If, like me, you have been complaining about unusually poor Internet service in hotel rooms lately, the hotels have a good explanation.
Largely because of the broad use of iPads and other mobile tablets, which are heavy users of video streaming, the guest room Wi-Fi networks that most hotels thought they had brought up to standard just a few years ago are now often groaning under user demands.
“The iPad is the fastest-selling device in consumer electronics history, and because of it the demand placed on any public place Wi-Fi system has gone up exponentially in the last year and a half,” said David W. Garrison, the chief executive of iBAHN, a provider of systems for the hotel and meetings industries.
This means more hotel customers are unhappy with their Internet connections. Hotel owners, meanwhile, who are digging out from a two-year slump caused by the recession, will probably have to invest more money to provide more bandwidth.
For travelers, it may mean still another fee, since hotels will be paying their own Internet bills. Some hotel Internet service providers are proposing a solution that offers tiered Wi-Fi service. The lowest level, suitable for basic Internet requirements like checking e-mail, would be free, but other levels would be priced depending on bandwidth requirements. According to iBAHN, iPads consume four times more Wi-Fi data per month than the average smartphone.
The iPad represents the “final nail in the coffin” for the idea that all Internet is free, Mr. Garrison said.
Amy Cravens, a market analyst with the mobile Internet group of In-Stat, a technology research and consulting company, agreed that tablets “have had a huge influence on bandwidth consumption.”
Ms. Cravens said hotels had been slow to respond to the idea of a tiered fee system. “They’ve been talking about that for a few years, but I haven’t really seen it put much into play,” she said.
Mr. Garrison estimated that 10 to 15 percent of hotels in the United States now offered at least some kind of Wi-Fi service with fees for higher use.
The growth in bandwidth demand is obvious. As we were speaking on Monday, Ms. Cravens received a note from AT&T saying that connection times for its hotel Internet service had more than doubled from the second quarter of this year to the third quarter.
Studies conducted for iBAHN indicate that while free Internet service remains a big factor in choosing a hotel, nearly two-thirds of business travelers say they have encountered slow Internet downloading in the last 12 months. Over two-thirds said they would “not return to a hotel where they had a poor technology experience,” iBAHN said.
“The bits used for video streaming and downloading increased thirtyfold on our network in one year,” Mr. Garrison said.
Hotels, he said, now must choose “either to not increase the amount of bandwidth, so everybody will get much slower service to the point where you’ll think you’re on a dial-up connection,” or upgrade and essentially put in a metered fee-based system.
“It’s about managing that bandwidth,” Mr. Garrison added. “We’re not saying that free Internet as you know it today is dead. We’re saying that a hotel owner will have to decide what free should be. I could have a free option, for a limited level of service, but charge for higher levels of demand.”
The research firm the Gartner Group predicts that the number of iPads sold will reach 100 million by the end of 2012.
“People are now carrying multiple devices. We see instances in hotels where people are using their laptop and their iPad at the same time, and maybe even have their smartphone on,” Mr. Garrison said. “As a business traveler, you’re trying to get work done and you need a guaranteed adequate connection. So don’t give me free Wi-Fi if it’s not going to work.”
I, too, am about to join the mob and buy my first iPad. As I mentioned here, on a recent stay at a Hyatt Regency hotel in Denver, the Internet connection (at $12.95 a night, no less) was as sluggish as a dial-up. Even if it had been free, it would have remained almost useless to me.
Will you opt to pay an added fee in a hotel room for the extra bandwidth you may require? I hate to say it, but I probably will, if I have a guarantee that it will perform adequately.
I asked the same question of Ms. Cravens, an iPad user herself. Would she pay extra for the bandwidth she needs on the road?
“Absolutely,” she replied.
This story, "" was originally published in The New York Times.