When I was in grad school in the early 90s, it was a big deal when the business school installed a mess of new pay phones — directly addressing a bottleneck that frustrated MBA students trying to contact would-be employers. Now, of course, that seems awfully quaint. But there is an interesting point of comparison to be made between pay phones and wireless internet access. Back in the day, no one expected a cafe or bar to have more than one pay phone. Only locations like airports and hotel lobbies had large banks of pay phones. And they were pay phones, i.e., they by definition weren’t free.
So why is there an expectation that a large range of service establishments offer Wi-Fi service gratis? A recent New York Times article doesn’t grapple with that question directly but it does document the difficulty that airlines, airports, and hotels are having in keeping up with the demand for internet access (Craving Wi-Fi, Preferably Free and Really Fast, Apr 30). One of the points the article makes is that it’s hard to get people to pay up for access on planes — only about 5 to 10% of passengers use the service. Now one can imagine several reasons for this. First, it can be relatively pricey to log on in the air (sometimes close to $20). Second, depending on the airline, availability can be spotty. If you are not sure whether you are going to be able to get on-line, you do the important stuff you have to get done before getting onboard. If Wi-Fi turns out to be available, you then have the prospect of having less important things to take care of but facing a stiff fee. Finally, the service on airplanes ain’t exactly blazing fast. It’s OK for sending an email but not so great for watching a movie.
Airlines aren’t the only one’s having a hard time getting customers to pony up for Wi-Fi access.
Airports and hotels are confronting a similar situation. Of the 10 busiest airports in the United States, those in Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., offer at least some free Wi-Fi service.
But the trade-off can be overloaded networks that frustrate passengers, which is why Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — the busiest in the United States — is upgrading its infrastructure before switching to free Wi-Fi this year.
“Our system wasn’t built to accommodate the number of customers we expect to have with the free Wi-Fi,” said Myrna White, a spokeswoman for the airport, which dropped its Wi-Fi fee to $4.95 a day last fall.
It is the trade-off between price and congestion that I find most interesting. (more…)