Just recently both Andy Abramson and Rich Tehrani had posts describing their experience with broadband internet access at hotels. I can barely convey how this is a topic that strikes a nerve with me. At times during my working year I travel extensively. Anyone who has been following my Twitter stream will know that I’m been to and from SFO so often recently that I’m starting to feel like a migratory bird. The local taxi drivers are starting to recognize me!
Suffice it to say that I stay in a lot of hotels. In the past month of activity on the west coast that includes two Hiltons, Le Meridien, the MarQueen Seattle, a La Qunita and a Club Quarters. Next week I’ll be appearing nightly at a Hyatt. Talk about a diversity of establishments!
Getting down to brass tacks, the availability of reliable broadband is one of the things that defines whether I will even consider a hotel. I don’t mind paying for access if it’s robust, like at Le Meridien where it was $12.95 a day but provided via wired connection, and very reliable.
In contrast, one of the two Hiltons I’ve been at recently had $9.95/day for wired connectivity that was ok, but not great. That same location had free wifi in the lobby that was actually better. The other Hilton has free wifi throughout, and while it was pretty good, it wasn’t good enough to support the use of VoIP. Wifi is like that sometimes.
In fact, the offer of free wifi doesn’t interest me much. Often times that implies a facility where no-one on staff has any knowledge of networking. So if there a problem no-one on-site can do much about it. Since the service is free there’s little reason for them to do anything more that report it to the day shift staff for investigation tomorrow. And so I lose my evenings productivity.
Wifi is a problem as much as it is a solution. I was once in a hotel that was actually several buildings. They proclaimed “wired internet access in every room.” While that was true they back-hauled the traffic between the buildings over 802.11a type wifi. For three days I was there and the back-haul arrangement was down the entire time. I could ping the local gateway but was otherwise off-line.
In fact, the most common problem that I have faced is a failure on the part of the providers login gateway. You know, when you open your browser you get directed to a page with a lot of stuff you need to agree to before they let you online. That’s called a “captive portal” and they are typically off-site at a location run by the connectivity provider.
Companies in the space include Golden Tree Communications, Wayport and others. The connection to the local network and even the internet may be solid, but the providers login server can be shaky…and so getting online may become a problem.
I can’t tell you how many times I had to talk to techs in Georgia about getting online in Austin TX. And the problem was the authentication server in their Georgia NOC. That server was either near death, or bandwidth starved. They can usually resolve the issue through the judicious application of a bunch of my time spent on the phone ensuring them that it’s not responding as it should.
For all the hotel wifi that I encounter I’ve almost never been able to use a little wifi SIP phone that I’ve been keeping in my luggage. I’ve had it about six months and really only been able to use it a couple of times in the Continental Airlines lounges and at home. It doesn’t have a web browser so it needs to be really open wifi to use the phone, not authenticated by some web portal. The few times that I used it in the airline lounges it worked well. I guess that they have well architected networks.
Often times you don’t really know what kind of gear is being used to provide the hotel network. Recently I stayed at an older hotel in Seattle and the network announced itself as being a Meraki mesh. The captive portal page stated this very simply. For a wifi network it was both robust and quick. But then, it was a little boutique hotel, so probably not heavily trafficked by bandwidth hogging techno-geeks. Still, it left me thinking that Meraki gear is something I might look at for my own office once day.
Here’s on last parting thought in this little ramble. The ubiquitous T-1 is not a whole lotta bandwidth in 2009. There are a lot of places that for legacy reasons have one or two T-1s, or perhaps a cable modem as the internet connectivity for an entire hotel. That’s just not going to cut it much longer.
How many room/nights are you prepared to lose because of a shoddy wifi network implementation? If your network is substandard you might have me in-house once, but never again after that.