No longer are restaurants, hotels, and other businesses judged on products and services alone — now, Internet connectivity plays a large role in customer satisfaction ratings. Coffee shops without free WiFi may lose clientele to the accessible cafe across the street, while hotels that charge outrageous amounts for connecting may find their rooms empty. What are consumers willing to pay for, and what do they expect for free?


The Coffee Shop Conundrum

Coffeehouses have become a symbol of the wireless revolution — head out for a latte or hot chocolate and you’ll find tables filled with laptop and tablet users all working away or surfing the Web. Some rely on their 3G or 4G networks to get online, but there’s now an expectation of free wireless access, especially if the coffee is on the expensive side. Typically, businesses partner with a local Internet provider who offers open access to anyone in range of the signal. Users must agree to abide by basic standards of conduct but are otherwise free to do as they please online. Most coffeehouse and restaurant patrons understand that the Internet connection they get for free won’t be the fastest they’ve ever used, but are also often willing to walk away if there’s no access offered or if the business wants to charge a fee. Increasingly, consumers see network access as a basic right rather than a value-added service.

The Hotel Hot Spot

Hotels are a slightly different animal. The practice of charging a per-day use fee is common in most hotels, especially those in premium locations, with prices ranging from $10 to $25 per day. On cruise ships, the cost can be upwards of 80 cents per minute. Some chains offer free high-speed access in every room in addition to wireless hot spots throughout the hotel, while others give out a free pass to guests staying on “executive” floors. Most hotels also offer the choice between wired and wireless connections, especially if most of their clients are business travelers. Wireless access in a hotel filled with guests will almost always be slow and periodically interrupted, while wired connections can provide much-needed security and speed.

Increasing Expectations

Online reviews of retailers and hotels often include references to Internet connectivity, especially if the service was nonexistent or very slow. Many consumers are willing to change their buying or traveling habits in order to get the kind of connectivity they want. What’s more, many are moving beyond just tablet and laptop use — new technologies, like Google’s Chromecast dongle, allow users to watch TV on demand almost anywhere there’s a WiFi connection. The problem? In many hotels, even free wireless access needs a user name and password, which you can’t enter on devices without a Web browser, such as the Chromecast or Roku.

Customer satisfaction ratings rise or fall in response to quality of service, product, and now Internet availability. Speed isn’t enough by itself; businesses must consider what kind of access they’ll provide and exactly how much to charge.

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