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The importance of WiFi: don’t get it wrong

09 January 2015
9 Jan 2015 -

There’s a WiFi connectivity storm brewing in the USA, with the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) seeking a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the issue of ‘WiFi jamming’. While it’s a battle being fought by hotel giants including the Marriott International Inc and Hilton Worldwide, the issue of providing Wifi is just as critical for the humble hostel.

WiFi jamming

Last year the FCC conducted an investigation into allegations that Marriott International Inc had set up a system that prevented guests and conference attendees from using personal WiFi hotspots at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Centre in Nashville, Tennessee. The investigation revealed that the hotel had blocked individual WiFi connections, instead offering visitors access to the Marriott WiFi network for an incredible sum of up to USD 1,000 per device.

While Marriott agreed to pay USD 600,000 to the FCC to resolve the complaint, it has since sought a ruling from the FCC that would enable this ‘WiFi jamming’ practice to become lawful. The AH&LA, Marriott International Inc and Ryman Hospitality Properties (a real estate investment trust with assets including meeting-focused venues) have requested FCC authorisation for operators of WiFi networks to “monitor and mitigate threats to the security and reliability of its network, even when doing so may cause ‘interference’ to [guest devices]”.

Technical specifics aside, the petitioners are essentially seeking permission from the FCC to do what Marriott was fined for doing.

It is perhaps no surprise that the petition has not been well-received. The New York Times, tech giants including Microsoft and Google, conference and event organisers and members of the general public have been highly critical of the petition. The opposition’s message is pretty clear: give guests WiFi that is fast, reliable and free – or at the very least, a low charge.

WiFi in the youth travel industry

While the context of this battle is in the mid-to-high end hotel industry and their meeting and event clientele, the practice of WiFi jamming is ultimately about WiFi access, an issue that is particularly relevant in the youth travel industry. Youth accommodation providers need to fully appreciate the importance of providing WiFi access if they want to attract and cater to the youth travel market, because millennials want WiFi, they want it fast and reliable, and they want it free.

For younger travellers, WiFi is an integral part of their lifestyle. Having grown up with computers, laptops and smart phones, millennials are dependent on being connected. The WYSE Travel Confederation Millennial Traveller Report (November 2014) found that 77% of respondents owned a smartphone, with a staggering 43% checking their mobile phone every five minutes.

Accommodation providers who want to capitalise on the youth market need to use the internet to connect with their audience across multiple technology platforms, but they also need to provide that internet connection to keep their clients happy.

“WiFi is not just a ‘nice to have’ for this generation; it’s an essential accommodation feature,” said Philip Houghton, CEO of the Safestay Plc in the UK and Chair of the STAY WYSE Executive Board. If millennials are checking their phones every five minutes, the provision of WiFi is not a bonus, but an expectation.

“Anyone operating a property will tell you it’s not uncommon to encounter challenges from time to time – like a sudden lack of hot water or a draughty window – but none of these present the level of complaint and customer dissatisfaction that a weak or non-existent WiFi connection does,” added Philip.

While the FCC has made it clear that ‘WiFi jamming’ is currently an offence, the public response to the petition to declare the practice legal suggests that Marriott International Inc and its supporters have got the WiFi issue wrong. Any change to the status quo will certainly irritate corporate travellers and conference participants if the result is that they are left with no choice but to pay the high-prices commanded by the hotel.

A lack of WiFi could mean no customers

But in the youth accommodation market, the issue may be more critical. Fast reliable and free WiFi has the potential to make the difference between a youth traveller making an accommodation booking with a provider, or taking their business elsewhere. In the millennial traveller market, no WiFi could mean no customers; if you don’t provide the service millennials want, they’ll simply find someone else who will.