30 Nov Wi-Fi flows freely, but it costs
First, the good news: wireless connectivity truly is moving quickly to ubiquity. Traveling across Europe these past two weeks, my daily dose of broadband has been, exclusively, a Wi-Fi connection. I’d venture to say that hotels throughout Europe are more likely to offer broadband wireless than hotels in the U.S.
I’m not just talking fancy properties or big hotel chains. More than a year ago, Accor Hotels (which owns the Sofitel, Mercure, Novotel, and Ibis brands) launched on an initiative to put Wi-Fi in all of its properties. But even small, independent hotels have realized the value of wireless Internet for their guests and have aligned with various providers to offer wireless services.
While you can almost count on a Wi-Fi connection, you can also count on paying a premium to get it. In eight hotels across Europe and the Middle East (U.K., France, Spain, Israel) prices ranged from free (at a new up-market hotel in Madrid that offered a free sample, of sorts) to the equivalent of about $50 for 24-hour hour access. At one hotel in France, you could buy two hours of access for €15 (about $20), and if you logged on and off judiciously, you can eek a day’s worth of e-mailing out of that.
After two weeks paying these prices, the $29/month that T-Mobile charges for a subscription to its U.S. hot spots starts to look reasonable. (Note that subscribers to the U.S. T-Mobile service don’t also have access to T-Mobile hot spots in Europe. The logo may be the same, but the service providers in the U.S. and Europe are different T-Mobile companies.)
Still, there are ways around paying usurious prices for Wi-Fi connectivity. If you are clever and a little patient, it’s not that hard to find an alternate, free Wi-Fi network on which you can hop a ride. In Europe’s densely populated cities, it seems Wi-Fi is becoming the network of choice for homes and small offices.
At one hotel, I discovered the difference between expensive and free access was simply a walk across the hotel lobby. In one corner of the hotel, I had the privilege of paying about $10/hour for a Wi-Fi connection. But cross the lobby to the hotel’s breakfast room and free Wi-Fi filled the air, presumably from one of the apartments or small businesses across the narrow street. You can guess which network I borrowed during my return visit to the quaint Parisian hotel.
If availability of Wi-Fi is great news for business travelers, the pricing certainly is not. And since each Wi-Fi hot spot is, in essence, a mini-monopoly, Wi-Fi providers have little incentive to cut pricing. Business travelers must connect and the economics of a $20 (about the average daily price) connection vs. the cost of not communicating with customers or the office will almost always favor paying the wireless Internet tariffs. The scenario will only change when municipalities step into the fray, providing—as a piece of its economic infrastructure—free or low-cost wireless Internet access to their citizens and visitors. It’s beginning to happen already in second-tier cities across Europe in initiatives supported by local and regional governments, as well as the European Commission. It’s happening in the U.S. in degrees as well. In late September, San Francisco launched a pilot project (http://www.sfgov.org/site/mayor_page.asp id=27481) that delivers free Wi-Fi in Union Square. And last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom said he intends to cover all of San Francisco in free wireless.
Politics, funding, and practical technology issues aside, these initiatives are taking on momentum faster than many of us might have imagined. But, not fast enough to alter the economics of business travel and connectivity for the next 24 months or so. A pound here, a euro there, a few shekels over there. Wi-Fi may be freely available, but for now it is very rarely free.
Chris Shipley is the executive producer of NetworkWorld’s DEMO Conferences, Editor of DEMOletter and a technology industry analyst for nearly 20 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shipley, has covered the personal technology business since 1984 and is regarded as one of the top analysts covering the technology industry today. Shipley has worked as a writer and editor for variety of technology consumer magazines, including PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and InfoWorld, US Magazine and Working Woman. She has written two books on communications and Internet technology, has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence, and was named the #1 newsletter editor by Marketing Computers for two years in a row. To subscribe to DEMOletter please visit: http://www.idgexecforums.com/demoletter/index.html.
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