It's a Hotel Wi-Fi Free-For-All

Posted on February 19, 2015

Google “meaning of life” and you get 408 million search results. Google “free hotel Wi-Fi” and you get 645 million. Clearly hotel Wi-Fi is important to a lot of people.

Studies into its availability and quality abound, catering to an international clientele that increasingly factors Wi-Fi into its choice of hotel. Specialist websites name and shame the hotels that fall short, crowd-sourcing performance data from guests all over the world. Consumer money-saving sites urge holidaymakers to seek out the hotels that get them online for free, and journalists in the financial press rail against the hotel Wi-Fi charges they encounter, reflecting a common irritation for their globe-trotting readership.

Indeed cost is by far the biggest issue associated with hotel Wi-Fi, affecting everyone from backpackers to business travelers.

Smaller hotel chains and independent players have been offering free Wi-Fi for some time; it is the large incumbents that have been reluctant to do so. Hotels have to pay to provide it, they have argued, so they are entitled to their surcharge. But hotels are greatly outnumbered by their guests, and those guests are delivering their judgement at volume and en masse: Wi-Fi should be free. A study by last year found that free Wi-Fi was the most desirable in-room hotel amenity, and only access to food was more important for guests when assessing a hotel overall.

The market is responding. Richard Branson’s newly launched Virgin Hotels brand, attuned to consumer demand, positions Wi-Fi squarely as a necessity. The hotel literature describes free Wi-Fi as a “right” and encourages users, with typical Virgin wit, to “party like it’s not $19.99”. And when small players or disruptive newcomers buck a trend—and this should sound familiar to everyone in the mobile sector—incumbents always come under pressure to follow suit.

So this week the Hyatt chain stopped charging for Wi-Fi altogether—in all rooms and public spaces—in its portfolio of more than 500 hotels. Other chains are moving at a different pace. Some are making grudging concessions, requiring users to join loyalty schemes to access free Wi-Fi, or making it available only to guests who book directly with the hotel. But they are only delaying the inevitable; the move to free Wi-Fi is a one-way street down which all hotel chains that wish to remain competitive must walk before long.

If they don’t adapt to the needs of the customer—and this, too, should strike a mobile industry chord—they will struggle to survive.

Mobile operators would do well to note the importance that hotel guests place on free Wi-Fi. These guests are all customers of mobile operators too, after all, and their need for free hotel Wi-Fi shines a light on key frustrations with the mobile experience—in particular the quality of indoor connectivity and the cost of mobile data roaming. If mobile operators facilitated easy access to this increasingly freely available connectivity resource, they would be enhancing their service just as much as the hotel offering the Wi-Fi connection enhances its own.

And they need not stop at hotels; the trend towards free amenity Wi-Fi reaches far wider than the hospitality community. In Airports, sports arenas, museums, cafes, bars and fast food outlets—and many more public places all over the world—Wi-Fi is available, for everyone, for free. Amenity Wi-Fi is the definitive connectivity megatrend of the moment. It has vast reach. It enables access for smartphone users precisely where they need it, in places where they are often unreachable by the best connection that cellular can deliver. And, because of this, it represents the best complement to cellular connectivity that is available, reducing dependence on costly indoor network deployments and offering reach far beyond the limitations of commercial Wi-Fi networks.

The benefits amenity Wi-Fi affords the end user, the provider, and now the mobile operator, are increasingly apparent. If only the meaning of life were just as clear.