IP-Converged Networks

By Vicki Powers, Contributing Editor | March 03, 2010

Developing an IP-converged network with all voice, data, and video over a single network is certainly the future of hotel technology. Not only does it provide greater efficiency and cost savings but, it also prepares hotels for future up-and-coming technology that can be easily added on the infrastructure. The challenge comes in balancing guest expectations with current financial budgets.

The reluctance of some hotels to discuss IP convergence is more of a sign of the times, says Michael St-Laurent, director of IT at Gemstone Hotels & Resorts (www.gemstoneresorts.com), a Utah-based company managing independent luxury, boutique hotels. Current infrastructure keeps many hotels stuck at this point in time.

"With drastically lower RevPAR and occupancy, hotels are just trying to keep what they have running," St-Laurent says.  "The move to an IP-converged network is a significant dollar amount for ownership groups that are kind of hesitant to put any of their pocketbooks out there."

St-Laurent says that where hotels put their money today requires more thought into how it will affect the guest experience. If there are things failing around safety or security, that's when they make capital expenditures, he relates. St-Laurent admits it's the "must-haves" getting done rather than the "wish-I-could-haves."

Many considerations come into play as hotels consider the best approach for an IP converged network.  The age of the building, timeframe to completion, current cabling infrastructure, and how the hotel is built are several aspects that affect a hotel's decision as to what kind of approach to consider.

Rip-and-replace

Rip and replace is the typical solution when an older hotel structure decides to upgrade to a converged network. This option is usually used in renovations with old cabling that doesn't meet today's infrastructure standards. This entails abandoning the old infrastructure and ripping it out, which requires significant labor, according to St-Laurent.
 
"Although the infrastructure will likely last for a long time, it's a very expensive undertaking," St-Laurent says. "Bottom line drives the whole industry for us, especially in a company our size with eight or nine independent properties in our portfolio."
 
The rip-and-replace option also requires considerably more time, depending on the schedule. The timing must be considered early in the process to ensure it fits expectations. Will the property stay open during the renovation? St-Laurent says many hotels do, because they need the revenue. Gemstone Hotels & Resorts, for example, adds the new infrastructure in parallel with the old system being ripped out at its renovated properties, many of which date back to the 1920s.

The biggest advantage of a rip-and-replace approach is getting future-prepared with today's technology. St-Laurent says it's important to think about the future and what systems may be coming down the road.

"How much bandwidth do we need in hotels today?" St-Laurent replies. "That's a much bigger conversation!"

Reuse and recycle
Reusing and recycling cable is a greener and less costly approach since new cable is not used. Hotel Andaluz, one of Gemstone's properties in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recently completed a $30 million renovation. Recycling is important for LEED certification, says St-Laurent, which is the standard developed by the U.S. Green Building Council for environmentally sustainable construction. Hotel Andaluz is working towards becoming one of the only LEED-certified hotels in New Mexico.
 
Technology evangelist and consultant Mark Munger, at California-based Munger & Associates, says ultimately hotels need to consider the services they want to provide guests.  

"If you're trying to reuse CAT3 or CAT5 cable, you're adapting to its limitations," Munger states. Old phone cable can support 10 megabits, which is obviously not HiDef video, but it can support most everything else, says Munger: voice, energy monitors, safe monitors, and automatic lighting.

Another aspect is distance of the original cable. Munger says much of the old phone cable in hotels is more than 300 feet. If hotels are looking to reuse phone cable and use phone specifications as the link, then that cable can't be used to run regular Ethernet-type signaling. Munger says hotels can consider other technologies such as DSL over-phone cable, which many homes have today.

The reuse/recycle approach also is much faster to install, according to Munger, since it only requires replacing two endpoints: one in the room and distribution at the head end.
 
Too often, St-Laurent says folks think old copper coax must be replaced. Yet older copper has just as much bandwidth capability as twisted pair CAT5, he adds. The issue with bandwidth relates to the hardware rather than the cable.  

Some properties may just want to upgrade their wireless network.  If that's the case, Josh Aaron, president, Business Technology Partners, says there is little need to rip out existing cable.  A mesh wireless network can accelerate deployment and incur less physical construction.

"The approach we would advocate is little new cabling at all to handle converged voice and data communications," Aaron relates. "It's always going to be more expensive if you're replacing cable because it's not just the cost of cable but also the work to put in new cabling as well as patch, paint, and fix up."

Every hotel has run some type of budget review about moving to an IP-converged network, says Munger. For the IT department supporting Colonial Williamsburg (www.colonialwilliamsburg.org), a one-mile square campus living history museum in Virginia with several hotels and restaurants, it's all a cost issue. With a price tag in the millions for a full rip-and-replace solution, Sean Maisey, director of operations and engineering at Colonial Williamsburg, says that's guided them to an evolving approach rather than a full rip-and-replace.

"With so many handsets at $200 to $300 each, doing IP handsets for 5,500 phone extensions is a big capital investment," Maisey says.  

About 2 1/2 years ago, Colonial Williamsburg invested in an Avaya (www.avaya.com) 8700 series switch and began to deploy IP phones, both wired (CAT5) IP Avaya phones and Polycom SpectraLink (www.polycom.com) WiFi phones. This transition saved approximately $100,000 a year by eliminating Verizon Off-Premise Extension lines and using IP phones in places where the campus offered Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet.

"Now we are focused on how to pursue a strategy that will allow us to grow even further away from our legacy phone system," says Maisey.  "That is where we are considering Alcatel's (www.alcaltel-lucent.com) offerings around IP-TV convergence and how it can be leveraged for in-room services."
 

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