of perhaps a few thousand pounds at most. Hotel investment of that scale is small potatoes so it’s hard to see how rates of £15 a day per guest are justified. The reason hotels are able to do it is because business travellers are a captive audience. Many travellers need to be able to access their corporate email and hotels will be aware that it is usually a guest’s company which is picking up the bill rather than the guest themselves, which keeps rates artificially high.

But should we really be pushing for free wireless? Some cynics might argue that you don’t get something for nothing and that the hotel chains that offer free wireless have simply bumped up their rates by the same amount as those that charge to cover the extra cost. Although hotel rates tend not to rise immediately after the introduction of free wi-fi, there’s nothing to stop rates creeping up at a later date. Yet there is evidence that an increasing number of hotels are offering wi-fi as the loss leader to attract business.

These days, a business hotel without wi-fi is as inconceivable as one without electricity. I don’t recall ever paying a hotel bill with a line setting out an electricity charge although maybe this was the case when electricity first started being piped into hotels. If so, perhaps wi-fi charges will disappear one day, too.

Courtesy: Times Online