Is hotel wi-fi a reflection of the digital divide?

Monitoring group OpenSignal finds more expensive hotels offering superior wi-fi than cheaper alternatives.


Whenever someone uses the term “digital divide,” it’s usually in the context of rural-versus-urban internet access, or as a proxy for rich versus poor.

A new report from OpenSignal, a group dedicated to mapping wireless and wi-fi networks in the United States, finds that dichotomy is indeed in effect in the strangest of places: hotels.

Using price data from Consumer Reports in conjunction with its own database of hundreds of thousands of wi-fi hotspots tested over the past year, the group concludes that the cheaper a hotel room, the worse its wi-fi.

The correlation is “startling,” the group says. “For large chain hotel wi-fi, price = performance:” 


As the chart shows, most of the hotel rooms that deliver downloads of less than 5 megabits per second – the speed generally needed to stream high-definition video – are priced at less than $80.

OpenSignal notes one specific outlier – Disney Hotels – which are generally higher priced but which also throttle down speeds for guests. “This shows that the wi-fi Disney offer to their park guests is greatly outperforming the in-room wi-fi enjoyed by the guests in their hotels.”

In other words, it’s as if Disney is encouraging guests to upload their photos to social networks while in the park, but then crippling their connectivity when they have downtime afterward, likely so that they spend money on in-room pay-per-view content.

In the bigger picture, better speeds for more money seems like a no-brainer, but one thing OpenSignal’s data doesn’t show is the actual cost of hotel wi-fi. As I noted in a post earlier this year, wi-fi is often free at lower-end chains but available at an additional and sometimes hefty extra fee at more upscale locations.

As one expert noted in that post, guests who stay in expensive rooms are usually writing off their wi-fi as a business expense, which is why hotels charge it. “A $20 fee on a $400 room… is probably not a big deal when they’re paying $400 for a room.”

Either way it’s sliced, it looks like hotels have successfully managed the transition from pay-per-view revenue to internet connectivity. Either they’re providing poor service or they’re making a pretty penny from it. Both poor and rich guests are getting pinched.

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