8 Steps to Better Bandwidth

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor | August 01, 2011

Free WiFi has shot past complimentary breakfast and free parking as a traveler “must have” for most hotel types, according to a September 2010 J.D. Power and Associates survey of 53,000 travelers. Visitors to kayak.com can even check bandwidth speeds for the hotels they’re considering.
 
ht_speed_0811.jpgIncreasingly want to use that bandwidth to stream a movie from their Netflix account, participate in a video conference, play an online game, or access a cloud-based enterprise application from a growing range of personal devices.
 
That’s why demand for bandwidth is multiplying faster at hotels than it is for many other locations offering WiFi. Yet
more than 80% of hotels in a Cisco study offered less than six megabytes for the entire hotel; that’s equivalent to the typical home system. The average line load was 27%, getting much higher at peak times. Hotel operations bandwidth needs are rising, too, to access remotely hosted applications from mobile devices.
 
Simply adding bandwidth isn’t enough. The 49-room Best Western Governor’s Suites in Little Rock, Arkansas replaced a half-T1 line (about 856k) with a 20MB pipe last year for an additional $150 a month. “We wanted to provide the best, which is why we chose that,” says Bhu Makan, owner and general manager. “Once we did we got even more demand and more strain because we were wide open.” Now the hotel is working with Hughes to manage that bandwidth.
 
Here are several strategies that hotels are leveraging to get the most out of the bandwidth they have:
 
1. Captive portals with access credentials. One property’s bandwidth consumption dropped 85% after an authentication requirement blocked access from the apartment building next door. It’s tricky; integrating the software with the PMS verifies guest credentials, but can also keep out bona fide users such as restaurant-only guests.
 
2. Band steering. Hughes is helping Best Western monitor its network and leverage band steering, that is separating lower-speed from higher-speed devices on different access points so the lower-speed devices don’t degrade other users’ service.
 
3. Load balancing. Best Western also uses load balancing to move WiFi traffic across access points to even out demand.
 
4. Bandwidth aggregation. Joie de Vivre Hospitality (www.jdvhotels.com) will use a solution from Eleven Wireless that includes bandwidth monitoring and aggregation (combining the bandwidth of two or more connections to provide a single connection) at all of its 34 hotels by the close of 2012, according to Michael Stano, VP technology. Aggregation is a cheaper alternative than moving up from, say, T1 to T3.
 
5. Quality of service policies ensure a better guest experience by allocating bandwidth, such as:
  • Content filtering – Some hotels put limits on bandwidth-hungry Web sites such as those with streaming video.
  • Bandwidth caps – An alternative is limiting the bandwidth available to any one guest to prevent bandwidth hogging.
  • Tiered pricing – Many hotels are considering a tiered plan in which bandwidth adequate for surfing is free, while higher levels of bandwidth come for a fee. But it’s delicate to implement. “Premium billing helps, but we don’t want to nickel and dime the customer,” says Joie de Vivre’s Stano. “We’re still figuring that out.” A related trend is enabling individual conference room users to buy their own bandwidth plan, rather than relying on the group’s bulk plan.
6. Better infrastructure, including a gateway and packet management device or a software platform to manage traffic. Consider faster wireless APs such as dual band and 802.11n. After Joie de Vivre replaced old access points with dual-band APs at a location near Los Angeles Airport, support calls dropped from an average of 47 a week to almost none, says Stano.
 
7. Redundancy. A good network design includes redundancies. After a construction company accidentally cut a fiber connection that provides Internet services to businesses on the Las Vegas Strip, one management company lost connection for four properties. A manual failover wasn’t adequate, so the company installed a FatPipe WARP (www.fatpipeinc.com) high-speed router clustering device to automatically and dynamically reroute traffic to the alternative line when the other fails.
 
8. Testing and reporting. Step one to any bandwidth plan is knowing the current state of the network and consumption patterns, which can vary substantially by location and time. Another important consideration: coverage within the property. Also monitor support call volume to spot service degradation.
 
It’s also essential not to set it and forget it. Once a network is installed and optimized, WiFi tech vendors such as AT&T recommend continually monitoring the networks for bandwidth and usage patterns. In particular, hotels are encouraged to review the usage and saturation of bandwidth over a period of time and compare that to pre-established thresholds for when additional bandwidth or other adjustments would be needed. This allows issues to be resolved before there’s an impact to the guest experience.
 
Other strategies to consider
Unfortunately, there is no one bandwidth formula. “The idea that if I have X number of rooms so I need X bandwidth is an unequivocal fallacy,” says Bob Combie, VP asset management for 33-property Sunstone Hotel Investors, which uses service provider Single Digits. Instead, hotels need to decide how they want to position the bandwidth experience within the brand, then monitor and plan for each property’s specific needs and seek new solutions, which are emerging constantly. For example:
 
Subsidize your install with 3G offload. Some cell carriers are partnering with large properties such as Sunstone to boost cell service and leverage their WiFi bandwidth to offset 3G demand by subsidizing their Internet access. HTNG (www.htng.org) is working on a specification for this interface. Femtocell architectures are showing promise to extend cell signals indoors.
 
Use alternatives to T1 lines such as Metro Ethernet, Private Fiber, or Satellite. Another option: Burstable bandwidth plans.
 
Look to brands. Some brands strike deals with large providers to help their franchisees comply with wireless standards; consider these but also comparison shop if permitted.
 
Test emerging options such as EVDO (Evolution Data Only/Evolution Data Optimized, a 3G technology), 100MB cable, or cloud-based controllers such as Meraki (www.meraki.com). “We’re examining sharing resources across hotel properties in cities,” shifting bandwidth dynamically as needs emerge, says Sunstone’s Combie.
 
Consider other things you can do with great bandwidth, such as location-based services for guests and shifting fixed, wired infrastructure to wireless.
 
Another key step: partner with a network-savvy service provider for design and ongoing monitoring and authentication services. “To me the most important thing is finding a good network infrastructure and network design partner,” says Joie de Vivre’s Stano.
 
Sunstone’s Combie encourages hoteliers to cast a wide net when seeking solutions. Not only do prices vary widely, but “there are great enterprise products out there” from vendors that don’t target hospitality specifically, he says.

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