Is Wi-Fi now a fundamental human right?

Aug 31, 2016

During his travels around the globe, GDR’s SVP for Global Innovation, James Mullan, starts to wonder whether Wi-Fi is now a fundamental human right… 


At the moment of asking this question, I have to confess it really comes more out of personal and selfish frustration than because of any deep-seated concern for others that you might think I piously want you to recognise.

No, this one is all about me, I’m afraid.

I’m midway through a three-week trip around the US, skipping from city to city, client to client, hotel to hotel, Uber to Uber, and airport to airport. It’s a busy and often exhausting part of the global nature of GDR’s relationships with many of the world’s top brands, though not without its fun moments – and, of course, contemporary technology makes being away from home less painful than it’s ever been.

However, that said, the improvements in technology now also mean our expectations of being able to talk, email and Facetime those in other corners of the world have also risen in step with the changes.

Thus, friends, clients, and (particularly) soon-to-be-wives are less tolerant than ever of being unable to constantly communicate. And, even without worrying about others, we each also now expect to be able to unwind personally with access to podcasts, video-streaming services and 24-hour news whenever we want it.

But, for all these things, the one common denominator is the requirement for Wi-Fi access. If a hotel or even a restaurant has no Wi-Fi or (arguably worse still) a connection that is sluggish or patchy, you can bet I won’t go back – and it won’t be long before guests make their frustrations known on TripAdvisor.

Online travel agents (OTAs) such as now give the quality of the Wi-Fi (as voted by other guests) almost as much emphasis as the quality of the whole of the rest of the stay put together.

Which begs the question, is it even worth investing time, money and energy into facilities, staff training, food and beverage and other technology-led experiences if your Wi-Fi isn’t up to scratch?

Is Wi-Fi the most important consideration now for hospitality brands? Amsterdam hotel City Hub gives guests free MiFi hotspots to avoid roaming charges

Is Wi-Fi the most important consideration now for hospitality brands? Amsterdam hotel City Hub gives guests free MiFi hotspots to avoid roaming charges

It’s the same when we invite visitors into our homes – even close friends and family. Before guests have asked to see a tour of my pokey Islington flat (which in my case really doesn’t even take more than 25 seconds), they have already asked for my Wi-Fi code. I feel like a coffee shop or an airport lounge that needs to display it’s Internet login information on signs visible from every possible corner.

Yet, as my experience over the last few weeks bears out once again, it’s amazing how many places still get this wrong, and leave punters frustrated in their quest for this apparently now fundamental requirement.

It’s not as though they haven’t had plenty of warning either. Starbucks was way ahead of the curve, first introducing Wi-Fi across parts of its estate way back in 2001, when just 5% of their customers actually had a mobile Wi-Fi-enabled device.

That’s foresight, but look at how they have reaped the benefits since.

Today, I will find a Starbucks wherever I am travelling, not because I’m in love with the coffee (I’m definitely not), but because I can rely on the Wi-Fi and they make access as easy as one click.

Contrast this with a recent trip to Paris, where enquiring with waiters to discover if they could provide both hot drinks and Wi-Fi was generally met with a surly ‘non’ and a shrug, and you wonder if owners and operators are missing a trick.

Funnily enough, it’s amazing how often it is regularly the ‘nicest’ and most upmarket hotels that have the worst Wi-Fi. And, woe betide you if you expect me to pay for it, or sign up for your loyalty scheme… I’ll be whinging about you for weeks.

Anyway, returning to answer my original question, what do you think I’m going to say?!

It has long been said that you can’t miss what you’ve never had – but, for the 3.5 billion people that now have Internet access worldwide, Wi-Fi is behind only oxygen, food, water and clothing on the list of their everyday essentials.

And thus, yes – I believe that, for those that have had a taste of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s remarkable creation, to deny them what they have become accustomed to does feel like a violation of their human rights.

So, please – pretty, pretty please – if you operate a brand with any kind of consumer-facing physical footprint, just make sure your Wi-Fi works.

Do that first. Then do the toilets.

After that, well it arguably doesn’t matter too much. Your consumers are already happy enough and, crucially, they’re almost certainly happier than they are at your competitors.

Well done Starbucks. The quality of your coffee hardly matters at all.

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