Getting airports and hotels out of the pay toilet business

I upload a lot of photos. It’s almost always an ordeal unless I’m at home or work. That’s because I get fast upload speeds in both places. At home I have a fiber connection to the Net with 20Mb symmetrical service — a rare and good thing. I don’t know the upstream speed at work, but it’s plenty fast enough and it always works.

When I hit the road, though, it’s aarg all the way.

Most hotels have crappy service. There are some exceptions among the expensive hotels. The Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles seemed pretty good a few days ago. But before that, neither the University of Redlands nor the Hilton in Loma Linda was worth a damn. The problem at Redlands was all kinds of blocked stuff: ping, ssh and IM protocols all seemed to be blocked, when anybody could get on at all. The Hilton was just slow and lame. Most of the low- to mid-price hotels in which I tend to stay are good for browsing, email and not much more.

Generally speaking, the cheap hotels with free connectivity are okay.

Anyway, I’m at Logan Airport in Boston now, waiting for a late plane, paying $4.95 for “roaming” on MassPort’s system as a t-Mobile customer, for which I’m already paying $29 or so per month. Last time I flew, a few days ago, T-Mobile’s system didn’t work at LAX. Since I’m also without my EvDO service right now, there’s no way to bypass MassPort here at Logan.

Right now I’m watching Flickr’s in-browser uploading system fail on photo after photo. Of the eight shots it has tried to upload so far, only two have made it. The rest turned red. A few seconds ago I gave up on them.

A speedtest now says my download speed is 4.4Mbps, and uploads are just 109kbps.

The problem here is that the Net is seen by too many hotels and airports as a way to make money rather than a way to keep customers happy. That’s because it’s seen as a private business rather than as a public utility. It would be better for everybody if we admitted that it’s the latter, even when private businesses provide access to it.

Yes, it has costs. So do electricity, water, waste collection and road maintenance, and neither airports nor hotels charge for those. They lump the costs with something else.

Thing is, the Net is not a steady scarcity, such as parking. Nor is it simple. But making it gratis removes the billing complexities that are one of its main costs and a frequent cause of failure.

So here’s a message to the aviation and hospitality industries: You’re not in the pay toilet business. Quit trying to turn the Internet into one.

And here’s a plea to the marketplace: Somebody come up with a Net connection business for airports and hotels that’s all about installing a simple and symmetrical utility that’s easy to maintain and keeps users happy.

32 comments

  1. Harl Delos’s avatar

    You’re right, of course, and yet….

    You know what business airports are in? It’s NOT transportation. They make most of their money from the parking lots. Renting space in the terminals for restaurants, gift shops, car rental and, yes, for airline counters, is just a drop in the bucket. Landing fees? They’re almost invisible.

    What you’re talking about? It needs to financed by raising the price of *something*. If you raise the price of parking, you’re not hitting the people who take taxis. If you put a surcharge on taxi and limo service, you’re not hitting the people whose friends drop them off or pick them up at curb.

    I don’t know what’s the fair and reasonable way to finance it, but even if they wanted to do what you suggest, I don’t think airport managers have the answer, either. You need to take this one step further. I’ve always found the easiest way to get cooperation in solving a problem was to propose a solution, not just present a gripe.

  2. rexblog.com: Rex Hammock’s weblog » Blog Archive » links for 2008-03-31’s avatar

    [...] Getting airports and hotels out of the pay toilet business | Doc Searls Doc and I share this peeve — Airports/hotels should not be in the Internet access business. Sidenote: Free airport wifi list is most visited page on smallbusiness.comhttp://tinyurl.com/38j9gv (tags: airports, hotels, wifi) [...]

  3. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    Airports are generally owned by governments. Thus, they have no need to make money. So, finding out that they make most of their money on the PARKING LOT should surprise no one.

    Harl, you act as if it was expensive to provide free wifi. Most of the problems Doc has experienced are due to people trying to make wifi into something you can sell.

  4. W^L+’s avatar

    HOTELS make plenty of money on the room charges already. I was in several Marriott-owned hotels in the San Diego area for about three months recently. Universally, any connection I had was slow, slow, slow, and there were several nights when it just didn’t work at all. The thing is, they made around $200 per night off of me staying there and then wanted to tack on an additional $8.95 per night for usable Internet speed.

    Both hotels and airports provide free TV, and you know they have to pay the cable companies for that. So the model is already there, and already working.

    If I was in their business, I would make free high-speed (up to 3 MB/sec) a part of my offering and watch the customers line up to get in even while competitors have to sell their excess rooms on Priceline.

  5. Eric’s avatar

    When I was in India last year, I stayed in the Taj and Meridian hotels in Mumbai and the Taj in Surat and Jaipur. They all had fast connections. Much better than any hotel in the US. It did cost about 10 rupees per hour, but, to quote V.P. Cheney – “So?” It was fast and reliable.

    Which reminds me, there was better cellphone service (at the cost of about 2 pesos per minute) in the jungles of Colombia, six hours from Bogotá, than in downtown San Diego, or anywhere in San Diego County where I live.

    Leadership in technology? The US seems to be losing it fast.

  6. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    One could provide a turnkey WiFi market that lets all comers buy up bandwidth slots and resell them (if anyone could be bothered), e.g. out of the box there’s a bandwidth-limited free channel, and umpteen divisible other slots that are initially free, but can be bought by the hotel or anyone else and then resold. Naturally, the hotel could put an automatic purchase order in to buy up all the slots at $0 and resell to at least cover its overhead costs.

    A simpler alternative would be to divide the bandwidth into just two slots with one always being free (shared by all) and the other ‘premium channel’ reserved for hotel residents at $1 per 10 megabytes (first 100M per day free).

  7. Don Marti’s avatar

    I don’t get it. Why should a family of 6 who all have to fly to Grandma’s funeral pay more in order to subsidize a business traveler’s IMAP access to huge email attachments, or photo hobbyist’s access to Flickr? I know I want fast net access at the airport, but I also want free coffee and a pony. Putting a price on net access looks like a way to put some costs on the travelers who can pay, or their employers.

    There’s an obvious externality in blocking access to the toilet, but charging for wireless access just looks like a way to get more money from those who have it.

  8. NYCwireless | Doc Searls on Why Hotels and Airports Should Have Free Wi-Fi’s avatar

    [...] Searls (who wrote a great article in Linux Journal about NYCwireless in 2004) has a great blog post on the frustrating world of for-pay Wi-Fi in hotels and airports. NYCwireless has long said that public and semi-public spaces like hotels and airports (and parks!) [...]

  9. Wireless Community» Blog Archive » Doc Searls on Why Hotels and Airports Should Have Free Wi-Fi’s avatar

    [...] Searls (who wrote a great article in Linux Journal about NYCwireless in 2004) has a great blog post on the frustrating world of for-pay Wi-Fi in hotels and airports. NYCwireless has long said that public and semi-public spaces like hotels and airports (and parks!) [...]

  10. Bryan’s avatar

    @Russell Nelson-

    “Airports are generally owned by governments. Thus, they have no need to make money.”

    A curious thing to say at tax time!

  11. Dennis Howkett’s avatar

    It’s the same across the world. The telcos can’t make money on copper so why not recoup on 3G by ripping off the captive traveler audience? After all, most of it is on expenses so they don’t care about it.

  12. W^L+’s avatar

    @ Don Marti:

    Are you likewise willing to take away the business traveler subsidy for your basic cable in the room? While I’m in a hotel, I rarely if ever turn on the TV (cost bundled into the nightly room charge). So in essence, I’m subsidizing (or more accurately, my employer is subsidizing) the TV access for the guests that do use it.

    In other words, what’s the difference? TV and Internet connectivity are both more or less standard utilities in American life. Asking me to pay extra for a basic utility does little for the hotel’s bottom line (if net access is entirely pay, I’ll leave after one day), while harming the hotel owner’s reputation.

    I’ve stayed in that one chain’s properties about six months out of the last two years. If they cannot appreciate the thousands of dollars of revenue that brought in, I will be happy to use someone else that does. The hotels’ (and airports’) *best customers* are the ones that are most likely to use Net access. It isn’t conducive to the long-term health of their business to be so stingy toward their primary customers.

  13. My del.icio.us bookmarks for March 31st through April 1st | AccMan’s avatar

    [...] Doc Searls Weblog · Getting airports and hotels out of the pay toilet business – Those of us who travel know only too well what this means. [...]

  14. Don Marti’s avatar

    @W^L+,

    Sure, I wouldn’t mind paying $10 less if I don’t turn on the TV during my stay. I don’t use it either.

    But the hotel needs some way to discriminate between a higher price for business travelers and a lower price for others. Net access is a handy place to put the “tollbooth.”

    Maybe the solution is to make the net access free and open, and charge $10 to anyone who doesn’t watch TV for at least two hours (time on “mute” doesn’t count.) Or a “minibar” for the power outlets.

  15. Mike Taht’s avatar

    This is why your hotel internet service is crap:

    The guy over in room 12 has a worm that is flood pinging every host in the building, trying to subvert it.

    The ladies on the top floor are watching youtube videos of the sewing channel, and the guy next door is downloading pr0n.

    The kid on the third floor is running 10 streams of bittorrent, sharing his 100GB drive full of mp3s with everyone that cares to upload it at 3KB/sec.

    All the machines are broadcasting what they do, to everybody, and nobody has the faintest clue that they are messing up the internet for everyone else. No, they just keep hitting reload…

    I’ve been tempted lately, upon checkout, to hand a packet capture to the receptionist, and thank them for such an informative stay.

  16. Mike Taht’s avatar

    Oops, bad url, fixed here

    All the machines are broadcasting what they do, to everybody, and nobody has the faintest clue that they are messing up the internet for everyone else. No, they just keep hitting reload…

    I’ve been tempted lately, upon checkout, to hand a packet capture to the receptionist, and thank them for such an informative stay.

    Next time you are on a slow WAN, Doc, run wireshark and boggle at what all that traffic means.

  17. David Cushman’s avatar

    Just paid $25 euros a day for wifi at the Hotel Bristol Kempinksi in Berlin. Should we create a list of the world’s worst? Name and shame.
    BTW doc, I heard a theory that the reason hotels overcharge for wifi is because they’ve lost all their pay-per-porn TV channnel revenue to the business traveller on his laptop.

  18. Genewize Man’s avatar

    You said it man. Even here in Thailand where everything is cheap, it’s about 500 baht (approx 16.00) per hour at most hotels for internet access.

    And many places don’t have wireless or a jack for me to plug in my laptop. Instead, I have to use their very limited access PC’s.

  19. Araba’s avatar

    t’s the same across the world. The telcos can’t make money on copper so why not recoup on 3G by ripping off the captive traveler audience? After all, most of it is on expenses so they don’t care about it.

  20. ajans’s avatar

    ”t’s the same across the world. The telcos can’t make money on copper so why not recoup on 3G by ripping off the captive traveler audience? After all, most of it is on expenses so they don’t care about it.”
    what?

  21. fotoğrafçı’s avatar

    Are you likewise willing to take away the business traveler subsidy for your basic cable in the room? While I’m in a hotel, I rarely if ever turn on the TV (cost bundled into the nightly room charge). So in essence, I’m subsidizing (or more accurately, my employer is subsidizing) the TV access for the guests that do use it.

  22. Boyacı Ustası’s avatar

    The telcos can’t make money on copper so why not recoup on 3G by ripping off the captive traveler audience? After all, most of it is on expenses so they don’t care about it.

  23. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I don’t mind paying $30/month for data service over the cell system (whether 3G or otherwise), expensed or not. It ain’t a bad deal. I just don’t want to get shaken down for “roaming” within T-Mobile’s own system, which is why I dumped them.

  24. Ajanslar’s avatar

    Airports are generally owned by governments. Thus, they have no need to make money. So, finding out that they make most of their money on the PARKING LOT should surprise no one.

  25. Genewize Reviews Guy’s avatar

    I think you are spot on with this! and the worst part is, i dont see a change anytime soon. maybe someone will come up wiwht something else though…

    Great post,

    -Justin

  26. Nate Falconer’s avatar

    Wow, love the post. I totally agree. Its to the point now where I will only book at hotels that offer free internet. Internet is such a common thing now I don’t see why people are still trying to monetize its usage. I heard that AirTran is adding Wifi capabilities to their flights! Now that’s what I’m talking about!!!

  27. Edebiyat’s avatar

    Next time you are on a slow WAN, Doc, run wireshark and boggle at what all that traffic means..
    Thanyou

  28. Genewize Guy’s avatar

    Nice post.. And you know what? Let me regale you with a short but similar story.

    So there I am in a Starbucks waiting for the wife to get done at a doctors appointment. This would definitely be at a “Starbucks-That-Formerly-Had-Free-WiFi” Starbucks, so I never had to worry about the internet.

    Anyway, I boot up the laptop and try to connect, and I see a message on there saying I have to pay by the hour for it. Coming from a cafe that has always hosted a FREE hot-spot.

    At least let me use the internet since I bought a drink there! But no, I had to pay for my internet usage, where 3 days previous to that-using the SAME Starbucks-I got it for free.

    Bogus.

    But, I read your post and it made me think of that, which in actuality occurred about 2 months ago. Though from a slightly different angle, I most definitely feel your pain and think the internet should not be used as a vehicle for an extra dime.

    All the best,
    -Tom

  29. Irotama’s avatar

    April 7, 2010 – Ryanair will raise its online fees for checked bags by 33%, from €15 to €20 per bag for the summer travel season.

    Additionally, the airline is going forward with plans to make onboard toilets coin-operated on flights shorter than one hour, with the price to relieve oneself being €1 http://irotamaresort.com/

    Ryanair is reportedly working with Boeing to create a coin-operated door as well as working with the airline manufacturer to reduce the number of toilets on some aircraft to a single toilet. The toilet subtraction would make room for six more seats.

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