How Hospitality Can Solve Cellular Connectivity Issues

By Jim Romeo, Contributing Editor | February 13, 2013

At President Obama’s Inauguration in January 2009, mobile phone users were overcome with a problem that sometimes hits large crowds in a can’t-live-without-my-mobile-phone world. The glut of mobile devices in one place resulted in inadequate connectivity for all.  

In the four years that have passed, improvements have since been made at the Mall in Washington, DC. ATT Wireless (www.att.com) has greatly increased capacity there, and at nearby airports and nine area hotels. But it doesn’t take a presidential inauguration to overload a cellular network. Mobile phone users continue to face dropped calls or no connectivity in parks, hotels, and other places that draw large crowds, as well as in older buildings that can block signals.

Brian Binge is the director of information technology for Breckenridge Grand Vacations (www.breckenridgegrandvacations.com) in Breckenridge, Colorado. The company owns and operates three timeshare resorts in the area. To achieve cellular connectivity at their Grand Timber Lodge condos, the company has installed one access point for every 1,100 square foot unit. According to Binge, their biggest challenge is providing consistent cellular service across large resort complexes that are built of concrete and steel, regardless of carrier or geographic location. “Our guests expect cell service from when they drive into our garages two stories underground, to when they get to their unit or out on the pool decks.” Guests also arrive expecting the same 4G high transfer speeds that they get in large metropolitan areas. That’s a challenge for Binge, considering that mountain resorts are, by their nature, located in more rural areas where cell carriers haven’t yet focused on full-scale cell tower deployments.

Weighing WiFi versus DAS
Grand Timber Lodge hasn’t yet overcome its challenges with cellular connectivity, but they’re also looking beyond cellular signals to solve the problem. “We are instead focusing on WiFi,” says Binge. “We believe that data is more important to our guests than voice.” Their WiFi strategy is centered on the facility’s cell phone dead zones such as parking garages.

Binge, like many others, believes that the future of cell phone connectivity will integrate voice and data with WiFi. “Our guests use their phones more for data connectivity than voice connectivity and cell phone carriers seem to agree, making voice/text unlimited but charging for data. A robust WiFi infrastructure not only satisfies our guests but our employees as well. We use a ‘back-of-house’ WiFi network extensively throughout the property.” The network, access points and controller are provided by Ruckus Wireless (www.ruckuswireless.com).

Many hotels, resorts and other large facilities are leveraging distributed antenna systems (DAS) as a means of expanding cellular service. According to DAS provider Corning Mobile Access (www.corning.com), the DAS brings the cellular network indoors and subsequently improves overall voice and data services, and can support multiple operators regardless of the wireless carrier. DAS offers the flexibility of offering other services, such as two-way radios used by the hotel staff, on the very same infrastructure that the cellular service operates on. In addition it is easily upgraded from 2G to 3G to 4G once a baseline antenna system is in place.
 
Corning MobileAccess recently installed a DAS in The Peabody Orlando (www.peabodyorlando.com), a Forbes Four-Star, AAA Four-Diamond hotel in Orlando, Florida. The system was installed as part of a $450-million expansion to the hotel and surrounding properties in 2010 that included 750 new rooms, 25,000 square feet of meeting space, and a new parking structure. The DAS allowed 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE in every room, and greatly improved cellular access with very minimal disruption to hotel operations.
 
Other large hotels in metropolitan areas are drawn to implement DAS in part because of their ability to work in conjunction with existing outdoor networks from the same provider. The 425,000 square-foot Omni Severin Hotel in Downtown Indianapolis (www.omnihotels.com) was retrofitted with DAS by ExteNet Systems (www.extenetsystems.com) during its recent renovation. Because the hotel network works in conjunction with ExteNet’s downtown Indianapolis outdoor network, cellular access is extended to the hotel’s parking areas and to the skywalk to the convention center.

According to Dayna Kully, co-chair of Hotel Technology Next Generation’s (HTNG) (www.htng.org) Infrastructure Resource Team and former chair for the Cellular Coverage working group, indoor cellular connectivity is expanding beyond traditional DAS to include solutions such as small cells and adoption of WiFi networks as an extension of the cellular network.

Brian Binge is among those not embracing DAS as readily, focusing instead on guest communication strategies that hinge on WiFi to supplement cellular communications. “With most guests at our high-end resorts carrying smart phones that will automatically switch data to WiFi when they reach a WiFi coverage area, instead of investing large sums of money in DAS, we are making sure that our WiFi coverage is strong in every corner of the property, including the garage bunkers.” This allows Binge to offer an acceptable alternative to Breckenridge’s guests, and if and when the cellular handoff technology catches up, his resorts should be ready. “Cellular providers are increasingly looking for ways to off-load their traffic, and I believe if we continue to deploy and maintain a current and robust WiFi network, eventually we’ll be seamlessly handing off voice and data traffic between WiFi and cell provider’s GSM/CDMA networks.”


5 TIPS for Upgrading Cell Signals at your Hotel
The Trump International Hotel and Towers (www.trumphotelcollection) was facing inadequate coverage from an outdoor network and a required multicarrier system. Their must-haves for an improved solution included quick deployment in an operative hotel that wouldn’t be disruptive. By working with multiple carriers they were able to secure strong, consistent service to all hotel rooms and public areas and leverage existing infrastructure.
 
John Spindler is a consultant and expert in connectivity and the director of product management for TE Connectivity (www.te.com) in San Jose, California. The company’s engineers worked with the hotel operator as well as wireless carriers to provide a solution.

These best practices aided in the work at Trump and are helpful in developing and implementing any hotel cellular coverage solution:

1. Know what you need. Identify all requirements, from both a coverage and capacity perspective, up front to ensure the solution meets the needs of both guests and employees.

2. Don’t just rely on floor plans. Do a thorough site survey of the property to determine RF propagation, equipment locations, cable routing, and power availability. A solution cannot be designed properly simply using floor plans.

3. Identify barriers and obstacles early on. Determine any potential issues which could impact solution selection and cost, such as building construction materials, existing cable infrastructure (reuse of available cabling can reduce cost), any special installation requirements such as conduit, building code requirements, and any working hours or access limitations.

4. Thoroughly identify unique considerations. Identify any special requirements, such as a need for asbestos abatement or a historic property, which may limit available placement locations of equipment and cabling.

5. View wireless carriers as partners. Always involve the wireless carrier(s) as early in the process as possible. The carrier, because they are the cellular spectrum license holders, must approve the design of the system. Otherwise they may not agree to supply the RF source or support access to their network through the system. And you may be surprised to find that the carrier may be willing to share some of the costs of the system.


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