Robust Wi-Fi great for guests, challenge for operators

The Court of Justice of the EU has ruled that Wi-Fi providers are not liable for damages if users download content illegally, but must ask for usernames and passwords as a deterrent. The ruling is another wrinkle added into the progression of Wi-Fi and connectivity. 

Great, strong, easily-accessible Wi-Fi is one of the most in-demand amenities—if not the most—in hotels, but while most brands offer at least low-bandwidth free, few offer the volume needed for illegal downloading, effectively protecting themselves from abuse.

The CJEU added that a rights owner could claim an injunction against the provider of the network in order to prevent continuing infringement.

How This Started

The issue arose from a copyright infringement claim by Sony Music Entertainment Germany against a business with a wireless local area network that was accessible free of charge and anonymously in its building and the immediate vicinity.

The CJEU said that a balance had to be struck between the protection of intellectual property, freedom to operate a business as a network access provider and freedom of information of the service users. It concluded that requiring users to reveal their identities and obtaining passwords struck this balance.

The ruling went against advice earlier this year warning that requiring passwords would add an administrative burden to those providing networks.

Commenting on the ruling, Neil Baylis, competition partner at law firm K&L Gates, said: “The tussle between protecting copyright and protecting freedom of speech goes on. The interesting thing to see will be how public internet access providers react. They can take the risk of having injunctions brought against them or they can impose a requirement for users to create passwords so their identity can be tracked.

“There is no perfect solution to this dilemma and one suspects that there will further cases exploring the boundaries of the law. Perhaps we all take copyright infringement for granted and it is right that stronger protections are put in place?”

Richard Pemberton, IT director & hospitality consultant at IT solutions group Avenue 9, added: “It will only inconvenience hotels that do not have a managed guest/user policy or monitored bandwidth in place. Generally it is considered best practice to have a registration option and a fair-use policy and ensure guests have an equal experience. This also helps you manage bandwidth and provides valuable marketing and up-sell opportunities because you know who is using your network.

“Some hotels/brands prefer to skip the registration process (these will obviously need to look at a registration process) and allow direct access but the more tech savvy brands will monitor use and will ‘kill’ or restrict access to any illegal download sites, certain types of streaming or processes which are grabbing an unusually high amount of bandwidth.

“Either way a simple landing page with a registration and login process would be adequate to support this.”

Free Wi-Fi Evolution

Prior to the current drive by hotels to use their loyalty schemes to offer discounted rates and push direct bookings, the trend among hotels was to bolster membership of their programs by offering free Wi-Fi access, a move which saw free Wi-Fi, at least on a basic level, become standard among the global operators.

The quality of this access is by no means guaranteed. “There are still a lot of hotels with legacy systems, which cannot take advantage of faster access, lack of signal coverage and newer standards and the experience suffers as a result," Pemberton said. "In many cases, the bandwidth has been available but has not been managed very well, however, hotel brands recognized some time ago that good quality guest HSIA (high-speed internet access) is now a given and any hotel that doesn’t have it will potentially lose business to one that has. HSIA is one of the top guest requirements when booking a hotel and given that bandwidth prices are very competitive there isn’t really and excuse not to have adequate speed.

“Most guests will travel with two smart devices which require a connection. HSIA has to be balanced and the key is to provide the correct balance for the guest experience so whatever solution you adopt should ensure the right balance for example to allow Netflix or iPlayer streams whilst blocking or restricting illegal torrent downloads.”

HSIA has become a point of differentiation, particularly lower down the market segments. Last year saw GLH launch Thistle Express, a budget brand which highlighted its “super-fast unlimited free Wi-Fi for everyone”.

Mike DeNoma, CEO, GLH Hotels, said at the time: “You can no longer divide the market into travelers who only stay in economy hotels, versus those who stick to four- or five-star luxury."

DeNoma used GLH's Thistle Express as an example of a brand that caters to the modern traveler. "Research told us that fast, free Wi-Fi is not just a luxury for luxury hotel guests, but is an expectation for economy hotel guests, too. It’s about offering guests what they want, at that moment in time, for that specific stay.”

Streaming Success

The hotel sector has been making its own moves to provide content to guests, potentially cutting the demand for illegal downloading from entertainment-starved road warriors. Marriott International, which, in 2011, was the first company to remove pornography from its in-room entertainment, last year announced a partnership with Netflix to allow guests staying at select Marriott Hotels to subscribe to Netflix or sign into their existing accounts by using the Netflix app on the hotel’s internet-connected guest room televisions.

The decision to remove X-rated programming from its menu of in-room entertainment is thought to have been motivated as much by falling revenues as a drive to greater wholesomeness; the Netflix move responds not only to demands from the consumer, but removes the need for the operator to fret about providing comprehensive entertainment options.

As Apple appreciated when it launched iTunes, name the right price and people are happy to obey the law. The good news for hotels is that for those who remain unsatisfied, their illegal activities will not bite the hand that feeds.