iPad content streaming from your hotel? Forget it

Video content streaming from your home from services such as ITunes, Netflix and Amazon Video has now become a reality for bleeding edge technology adopters. But forget about it if you're on the road.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Video content streaming from your home from services such as ITunes, Netflix and Amazon Video has now become a reality for bleeding edge technology adopters. But forget about it if you're on the road.

As some of you may know, when I'm not writing this column, I'm frequently on the road, working for a large global technology delivery organization. As such, I spend a lot of time in and out of hotels.

My iPad has become my best friend for off-hours entertainment and content consumption when in my hotel room, provided that I've pre-loaded it with movies and TV and books to keep me satisfied.

Generally speaking, In terms of Internet access, I'm usually happy with the quality of service from the major hotel chains, such as Hilton and Marriott provided I'm doing things that are not particularly bandwidth intensive, such as email and web browsing.

I also use my iPad quite a bit at home, but my usage behavior is quite different because my entire house is saturated with 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz Wireless-N and Wireless-G signal and my broadband connection is an Optimum Online Ultra link with maximum sustained downloads of up to 101Mbps and 15 Mbps uplink. I think it goes without saying that this is on the extreme edge and absolute best case scenario of what most home broadband users are capable of getting today.

That being said, I never have any problems at home with the iPad's (or Roku's) ability to stream from NetFlix, because only a 5Mbps connection is required to reliably stream 720p compressed content. So even if you have a 10 Mbps or 20 Mbps cable broadband, or even as little as 6 Mbps ADSL, it's quite doable.

But from a hotel? Forget about it.

There are a number of issues with content streaming from hotels, but lets start at the source, the iPad itself. Many people don't realize that while the current generation iPad is a dual-band Wireless N/G capable device, the implementation and transceiver built into the unit is considerably less powerful than what you would find on a typical laptop.

The iPad has a maximum sustained throughput of 65Mbps, which while more than enough for HD content streaming from within your home from an iTunes-enabled PC or a Mac, and more than what is needed to stream Netflix or from iTunes' new cloud-based streaming services reliably (functionality that was only just introduced with the Apple TV, but presumably will find its way into iPad in the near future) is still a best case scenario provided that your wireless infrastructure is providing strong enough signal saturation and your broadband can provide you sufficient quality of service.

The iPad's low-power, single antenna dual mode transceiver was presumably engineered by design, in order to conserve battery power. In a home, it's not so much of an issue because you have many options to improve home Wi-Fi reception -- add more bridges, access points, repeaters, antennae, what have you.

But in hotel environments, the iPad's weak transceiver is a problem, because unless you have an actual access point in your room (such as being able to bring along your own Airport Express, which I do, provided a wired connection is available) you're at the mercy of whatever signal strength you can get from access points placed in the hallways or on a floor-by-floor basis, if you're lucky.

I don't want to beat up on the iPad too much because I expect that other Tablets, once they have been released, are likely to have similar issues, because they will face similar design challenges. But even provided you have a strong signal in your room, that's not going to guarantee you'll be able to stream movies On-Demand. In fact chances are you probably can't.

What most hotels don't tell you is that they can't guarantee the quality-of-service necessary to stream anything faster than sustained data rates of 500Kbps, and they typically outsource their connectivity to 3rd-party services that specifically service the hotel industry and actively throttle connections on a proactive basis.

So you need better than 500Kbps? Then Forget it. And sustained connectivity at 500Kbps is a best case scenario when you have a top name, 400 room hotel in a major city at 80 percent or more occupancy and every business traveler wants to web browse, email huge PowerPoints back and forth from 8PM to midnight, let alone try to suck down an On-Demand stream of the latest episode of Big Bang Theory or CSI from their SlingBox at home.

Even if it's a vacation hotel during the off-season, unless you're in a very connected country like Japan or South Korea, It just ain't happening. And even if you have the connectivity if you are outside the country, there are numerous issues related to localized viewing rights that might prevent you from streaming the content from Netflix or another provider (Hulu, network television providers websites, etc) in the first place. Some domestic hotel chains and their 3rd-party ISPs will also use the unscrupulous trick of putting you behind a non-US IP block which will stop streaming from most US content providers cold.

With more and more business travelers wanting to stream content from their hotel rooms, what's the solution? In the future, 4G wireless services such as LTE being rolled out by Verizon will allow for sustained data rates from 5Mbps-12Mbps which will be more than sufficient for streaming, if you've got an iPad or other device connected to a portable LTE-equipped femtocell like a Novatel Mifi. But the costs for doing so haven't been revealed by the carriers yet, and tiered/metered data plans rather than all you can eat for $50.00-$60.00 3G per month like we're seeing now are are likely to be costly.

In all likelihood, if business travellers want streaming, they'll have to pay to the nose for it to their mobile providers, or the hotels are going to have to enter agreements with companies like Apple and Netflix to cache popular content on premises closer to content distribution networks (CDNs) in order to stay competitive. But if you want it today, don't even think about it -- side load your iPad or Notebook PC/Mac with what you need to watch before you leave on your trip.

Have you had problems at hotels with streaming content on your iPad or laptop? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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