Celebrating 20 Years of Guest WiFi Part 1

by Donald Jensen
May 01, 2019

In 1999, a trade organization based in Austin, Texas (later to be known as the WiFi Alliance) searched for a name for a new network protocol that extended Ethernet LAN connectivity wirelessly. A committee was formed, and coined the phrase “Wireless Fidelity”, patterned after the term “High Fidelity” used in a stereo system. Wireless fidelity, or WiFi, then became the term for this new technology, and connectivity to the internet has never been the same.

As we look back at the past 20 years, let’s review some of the most notable moments and developments and their impact on the hospitality industry.

Guest Wifi in hotels and the hospitality industry

Wired to the guest room and wireless in the lobby

Many of the first installations of WiFi in hotel properties limited the wireless connectivity to the lobby, while wired connectivity was the primary broadband delivery method to guest and meeting rooms. The use of branded, desktop ports or face plates were the latest trend as guests brought along their patch cords to plug into the public Internet jack in their room. Adoption rates for WiFi started very slowly, as most laptops did not have the capability to connect wirelessly.

PCMCIA cards and wireless access in guest’s rooms

As take rates for public hospitality broadband continued to increase, the traveling consumer started to realize that the flexibility and freedom of “cutting the cord and catching the wave” made WiFi an extremely attractive alternative to plugging in a patch cord and staying tethered to a desk. Wireless Ethernet cards that connected into the PCMCIA slot of the laptop made it easier for the guest’s laptop to connect to the WiFi being offered, and many of the early adopter’s wireless hotel properties would rent these cards to guests eager to try this new access method. For the hotelier, wireless to the guest room provided a cost-effective method to get high-speed Internet access to the guest floors without having to install rated cabling in every room. So, early adopter hotels were eager to deploy.

Is bad WiFi better than none at all?

As guest WiFi started to become a necessity in a hotel instead of a nice surprise, the race intensified among hotel brands, owners and management companies to light up every guest room. Young companies, desperate for market share and to increase the number of guest rooms in service, offered questionable technology, business models, and RF designs to attract, scale and strive for consistent growth. The industry was anxious to deploy, and of course, migrated to the most attractive business technology models offered, typically with the least amount of risk and cost.

When you combined these market factors with an increasing base of guests using the service, with quickly escalating requirements for additional coverage and bandwidth, it left many operators with networks that were obsolete at the time of installation, which very quickly became a source of guest dissatisfaction. Over the years, it is not uncommon to find an existing hotel property required to retrofit the guest WiFI three or four times.

The world of WiFi

While the hotel industry embraced WiFi early on, residential broadband suppliers eventually started to offer integrated routers and cable modems that carried WiFi signals. Additionally, public venues such as airports, coffee shops and restaurants also started to recognize the value of offering WiFi as a way to attract customers. Visitor‑based, wireless networks drove increased revenue and dwell time in these locations. One famous fast‑food chain went on record stating “We are using WiFi to sell more hamburgers.” Municipalities and local communities soon started to follow by building city‑wide wireless metro area networks to enable WiFi anywhere in town. The rise in popularity for outfitting WiFi at home, where you shop and eat, in your community, and where you travel, placed additional pressure on the hotel industry to ensure good connectivity was available. As the public’s appetite for wireless bandwidth grew, “Follow-Me” wireless started to take shape, and this access method, which started out as a way to extend a private LAN where no cables existed, was quickly becoming viewed as a utility.

The early days of hotel WiFi were filled with fits and starts, low usage, questionable technology and business models, and saw other industries take steps toward creating public WiFi networks wherever and whenever a customer had extended dwell time. Stay tuned for the second part of this series to understand the business drivers that moved hospitality wireless broadband into high gear and established it as a required guest amenity in any lodging asset; rivalling cleanliness, location, and comfortable beds as key decision drivers for booking a room. We’ll also examine modern-day hotel WiFi and where we believe the industry, networks, and technology are headed.