A Future Bright With Fiber

By Abigail A. Lorden, Editor-in-Chief | October 08, 2013



Every finished product starts with a rough idea. For Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG, www.mandarinoriental.com), those rough ideas are polished to a finish in its innovation lab, a newly-built proof-of-concept space carved out of its Atlanta offices. The luxury hotel company uses its lab to test equipment and configurations, often in partnership with its technology vendors, before installing them in its hotels.

MOHG has a long history of being at the forefront of connectivity, including building the first completely converged hotel network. It’s altogether fitting that the technology team at MOHG would leverage its innovation lab to spearhead the next generation of hotel networks.

As guest demand for WiFi skyrockets, hotels are facing relentless pressure to increase bandwidth at their properties. MOHG challenged itself to find a future-proof platform on which they could continue to scale and add services. The solution had to incorporate six design principals, ranging from the ability to expand beyond 1GB of bandwidth to a power solution that would keep critical devices functional in the event of an outage (see box on page 12 for all six principals).

David Heckaman is VP of technology for MOHG, and is opening the doors to the MOHG innovation lab, where a bright, shiny future for hotel connectivity is being built out of fiber optic cables.

HT: Can you give an overview of the MOHG innovation lab? What was the goal in building it?

David Heckaman: The goal was to build a technology proof-of-concept space where we’d test and prove concepts in a lab prior to putting them into our standards stack as we renovate or build future hotels. The space is about 1,500 square feet, and it’s all ours. We’ve carved it into the most useful and flexible space we could. We built out a standard guestroom experience environment, and added additional areas of focused interest.

But even though this is a test lab trying to establish standards, it’s also an opportunity to showcase what our IT team is working on, in part so that executives from across the organization can really see and understand new initiatives. It’s not a true model room, but everything is done in a high-touch, high-finish fashion.

HT: MOHG has always been at the forefront of connectivity innovations. Can you share a bit about the company’s evolution in connectivity?

DH: The network is such an integral and massive component of our hotel environment. Every time we’d open a hotel we’d do it a little bit differently, which would get difficult from a day-to-day support aspect.

Building our Mandarin Oriental property in New York City in 2003 was a flagship moment. It was built with the first completely converged hotel network and ever since then we’ve done converged networks with the same core switches, design, and gateway provider. But when we put it in the hands of an integrator, it could still be connected differently. At the end of the day it may still work, but it could require a lot of our oversight and resources.

We wanted to do it smarter, so this past year we built out the lab to have a “Golden Image” core networking facility with all of our typical network components. It’s the same equipment we’d need to run a hotel. It’s overkill for a lab environment, but the purpose is to create a standards document to show logically and physically how to connect and turn-up a hotel.

HT: Your work in the lab included a focus on connectivity for both retrofits, and for new construction. Let’s look at the retrofits first. What was the goal, and what’s the outcome?

DH: We had hotels like our NYC and Boston properties that had outgrown their infrastructure. Over time we’ve added more things that are network enabled; more than the existing cable plan could provide.

What we’ve done in the lab for retrofits is to lay fiber optics to the IDF closet on each floor from the core network [an IDF closet, or intermediate distribution frame, contains networking equipment delivering connectivity to guestroom floors and connects back to the MDF or main distribution frame]. Typically we already have a copper cable running down the corridor. We’ve worked with Cisco (www.cisco.com) on an early field trial test of their new compact guestroom switch. This switch also provides a UPoE [a new powering solution using a technology called Universal Power over Ethernet]. This in-room switch provides multiple ports within the guestroom, providing for network services such as VoIP, WAPs, TV and IPTV.

One of our design requirements was to use UPoE to remotely power the switch in the room. We wanted to be able to keep certain things running in the room in the event of a power outage. As we discovered during Hurricane Sandy, the wireless access point in today’s world is almost more important than the phone. If we lost power, two phones and an access point would have to stay operational. But with a switch in the room, how do you power that thing up? Using the Cisco UPoE solution, we’re able to push both power and data from a hallway network closet into the guestroom to keep the guestroom network and critical services up and running.

Another focus for retrofits is on upkeep. Each hotel looks different and it gets difficult to do root-cause analysis if something is broken. If everything is cookie cutter, however, it’s easier, smoother and faster. You need managed services. In fact, we believe so much in the branded managed services platform that we’ve branded our efforts internally as “Alert Care.” We’ve been working with SwissCom (www.swisscom.ch/en/business) on configuring and documenting settings for future deployments.

HT: How long would this retrofit approach keep a hotel’s bandwidth viable?

DH: With copper, you really max out at one gigabit. As the current bandwidth consumption curve continues to move up, that curve is going to continue to pound at hotels and the need to go over a gigabit will become a reality, whether it’s two or five years out; so we see this as a legacy design.

At some point you’ll cross over the border of what copper can provide to the guest room, and it doesn’t make sense to build a new hotel that’s at or close to the threshold. Fiber has significantly more capacity than copper.

HT: With fiber the future-proof solution, what’s the design you’ve created for new builds?

DH: We elected to build a solution around single-mode fiber to the guest room (FTTR). Fiber optic cable can handle a significant amount of bandwidth — it has a scalable infrastructure that can support beyond 69 Tbps. It’ll be generations before you have to touch the fiber infrastructure in the walls.

We worked with Corning Cable Systems (www.corning.com) to evaluate fiber, connectors, network enclosures, and interface modules to simplify network designs and streamline the installation process. We put in a passive optical fiber switch from Zhone Technologies (www.zhone.com). It has no moving parts, and an optical fiber splitter gets cross-connected to the guestroom.

We’re also working on a long-distance remote powering solution where we’re able to get 75 watts into the guestroom. In the event of a power outage it keeps the Zhone switch operating in the room, and that’s able to provide power to multiple phones and access points.

In this scenario, we don’t need to have any active equipment in the guest-floor IDF network closet. When you’re building a hotel, you’re trying to carve out all useful space. Instead of needing an 8x8-foot network closet, you can give back quite a bit of that space — for example to housekeeping or some other service — and do it all on a wall-mounted shelf without the construction requirements or expense that come with a typical active Ethernet network design.

HT: Is there something coming beyond single-mode fiber?

DH: I’ve asked the engineers at Corning this question, and they say no. Single-mode fiber is the end-all from a bandwidth perspective. If your hotel is built with a legacy copper infrastructure design, it may not be able to support future technologies. The copper has to keep re-inventing itself to keep up. Fiber never has to change. Over time I’ll change the endpoint devices, but I won’t have to change the wire in the walls. Fiber has an infinite lifespan. If I put it in now, I’ll know it won’t need to be replaced. I would like to build Mandarin Oriental’s next hotels with an infrastructure that will be robust and relevant well past when I retire.

HT: What’s the reception been like among your hotel IT peers towards the use of fiber? Is cost a deterrant?

DH: There’s a growing crowd in support of fiber. It used to be very expensive, and connectors were a very special skill — you had to have a skilled technician polish each fiber. It was considered cost prohibitive. The cost of fiber has come down dramatically. Today it is much easier to install and now is able to be terminated by field technicians.

On the copper side, to handle more bandwidth, they’ve had to modify the cable and costs on that have gone up. The two curves — the cost of copper and of fiber — have come much closer, and in most cases actually crossed from an installation perspective.

HT: HTNG has a workgroup focused on fiber. How are your efforts in the MOHG Innovation Lab different from what the team at HTNG is working on?

DH: What we’re doing is different from the fiber-to-the-room workgroup. They’re doing industry-wide recommendations and standards. We’re talking about running multiple strands of fiber to the guestroom; if you order one you might as well order four. I need only one to light up the network component. The other three are for not-yet-known technologies — for example LTE advanced is coming. There are probably technologies that will need to be connected via fiber, so our design is to provide spare fiber for future technologies, most likely a cellular technology that will be fiber-connected. If AT&T pops up with a new service, I could deploy it.

We have been working with the team from 5thGenWireless to help us plan our current and future wireless and cellular strategies. Their expertise in this area has helped us develop our infrastructure design to be robust and flexible to allow deployment of future technology overlays with the minimal amount of physical retrofit required.

HT: As we look at the future of connectivity, we have to look at pricing models. MOHG has consistently charged for guest connectivity, while other brands provide it without a separate charge or offer a tiered solution. How do you see the results of that choice playing out today?

DH: I think we made the right choice. History is proving out that a lot of hotels that have given away Internet are succumbing to the pain of that decision. If you give something away for free and then you have to go back and pay for infrastructure or bandwidth upgrades, and don’t have a revenue source against it, it becomes difficult to justify.

As for the tiered approach, we’ve stayed away from the temptation to do that. The problem is it’s not a luxury experience. Everyone wants free, but once you click on a Skype or Facetime session, it may not be sufficient to support these activities. So then what we gave the guest for free was inferior, and now we want to charge you for it. It’s a double slap. If you are going to charge for it, you have to charge a fair amount. With take-rates at 40% or more ­— and we allow up to six devices per guest room — we’ve seen a big jump in utilization. If you’re going to provide the service and charge for it, it has to be exceptional.

HT: Any plans to share your work in the lab with the hotel industry at large?

DH: Certainly — in fact, at HTNG’s (www.htng.org) annual North American members meeting [in Atlanta in February] we offered tours to CIOs and network executives from a lot of the major brands. Over those two days we had 90+ people come through our lab. Our goal is to build it in a way that’s digestible to people and explain it in a way that makes sense.  

HT: What are you working on nextin the lab?

DH: The lab is continuing to improve. This year we’re working on projects around guestroom integrated television and audio solutions. As the TV gets thinner, lighter and mounted on the wall, for example, it presents challenges with cables, swivels, and the right type of mounting. We’re going to build out an effort this year that’s a multi-display scenario with a bunch of different audio options. This is also a very interesting and important effort as we continue to focus on using audio as a differentiator in the guestroom.

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