Wireless Networking Done Right

By Vicki Powers, Contributing Editor | February 11, 2009

Roughly 90 percent of hotels now offer wireless network connections to guests, according to a September 2008 study by Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research.  In "Hotel Network Security: A Study of Computer Networks in U.S. Hotels," the authors report that this number is fueled by the necessities and expectations of today's business and leisure travelers. With so many hotels exploring and installing wireless networks, what are the best practices that ensure success? Hotel operators and experts share their insights with Hospitality Technology.

Anticipate needs, now and next
The needs and expectations that hotel guests have regarding wireless access vary across the board depending on who they are and the travel occasion: alone or with a group; on business travel or on vacation; the guest's age, and even cultural background. More and more, younger guests expect wireless everywhere while older guests don't have that expectation, says Douglas Rice, executive vice president and CEO at Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG), an Illinois-based trade association.  Some corporations don't allow guests to connect to a wireless network, which means a wired option must be available as well.

Scott Watts, corporate IT director at Alabama-based PCH Hotels and Resorts, says his intent for the new Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa at the Convention Center (Montgomery, Ala.) was anticipating what hotels guests will need on day-one, but also anticipating future trends. The solution is impressive; an Avaya (
www.avaya.com) IP telephony-based solution converges voice, data and video on the network.

"We invested heavily where needed, on infrastructure and wireless access, to build a network that would sustain and scale to future technology we don't even know about yet," Watts relates.  "We can easily layer those on without doing expensive and invasive infrastructure cabling upgrades."
Watts notes that networks that are properly designed and implemented will have a lower cost to adapt to future technology to get that competitive advantage.  Barriers to entry in the future will be significantly less than for a competitor who might not have invested in infrastructure as heavily.
Part of Watts' goal was blanketing the two city-block campus around the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel. This includes air space to enable guests to carry with them wireless IP phones through the facility. Hotel staff can set up point-of-sale systems wherever is needed outdoors for special events: an outdoor cash bar, Mother's Day Brunch, by the pool, etc. The network also enables better guest service. For example, special requests entered in the hotel CRM system trigger a text message to the nearest hotel staff member. Realistically, Watts says a guest could receive the extra towels they requested within 30 seconds if a staff member is nearby.
"This creates a "wow' experience that is hard to compete with, when you use technology to deliver that service," Watts relates.
 
Site surveys
A hotel's physical structure can have a significant impact on network design. For this reason, site surveys should be conducted before implementation to gather details about the construction and layout of the hotel. The physical materials used in hotel construction (drywall, concrete, or steel, for example) can greatly affect the signal and number of required access points. Once the network is up and running, it's important for the hotel to continue to monitor access point performance. If guests report problems, it's possible that a single access point might not have the range necessary for its specific coverage area; in some cases secondary site surveys can help hotels monitor ongoing performance.

Associated Hotels' wireless network partner Telkonet (
www.telkonet.com) conducted site surveys for its Holiday Inn Express properties. If hotel guests report any issues, the company will investigate the site again to ensure coverage.

"We're not a huge hotel company, so that's why I need a company like this to support us," says Bryan Curry, CFO at Associated Hotels. "We know how to check people into their rooms and take care of their stay, but the tech environment is so complex there's no way we could do it without professional support 24/7. They know before I do what the Internet side of the guest is requiring."

Firewalls & fire fighters
Network security often focuses on protecting data transmitted over the network, but the network itself can play an important role in public safety and physical security. The M Resort, Spa and Casino, a new luxury hotel in Las Vegas opening in spring of 2009, partnered with a number of technology vendors and the local fire department to create a wireless solution for its resort casino hotel. MobileAccess (
www.mobileaccess.com) worked with Sprint's (www.sprint.com) converged network solutions (CNS) team to develop a single wireless infrastructure supporting multiple wireless services, applications and devices. They worked closely with the Henderson (Nevada) Fire Department to ensure integration for public safety and life safety frequency channels within the facility so first responders will have strong reception inside the building.

"The Henderson Fire Department was extremely helpful and supportive in developing this implementation," says Rob Willis, vice president of information technology at M Resort.  "Nevada has some of the most stringent fire codes in the world."

Divide the network
HTNG's Rice notes the importance of structuring the network so that authentication is independent of how users connect into it. This can be accomplished via permissions tools associated with the VPN's configuration; hotels don't have to physically separate the networks to keep the data safe, he says.

"Virtual private networks allow different categories of users to appear as though they're on separate networks, but they're actually sharing the same network," Rice says. "A staff member should get whatever data he's entitled to, but obviously you wouldn't want a guest to have access to the same information."

Watts says security was one of the most important factors in its considerations for a wireless network solution at Renaissance Montgomery Resort and Spa.  They needed to protect not only the hotel guests' data but also the hotel's data.  The solution at the Renaissance ensures guests only see what they need to see.

"You almost don't get a second chance with security to protect that data," Watts relates.  "You must get it right the first time."

Managing the network remotely
Associated Hotels chose Telkonet, in part, for the detailed statistics available in its comprehensive web-based management system, EthoStream Remote Management Console.  Hotel management can check on the system's usage and status in real-time, remotely. At times, Curry says they must re-evaluate aspects of the network based on service scores at peak times. Tuesday and Wednesday nights are particularly busy at the company's Holiday Inn Select airport hotel in Minneapolis, when 80 percent of guests have laptops. When guests are affected by network congestion, the hotel must make adjustments. One of the critical issues in a hotel's world these days is not having enough bandwidth based on what guests are using, which today can include gaming, streaming videos, music downloads and more. If the gateway isn't doing bandwidth shaping, one guest can steal all the bandwidth and others are left out.

"Almost as basic as the bed they sleep in, is having Internet that works to their satisfaction," Curry says.
  

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