Why is Wi-Fi so slow in Australian hotels? Can it get better?

One-bar rage. We've all been there. When you check into a big hotel, make your way up to your room, log into the hotel Wi-Fi ... and it flickers between one and two bars of signal strength.

It seems more frustrating to have a weak signal than no signal at all, as you struggle to get websites or emails to download. And forget about streaming a movie.

But is Australia worse for hotel Wi-Fi than other countries?

Technology writer Anthony Caruana thinks so, up to a point. "Generally in the USA you get better bang for your buck. Faster, more reliable, and they don't count the bandwidth in the same kind of way. Though Las Vegas hotel Wi-Fi is pretty poor because they want you getting out of the room.

"In Asian countries, however, it's variable. I find in Singapore it's generally good. They'll charge a daily fee but they don't meter it in any way."

What about Australia?

"Overall the experience has been so mixed that you can't rely on it, so I make myself self-sufficient. I've got 25GB a month on my phone, shared to my tablet. It's enough to get me by in most situations when I'm working in Australia."

The leisure traveller still relies on hotel Wi-Fi, however, once they've chewed up their meagre ration of 4G phone data by Instagramming tourist landmarks. And that's a challenge for accommodation providers.

"It's not that easy to build a robust, reliable, secure data network that's easy to access, easy to use and doesn't piss people off," says Caruana. "The hotels have learned that."


Someone who knows that challenge well is Grant Ironside, Director of Solution Delivery at Pullman hotels.

"Certainly, consumer expectations have outpaced the ability for hoteliers to react," he says. "Getting a good Wi-Fi system in place takes a long time, and a long time to refresh."

According to Ironside, however, hotels are now catching up. Pullman makes a point of marketing itself to tech-savvy travellers, so its reputation rests on the ability of its guests to connect. As a result, Wi-Fi is now planned and tested before a hotel opens rather than being an afterthought.

"We go out of our way to make sure that technology is brought up early in the design decisions," he says. "We do theoretical Wi-Fi 'heat mapping' before the building is built, then during the build phase we'll put access points in and map again.

"There are crazy things to deal with. We've got some properties where the physical design of the building, with atriums for example, make it notoriously difficult to get a good Wi-Fi signal. So we really have to go to a lot of effort, and ultimately a lot of cost, to make them work."

What's the deal with atriums?

"The Wi-Fi access point bounces its signal all over the place. Typically it gets absorbed or blocked at some point, but with a wide-open atrium you'd have a few hundred access points, all beaming their signal out. Surprisingly, that degrades all the signals and you end up with a real challenge."

Then there's video streaming, a relatively recent addition to the tests faced by hotel Wi-Fi.

"I think wanting to stream is more than reasonable, because I'm one of the heaviest users of it," he says. "Wherever we have the opportunity, we'll put in fibre optic internet connections. They have a very high bandwidth available to them immediately, but they're also scalable."

Which brings us to charging for Wi-Fi access, a subject that regularly inflames travellers. Should it be regarded as akin to clean sheets – an essential part of the service – or as an extra?

"We believe there's space in the market for a combination approach," says Ironside. "We provide a level of free access to all our guests, but there's an opportunity to add value by either having a charged high-speed service or a premium offering for our loyalty members."

For his part, Caruana draws a line between budget and upmarket hotels.

"If you're in a $60 a night hotel and they charge $20 for Wi-Fi, fair enough. There's probably not a huge amount of profit margin there," he says. "But one of the hotels I stay at in San Francisco costs between $350 and $450 a night, and they charge for Wi-Fi. The irony is that there's a Starbucks downstairs that's free."

So what's the future of hotel Wi-Fi? Will we ever be happy with its strength, speed and price?

"At some point I hope we can stop talking about it," says Ironside. "The availability and cost of bandwidth is dropping rapidly. I see no reason that won't continue."

Caruana also thinks Wi-Fi will become part of the furniture.

"There was a time when a TV was an extra in a hotel room. Now, try to find a hotel that doesn't have a TV. I think it'll be the same, but Wi-Fi will be there for people who don't carry their own. It'll be a utility that some people will use, and a lot of people won't."

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