Bandwidth Building Secret

By Jeffrey Stephen Parker, Vice President of Technology, Magnolia Hotels | March 03, 2009

It has evolved from a nice hotel perk to a business necessity for all types of hotels; high speed Internet access (HSIA) is no longer just an amenity. A traveler might deal with lukewarm water in their shower, will put up with a room phone that has noise issues, and will forgive an alarm clock that is off by five minutes; but they will leave a hotel when the HSIA is not working.

The demand for HSIA has grown with the evolution of guest Internet use. In the beginning users checked emails, did some light web surfing and perhaps connected into their corporate VPN. However, if any operator takes a look at an Internet use report now, it will show that guests are using Slingbox to watch TV, connecting Xbox 360s for network gaming, and going to Hulu to watch streaming videos. Hotels can no longer rely on a single T1 or a DSL circuit. In order to keep up with growing guest use, hotels need to have bandwidth, and lots of it.

This need leads operators to ask the question: "How do I provide more bandwidth when my HSIA revenues are decreasing or being completely eliminated?"

Load-balancing appliances
Bonded T1s have steep costs, while increasing bandwidth only slightly with each circuit. Digital subscriber lines (DSL) cannot be bonded and IP addresses are limited, while the Holy Grail, fiber optic, is out of reach for all but a hand-full of well-located hotels. A load-balancing appliance (such as that from that from Elfiq, www.elfiq.com) allows operators to hook up multiple low cost DSLs, T1s and even cable circuits to their HSIA, an option that will allow operators to cost effectively increase bandwidth.

A load-balancing appliance will also allow for intelligent routing and prioritization. Operators can prioritize all of their VPN traffic over a T1, and the load-balancer will assign a static public IP to each VPN session. Additionally, email is also a high priority, where Slingbox and YouTube are lower on the list. A single computer can use a T1 for the corporate VPN, and one of the other circuits for browsing the Internet. Through this level of prioritization, operators will be able to deliver a higher quality of service to guests.

Two additional important benefits of using a load-balancing appliance are fault tolerance and redundancy. If the local carrier takes down the DSL network, the guest network continues to run on the other circuits. This is a transition that is seamless to the guest. Magnolia Hotels has faced this quandary, having had days where a DSL was down but guests were unaware of it, as there were other circuits operational. Once service is restored, the additional bandwidth becomes available.

Network connections
Additional bandwidth, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. If a guest cannot get connected to the network, then bandwidth doesn't make a difference. By running Category 6 and Ethernet cables to every guestroom, and by updating the wireless system with access points (as was done at the Magnolia Hotel in Denver), hotels can effectively facilitate guest mobility if they can not use the wireless network. The use of a wireless LAN controller can act as the "brain" of the network, altering signal strength and mitigating external network interference. CAT6 cable will also provide hotels with some future-proofing for new services, as Internet Protocol TV and converged networks become more visible.

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