Some of America's biggest hotel chains that offer free Wi-Fi are considering adding charges after seeing insatiable demand for Internet bandwidth from guests.
No chain that includes Internet access in its room rate has pulled back on offering Wi-Fi for free. But some are giving customers the option of paying extra for upgraded bandwidth so they don't get frustrated by sluggish speeds.
Currently, Marriott International and Carlson Hotels have some locations that offer free Wi-Fi and a faster choice for an additional sum.
Carlson's Country Inn & Suites says it has no plans to expand this tiered pricing strategy. But, spokeswoman Rosanne Swanson says, the chain will "continue to monitor guests' expectations and evaluate options."
The Wyndham Hotel Group , most of whose brands such as the Ramada, Wyndham and Super 8 offer free access, also is "exploring options that allow for hybrid or tiered service models," says spokeswoman Christine Da Silva.
Free Internet access ranks toward the top of guests' want lists from hotels, as travelers carry more devices on the road and more varied content is available through them.
And hotels have been been buying more bandwidth in response, says Dave Garrison, CEO of iBahn, one of the world's top hotel Internet providers.
IBahn's latest data show that 40 percent of travelers are carrying two Wi-Fi devices, and 25 percent are carrying three or more. And they're using them for more than e-mail.
"The iPad revolution has changed mobile devices from being text- and voice-oriented to being about pictures, graphics and movies, whether FaceTime, YouTube or social networks," Garrison says.
Between March 2011 and December 2011, he says, iBahn saw the amount of data per session in hotels jump 50 percent, which translates into higher costs.
That, he says, is what's prompting hotel chains to re-examine whether to continue keeping Internet 100 percent free — or how much bandwidth to provide, how many mobile devices to allow for free or how many minutes that Internet access should be free.
"This is being played out around the world by operators trying to meet the demand for free Internet with the reality that the costs are running away," Garrison says.
Marriott says its experiment with offering faster service for a price is appreciated by guests.
"Our goal is to create options so guests can select the speed that best suits their needs when accessing the Internet," says John Wolf, spokesman for the chain that has brands such as Courtyard by Marriott, SpringHill Suites, TownePlace Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites.
But other chains say they're sticking with the always-free model — for now.
Hyatt , La Quinta and Starwood's Four Points by Sheraton, for example, are in various stages of boosting bandwidth without adopting any new fees. "It's important to the guests," says Four Points spokeswoman Stacy Trevino.