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"The pros at Camplink have custom built a WiFi system for us that is fast, reliable, affordable, and customer friendly." - Bonnie E.

RV Park Wi-Fi: Free vs. Paid systems?

If you own or manage an RV or Mobile Home Park and don't currently offer quality Wi-Fi service, chances are your guests are clamoring for it. In addition to deciding who should install it you also have to decide if it should be a free or a paid system. Since you're running a business, you know that nothing is really "free" and that if you include Wi-Fi as a free amenity it's going to cost you money that you could otherwise use to enhance your park in other ways.

On the other hand, many hotels offer free Wi-Fi, and many things that resorts once charged for, like cable TV and continental breakfasts, are expected to be included in the daily rates. So what about Wi-Fi?

Hotels vs. RV Parks

Over all, only 15 percent of hotels charge for Internet service in a guest room, down from 22 percent in 2004, according to a 2008 survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association. So, would it be safe to assume the same trend towards free Wi-Fi will be the norm in the RV Park industry as well?

We actually see significant differences between these two segments of the hospitality industry that will naturally diminish the trend towards free Wi-Fi for RV Parks.

Length of Stay

The first significant difference is in the duration of the stay for hotel guests versus RV Park residents. In southern parks, we have a seasonal pattern of heavy usage in the winter and light usage in the summer, and the opposite in northern parks, which is the result of the annual migration of our famous snowbirds.

Probably all of us are familiar with the experience of poorly functioning Wi-Fi in a hotel. But because the duration of the stay is so short, the demands for troubleshooting and support are diminished. After all, who is willing to spend an hour on the phone with tech support, if any is available, when you will be checking out tomorrow?

When you are staying for several months, what you need is an ISP (Internet Service Provider), not just a hotspot provider.

Level of Service

First, you will demand that your Internet access be working well consistently, at high speeds, and that you will have somebody responsive to call to fix service issues. You may need to acquire an email address, or you need help setting up your computer to use the new wireless connection, and not the dialup or DSL connection it used up north. You may have equipment needs, like a higher-powered wireless radio. You may want to use a Voice over IP device or an Iphone on the Wi-Fi system. You may be a computer novice whose grandson setup their computer before they left for the season, and need handholding and guidance to get connected. You may need to know if a slow connection is a Wi-Fi problem or a problem with your computer.

In short, you will need the same level of support and setup help you require from your Internet Service Provider back home.

With a customer-paid system, you know whom to call, and who is responsible. With a free system, often there is nobody to call. And where the park has contracted for support with a third party, the incentive to provide quality support is limited.. In these cases, the support person's main job is to get you off the phone so that they will not be losing money. The park is paying them a fixed monthly support amount, but customer problems can be limitless. This natural tension between supporter and customer will be absent when the customer knows he is paying for a service and the tech support person knows his company's revenue is based on keeping this customer happy.

And what about the occasional problematic customer? Every ISP, and especially every Wi-Fi ISP, knows that bandwidth is a limited resource shared among users. And likewise, should a problematic customer appear, incapable of executing support instructions, or worse yet, infected with a virus and causing bandwidth problems for everybody in the park, the paid provider can terminate the customer and refund their payment, or throttle their connection to protect the park and its other residents. Does the tech support person working for a company hired by the owner of an RV Park have this capability? Can you terminate the service to anybody in a park with free service? Is that legal or even technically possible?

Size, Weather and Location

Another big difference between hotels and RV Parks as far as Wi-Fi goes is technical. Basically RV Parks are much larger than hotels, with huge outdoor areas separating the units and exposed to the elements. And RV Parks, unlike most hotels, are often located in areas where Internet bandwidth is less available and more costly. The nasty little secret about standard Wi-Fi is its very short range, normally not much more than 200 feet for most laptops. And when you stop to think about it, that range is fine for all but the largest homes and offices. And restaurants, libraries, and airport lounges. But as bitter experience with municipal-sized Wi-Fi deployments has proven, this range limit presents real problems when Wi-Fi networks are scaled up.

Even in a hotel, it would be unusual to be more than 200 feet away from the nearest Wi-Fi access point. But if you try to envision an RV Park where each site would be within 200 feet of an antenna, you will have to imagine a pincushion of tower locations. And when the access points are so close to each other, they can interfere with each other. Also, in a hotel, each access point can simply be wired to the Internet connection, but in an RV Park with many remote access point locations, each repeater site is not normally wired, but instead is itself connected to the Internet via a separate wireless connection. So these challenges have to be addressed using sophisticated cellular techniques with directional antennas, high power transmission, and high receive-sensitivity radios, unlike the off-the-shelf gear a hotel would use.

RV Parks also pose other challenges to the Wi-Fi engineer. We have environmental issues like lightning storms, hurricanes, heavy rain, power problems, and excessive foliage. As you can imagine, installing and maintaining a Wi-Fi system that will have to suffer from and expect to succeed through exposure to these variables is far more difficult than would be a hotel installation. Unlike a hotel with a string of simple Wi-Fi access points wired to a router, the RV Park will have multiple networks in a single park, with up to 40 individual devices which need coordination, monitoring, and upgrading. At Camplink, we maintain two separate wireless networks in each park to deliver the high uptime ratios our users demand, in the face of often-balky wireless gear.

Decision Time

In the battle for customers, does the RV Park with free Wi-Fi have an advantage over his pay-to-use competitor? The business decision for a park owner is clearly stated: |Is my cost for "free" Wi-Fi more than compensated for by the revenue from the additional campers it attracts? Now that you know the difficulties of Wi-Fi in an RV Park, you can see it's not so simple to answer. The park owner must also consider:

  • What is the cost of a poorly performing system?
  • What is the cost of an irate customer?
  • Will I have more irate customers with a poorly performing "free" system, or with a paid system?
  • Can I use the money I save by not investing in a "free" system to enhance my park in other ways, or to keep my rates down?

By deploying a free system, the RV Park puts itself front-and-center as being responsible for the Wi-Fi system. It implicitly says that every resident will have equal access to reliable service, or the opposite, that nothing is guaranteed, and every resident gets what he can get, in a free-for-all. If customer X does not get as good a signal as customer Y, who is closer to the access point, does customer X not have a valid gripe about fairness, and a demand for another access point closer to him?

In a paid system, we have these issues as well, but we are not promising that every site will have equal access, nor that a free-for-all competition for service exists. We can explain that due to limits of Wi-Fi technology, that some users may need to augment the power of their systems with an inexpensive adapter, and that they are not forced to pay for a service that they may not wish to use. When we are faced with problematic customers who threaten everybody's performance, we are empowered to limit or cancel those customers. In a free system, if any customer has problems with support or performance that are not satisfactorily addressed by the Wi-Fi provider, those problems become the problems of the RV Park itself.

At Camplink last year, we replaced free systems with our paid system in more than 30 parks on the east coast, and we lost none of our paid parks to free systems. Perhaps this is the most persuasive argument we can make.