Wi-Fi’s annoying little secret: Not all Wi-Fi is created equal

Everyone loves Wi-Fi. But as Wi-Fi use has grown, complaints have gone up. There’s constant carping from Amtrak riders about the service’s Wi-Fi. People on airplanes moan about the high costs or the slow connections. The tweets about crappy hotel Wi-Fi would fill a book.

Sure, more users mean more chances for a bad experience, but what’s happening here goes beyond that. As Wi-Fi expands into ever more unlikely places such as planes or trains, consumers are hopping online and then hopping off in irritation because the connection is expensive and it sucks. The problem is all Wi-Fi is not equal, and the industry and providers of Wi-Fi networks have so far done a poor job trying to explain that to the average consumer.

That has to change, and the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Sarah Morris, a senior marketing manager, says the organization’s members are thinking about the problem. She told me that most of the organization’s service provider members are focused on it because they are offering carrier-supported networks to offload traffic from the cellular networks, and they need the experience to be good because it’s part of the service they offer.

Companies like AT&T, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable are used to proving access technologies. But what about hotels, doctor’s offices or shopping malls? In some cases they might contract with a service provider and let them worry about the network, but in others consumers are left to stew. While I can’t improve everyone’s Wi-Fi experience outside of their home or office, I can offer some insights about the technology that might explain why your Wi-Fi is wimping out.

What makes Wi-Fi wonky?

Your home Wi-Fi connection is likely a wonderful experience. It’s fixed, you only share it with a few people and you probably have your router plugged into a cable, DSL or fiber line capable of delivering decent speeds. But when you log onto an airport network (or worse, an airplane network) all that changes. And consumers need to understand what’s changed and why their Wi-Fi experience is different. Here are the basics:

Backhaul: For most Wi-Fi is their access to the internet, but it’s actually just a radio technology that moves information over the air. New Wi-Fi Direct standards, for example, can create networks without ever having a connection back to the web. And that connection back to the web is a huge factor in your Wi-Fi experience. For example, hotel Wi-Fi is one of the banes of traveling and that’s generally because one hotel might have only a 100 Mbps pipe connecting it to the Internet or sometimes even a few T-1 circuits that offer 1.5 Mbps.

Density: Your in-home Wi-Fi is probably pretty good unless your teenager is deep into an online game while you’re trying to stream Netflix in HD, but the more people you add to a network — even if those people are just checking their Facebook page — the worse the network will perform. And if you cram a lot of people into a small space you have to deal with interference as well. So this is why Wi-Fi on planes, stadiums and other places with shared connections can be dodgy, although a managed network with many access points can help mitigate some of those problems.

Movement: Wi-Fi connectivity is designed for fixed access, meaning the radios stay put. You can move around within a hotspot, but unlike cellular technology that is designed for the user to be moving even at speeds of 80 miles per hour, when you try to jump from hot spot to hot spot problems occur. That’s why Wi-Fi networks on Amtrak and some planes use cellular or cellular-inspired networks.

Device: Newer phones and tablets are supporting a dual-mode Wi-Fi radio, which means they can hop from the 2.4 Ghz band to the 5 GHz band. This matters for laptop users, whose machines have had this functionality for a while. When one band got crowded, the laptop would hop to the other, but now with phones like the latest iPhone that have dual-band support, you may hop to another band only to find a bunch of other users.

Put it all together and what do you get?

Given these constraints, it hopefully makes a little more sense when you can’t download a movie while on Amtrak or your Facebook video keeps buffering as you surf on the jetway. Unfortunately, with so many variables, there’s not a lot that the Wi-Fi Alliance or even the hot spot provider can always do. If there’s a business case for faster backhaul and a better managed network, the provider will make it happen. But in places like a doctor’s office or free hotel Wi-Fi where that economic incentive isn’t always clear, they may not. And for crowded planes and trains, the solution may just be for users to grin and bear it.

Wi-Fi image courtesy of Flickr userĀ suttonhoo