Why no WiFi? Trav­el­ers be­moan the state of In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

When it comes to travel, In­ter­net ac­cess has never been more ubiq­ui­tous — or more un­der­whelm­ing.

Don’t take my word for it. Just ask Wendy Lewis, who says she spends a good part of ev­ery trip try­ing — and some­times fail­ing — to find re­li­able and rea­son­ably priced hotspots. Air­port lounges make con­nect­ing a cinch, she says. But the mo­ment she boards a bus, plane or train, it’s a headache, with slow speeds, high bills and fre­quent out­ages.

“It’s al­ways a chal­lenge for me and a point of tremen­dous frus­tra­tion,” says Lewis, a beauty con­sul­tant from New York.

That’s a com­mon sen­ti­ment. The re­lease of a study on air­port WiFi ear­lier this year and a move by JetBlue to in­clude wire­less ser­vice in its fares has sparked a broader con­ver­sa­tion among trav­el­ers about con­nec­tiv­ity and what they should ex­pect in the fu­ture. Short an­swer: faster con­nec­tions, same frus­tra­tions. But don’t worry, there are work­arounds.

The re­search, pub­lished by Speedtest by Ookla, an In­ter­net test­ing and met­rics com­pany, ex­am­ined the 20 Amer­i­can air­ports with the most pas­sen­ger board­ings. It re­viewed the re­sults of con­sumer-ini­ti­ated Speedtest data for the four largest cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers as well as air­port-spon­sored WiFi at each lo­ca­tion, and found that Den­ver, Philadel­phia and Seat­tle of­fered the fastest wire­less con­nec­tion speeds. The slow­est: At­lanta, Or­lando and San Fran­cisco.

Ear­lier this year, JetBlue Air­ways said it would be­gin to in­clude the cost of wire­less con­nec­tions in its fares, ef­fec­tively of­fer­ing a fast WiFi con­nec­tion to ev­ery pas­sen­ger with­out ex­tra cost. In do­ing so, JetBlue be­came the first ma­jor U.S. air car­rier to give ev­ery pas­sen­ger a wire­less con­nec­tion, and pos­si­bly has paved the way for wire­less In­ter­net con­nec­tions to be in­cluded in the cost of other air­line tick­ets.

In a re­lated de­vel­op­ment, Amer­i­can Air­lines an­nounced in Jan­uary that its new Boe­ing 737 Max air­craft, sched­uled to be de­liv­ered later this year, would not have seat-back en­ter­tain­ment sys­tems, not­ing that most of their pas­sen­gers bring their own de­vices. That’s bound to boost ap­petites for on­board WiFi.

“Con­nec­tiv­ity is as es­sen­tial as the air we breathe,” says Dawn Cal­la­han, the chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer at Boingo Wire­less, which of­fers cel­lu­lar and WiFi con­nec­tiv­ity to trav­el­ers. She says de­mand for its prod­uct has in­creased twen­ty­fold in just five years, thanks to trav­el­ers’ vo­ra­cious ap­petite for fast wire­less con­nec­tions. The ma­jor­ity of busi­ness trav­el­ers carry three de­vices — usu­ally a phone, a tablet and a lap­top com­puter. Adds Cal­la­han, “We’ve never seen more WiFi us­age than we do to­day.”

The num­bers back up that as­ser­tion. A Re­search+Data In­sights study com­mis­sioned by Red Roof Inn found that 7 in 10 trav­el­ers say that fast, ac­ces­si­ble WiFi is more im­por­tant than a ho­tel’s lo­ca­tion, park­ing fa­cil­i­ties and even free break­fast. Where do trav­el­ers want to con­nect? Al­most ev­ery­where. A sur­vey by Xir­rus, a provider of high-den­sity WiFi, found that 83 per­cent of users con­nect at ho­tels, 72 per­cent log on at cafes and 64 per­cent use air­port hotspots.

“WiFi is no longer a lux­ury,” says Gary Grif­fiths, chief ex­ec­u­tive of wire­less con­nec­tiv­ity com­pany iPass, “but an ex­pec­ta­tion.”

And that’s the prob­lem. Ev­ery­one wants to be on­line, and wire­less providers are hav­ing trou­ble keep­ing up with de­mand. A Cisco study pre­dicts that by 2020, the num­ber of wire­less hotspots world­wide will rise to 432 mil­lion, a six­fold in­crease.

Con­sider the ex­pe­ri­ence of fre­quent busi­ness trav­el­ers such as Andy Abram­son, a Los An­ge­les com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant who prac­ti­cally lives on the road. Air­ports know that they must of­fer WiFi, “but with more peo­ple car­ry­ing more de­vices, the net­works of­ten are over­loaded and not re­ally use­ful for much more than Web brows­ing and email,” he says. “Stream­ing eats up a lot of band­width, and most air­port net­works just can’t han­dle that many peo­ple lis­ten­ing or watch­ing streamed con­tent.”

Abram­son prefers head­ing to one of the air­port lounges, which of­fer their own net­works to mem­bers — at a price. Fail­ing that, he logs on with his Boingo sub­scrip­tion ac­count, which of­fers a speed­ier con­nec­tion than Boingo’s free WiFi of­fer­ing. (Boingo charges $9.95 a month for Abram­son’s un­lim­ited premium plan.)

Alex Gizis, the co-founder of Speed­ify, a com­pany that de­vel­ops apps that op­ti­mize your In­ter­net for speed and se­cu­rity, says that we have reached a tip­ping point in travel. Both de­mand and frus­tra­tion are so high that peo­ple are giv­ing up in their at­tempts to con­nect.

“More peo­ple are hit­ting hotspots that don’t work,” he says. “That’s so frus­trat­ing that peo­ple ac­tu­ally just give up on WiFi.”

The travel in­dus­try is try­ing to keep up with de­mand. For ex­am­ple, ho­tels are mov­ing to­ward speed­ier 5 GHz hotspots, an up­grade from the in­dus­try stan­dard, a 2.4 GHz wire­less ac­cess point. But, says Matthew FitzGer­ald, a sys­tems en­gi­neer­ing man­ager for Ruckus Wire­less, a man­u­fac­turer of wire­less net­work­ing equip­ment, the up­grade has been a chal­lenge. “Not ev­ery­one has made th­ese changes, and some have done them in­cor­rectly,” he says.

At the rate they’re go­ing, it’s un­likely that they ever will meet the de­mand by cus­tomers in an al­ways-on so­ci­ety.

“I live and die by WiFi,” ex­plains Alexan­dra Man­del of Am­bler, Pa., a busi­ness­de­vel­op­ment man­ager for a com­pany that or­ga­nizes ex­ec­u­tive re­treats. In fact, she can’t plan a con­fer­ence with­out guar­an­tee­ing that the par­tic­i­pants will have ac­cess to re­li­able wire­less con­nec­tions.

And yet, she reg­u­larly finds her­self on planes with­out a con­nec­tion or at ho­tels where the only wire­less ac­cess point can be found in the lobby — or for a steep price. The wire­less-free planes are the great­est mys­tery to her.

“It’s 2017,” Man­del says. “Why don’t we have WiFi on all planes?”

The short-term fixes are in­el­e­gant, at best. Trav­el­ers can sub­scribe to a ser­vice such as Boingo or carry their own wire­less hotspot from a cel­lu­lar provider. (The Ookla sur­vey also rates those; Detroit, San Fran­cisco and Minneapolis are the fastest.) Or they can take their chances with the strained net­works at their air­port or ho­tel, or aboard their air­craft.

Down the road, it’s up to the in­dus­try to de­velop bet­ter stan­dards that of­fer faster con­nec­tion speeds, per­haps with the en­cour­age­ment of band­width-starved trav­el­ers and leg­is­la­tors who are em­bar­rassed by the fact that many other coun­tries of­fer bet­ter con­nec­tion op­tions than the United States.

Kevin Robin­son, the vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing for in­dus­try trade group Wi-Fi Al­liance, says that in the short term, new tech­nol­ogy may ease some of the pain.

“In 2017, trav­el­ers will ben­e­fit from more seam­less and se­cure ac­cess to WiFi net­works, re­sult­ing in a bet­ter over­all ex­pe­ri­ence with WiFi while trav­el­ing,” he says. Many ho­tels and air­ports are de­ploy­ing a new stan­dard called Wi-Fi Cer­ti­fied Pass-point net­works, which al­lows users to skip the lengthy au­then­ti­cat­ing process for each new WiFi net­work. In­stead, you just log in once.

If only get­ting con­nected were al­ways that easy.

El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

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