By Susan Stellin, The Post and Courier, Charleston
Connectivity Problems Growing as Many Hotels Shift to Wireless Access
Five years ago, the main challenge for data-hungry business travelers was finding a hotel that offered high-speed Internet access. Then came a shift to wireless and even free connections.
But these days, the top priority for many is simply getting consistent, reliable access to the Internet. That, it turns out, is not as easy as one might think.
Travelers' complaints about spotty Internet service are varied. Sometimes the wireless signal works in Room 347 but not Room 219. Other times the connections are too slow to download large files, do not work with corporate security settings or inexplicably disconnect every few minutes.
And when it comes to troubleshooting problems, most hotels direct guests to a toll-free number offered by their Internet service provider, which can be a frustrating exercise in navigating automated menus, waiting on hold or wasting time following instructions that do not provide a fix.
"I was on the phone with the 800 number at 11:30 at night, but I never did get connected," said Charlene Baumbich, an author who had trouble getting online at four out of the five hotels she used during a recent book tour.
Will Allen III, an organizational development consultant who travels most weeks, attributes growing connectivity problems to the shift to wireless access, estimating that he has trouble with Wi-Fi service in hotels about 50 percent of the time, in contrast to 5 percent of the time with a wired connection.
"Wireless is just not reliable yet, and hotels are just catching up to the fact that they've got to be on top of this," he said. If he is planning a long-term stay, he and his colleagues will test a hotel's Internet service in advance.
The challenge for hotels is that more people are using the Internet for more things these days, not just to check e-mail messages, but to make phone calls, download TV shows and do videoconferencing. Add to the mix the quirks of different operating systems, Web browsers and security settings, and it is no surprise that hotels are struggling to provide reliable service.
One problem is that most large hotel chains work with dozens of Internet service providers, leading to inconsistencies. Hoping to rein in this chaos, Hilton Hotels Corp. is in the process of bringing Internet management and customer support in-house.
John Flack, vice president for hotel broadband services at Hilton, said the program was aimed at making it easier for guests to be connected by offering a consistent sign-up process, ensuring reliable network performance and handling problems through a help desk run by Hilton staff members.
Larry Dustin, president of the U.S. hotels group for iBahn, which provides Internet service to more than 2,000 hotels, said one source of frustration is that many hotels are not aware of problems.
"With bandwidth-intensive applications like video, a relatively few number of guests can drop the speed of the network to dial-up or less," Dustin said.
Other problems he mentioned are building materials like concrete, steel and glass, which can block wireless signals and not enough antennas to accommodate growing wireless traffic.
But travelers say they should not have to worry about which company provides a hotel's Internet service, and whether it is reliable.
"If I'm staying in a Tier 1 hotel, I should expect a Tier 1 experience," said Andy Abramson, a communications consultant. "I might be working in my hotel for 12 to 14 hours one day. To me, that hotel is an extension of my office. It's not just a place to sleep and shower."
That may mean that hotels, and ultimately their guests, have to pay more for better Internet service.
Some travelers say they do not mind paying for reliable service. But as Allen put it, "If you sell it to me, it better work."