There's a free wi-fi signal in almost every cafe, so why do hotels insist you pay? Digital image: Jamie Brown

There's a free wi-fi signal in almost every cafe, so why do hotels insist you pay? Digital image: Jamie Brown

It's a sore point, and usually a controversial one, for every business traveller. You check into a five-star hotel where one night in a mid-range room can cost more than your weekly rent, only to be hit up for $20 or more for internet access.

Little wonder that Tourism Australia's campaign for free wi-fi in Aussie hotels has met with a thumbs-up from the corporate crowd.

Hotels see in-room internet as one of the last wellsprings of revenue 

And in an age when almost every backpacker hostel offers free wi-fi, it's commercial arrogance for a top-end hotel to slug guests extra to use the internet.

Why treat business travellers worse than backpackers? "Because we can get away with it" or "Because they can claim it back" is not the correct answer.

Ironically, the main argument hotels trot out against free internet access is that unlike a decade ago, today almost everybody is online.

And with so many travellers packing tablets, smartphones and low-cost laptops, hotels fear that almost every guest will use free wi-fi if it's offered.

Yet those are the very reasons why in-room internet should be free. It's about looking after your customers' needs, especially when there's so much great info about travel, local dining and nightlife online.

The cost of doing business

But how realistic is the call to set wi-fi free?

Somebody has to pay for the high-speed internet line into the hotel, the cabling through the building and the little wi-fi base stations on each floor, to ensure that fast internet flows wirelessly in every room.

In its 2012 Hotel Wi-Fi Report, industry website HotelChatter estimated the cost of wiring up a 250-room hotel at US$125,000 ($A121,950).

But even allowing an average cost to the traveller of $15 per day, this delivered a US$200,000 profit per year.

And hotels see in-room internet as one of the last wellsprings of revenue.

Phone calls, for which they can charge $1 just for dialling a number, and another chunk per minute you spend talking? Mobile phones, global roaming and local prepaid SIM cards put a a stop to that.

Pay-per-view movies? Armed with laptops and tablets, almost every traveller seems to have shifted to a BYO entertainment policy.

One way to sidestep the cost of hotel internet is to chase high status with the loyalty scheme of your chosen chain.

For example, top-tier Gold and Diamond members of Hilton Hhonors and platinum members of the Starwood SPG and Hyatt Gold Passport programs enjoy free internet, along with other perks such as complimentary room upgrades and late checkout.

(Note that if you're a high-status member of Virgin Australia's Velocity frequent flyer scheme you automatically get free Hilton Hhonors Gold or Diamond membership.)

Free vs fee

Some hotels are shifting towards a two-tier system for wi-fi.

There's a free connection that's sufficient for web browsing and email, and a higher-speed paid service for serious speed which can run solid web apps, connect to the office network ind watch online video.

Of course, there's a caveat with paid internet: it has to be worth paying for. And that's not always the case.

Last month I stayed at the Regal Airport Hotel during a short stopover in Hong Kong, where in-room internet cost A$15 per day but ran at a snail's pace of less than 1Mbps.

That's slower than even the worst home broadband connection and is virtually unusable for all but the most basic web browsing and email.

A call to the hotel's tech support line confirmed that 1Mbps was the top speed available for all guests – certainly not up to par with what a business traveller can and should expect.

One way to sidestep super-slow hotel connections is to pop a local prepaid 4G or 3G SIM card into your smartphone.

On this visit to Hong Kong, a colleague had fitted his iPhone 5 with a SmartOne 4G SIM card. For a mere HK$48 (A$6) upfront and HK$8 (A$1) per day for unlimited access, he could hit the Net at over 20Mbps.

With speeds that high and costs that low, why bother paying for in-room internet?

For the same reason, an increasing number of business travellers are relying on wireless broadband services – especially the new 4G networks of Telstra and Optus – within Australia.

Why pay $30 at the hotel for what's effectively a few hours of internet when just twice that can get you prepaid mobile broadband with 3GB that you can use anywhere and anytime?

What are your experiences with hotel wi-fi, and should it really be free?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT