Can travelers satisfy their need for Wi-Fi speed in the air, at sea or in a hotel? Someday, perhaps. Why it’s not happening now

You’re on a plane or a cruise ship or staying in a hotel, and you need to send an email. The issue: You feel as though you may celebrate a birthday before the document goes through.

The solution? Um, yes, well, the tagline on this column does tell you to send your travel dilemmas to us, doesn’t it? Fortunately for me, it doesn’t necessarily promise a solution, which is good because there isn’t one for this problem. Not yet anyway.

A colleague who recently took a cruise reported crowds, sans torches and pitchforks but not attitude, excoriating the tech guy because of slow Wi-Fi.


Here’s the bad news: You’re on a cruise, and you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Or California for that matter. Here are some of the truths about Wi-Fi, some ugly, when you’re traveling:

It’s probably not going to be as good as the Wi-Fi you have at home, even if your home is in the U.S.

In an analysis of fixed broadband and mobile speeds in July, Speedtest ranked the United States No. 9 for broadband and No. 46 for mobile. (Nos. 1, respectively, Singapore and Norway. Last: Venezuela and Iraq.)

Part of the issue for Americans: Many of us still have home service based on copper wire, not the faster fiber.

But whichever you have at home, it’s going to be better than what you have on a plane or a cruise ship because …

On an airplane, you’re probably using air-to-ground service. That is basically an infrastructure of cell towers, said Dave Davis of Inmotion Holdings, an investment and management advisory firm whose focus includes satellite technologies and lower-cost satellite launchers.

And we know how cell service can be. Add to that scenario that you’re hurtling through space with a lot of people who also want Wi-Fi and you have speed that can range from decent to — how shall we say this nicely? — less than optimal.

Some airlines use satellite technology, which relies on an antenna on the plane and provides more bandwidth, Davis said. It’s imperfect but better.

And now, for some depressing news:

►On a cruise ship, the bandwidth issue is even greater (and the issue of movement, as on an airplane, creates its own problems). Cruise ships carry hundreds and sometimes thousands of passengers, scores of whom want to post to Instagram or stream Netflix.

That takes bandwidth, and “bandwidth is limited by technology and cost,” Davis said.

Now you begin to see the problem, like the rat through the boa constrictor. We’re the snake and our data consumption — some would say piggery — is the rat.

It’s a big rat. How big? The gigabyte is so 2016; we are now in the zettabyte era in Internet traffic, according to a Cisco blog that noted we crossed that line on Sept. 9.

A zetta what?

“One zettabyte is approximately equal to a thousand exabytes, a billion terabytes, or a trillion gigabytes,” the blog said. Or, from a not-techie perspective, lots and lots.

However much it is, it puts a strain on the infrastructure.

The problem is different — sort of — in a hotel and requires other solutions.

Unlike a ship or a plane, a hotel is not a moving target, but the excellence of the connectivity depends on the hotel’s “age and internal wiring and … construction,” among other factors, said Terry Connell, senior vice president for sales and sales operations for Comcast Business, which supports tech needs and networks for businesses of many sizes, including hotels.

Because the business traveler may use a hotel room as an office and because families, the leisure travelers among us, often have multiple devices for multiple people, the demand for wireless may be multiplied.

Remember too that you as a guest are not the only one using that Wi-Fi. The hotel’s back office, where day-to-day business takes place, is more than likely using it too.

You want good hotel Wi-Fi? Show them the money. Hotel charges for Wi-Fi have largely gone away, especially if you’re a member of the hotel’s loyalty club.

In their place, you may be asked to pay for tiers of service. The better the Wi-Fi, the better the experience.

Sometimes, the experience will be better based on the size of the hotel — bigger not always being better. Boutique hotels, Connell said, often differentiate their guest experience by ensuring/buying/planning for better connectivity.

But there is hope. New satellite technology should help with airline and maybe cruise ship connectivity, Davis said. And hotels may realize, as national parks have, that connectivity is vital to attracting the next generation of guests.

It won’t happen quickly — it’s sort of like opening a large attachment on slow Wi-Fi — but it will happen, experts agree.

Until then, patience and grace are virtues that will serve the traveling Wi-Fi user well, never mind the poor tech guy on the receiving end of our misplaced wrath.

Unless you’re in outer space, everyone in an enclosed space will hear you scream, and the only thing that will seem worse than the technology will be you.

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