Can You Hear Me Now? Nope.

By George Koroneos, Contributing Editor | September 08, 2010

In the year 2010, it's inconceivable that cellular networks haven't permeated every corner of the world, let alone the United States. But the fact remains that signal strength for cell phones is still spotty, and even non-existent, in some areas. In other cases, construction materials thwart even the best-placed cellular towers.

For properties based in these cellular blind spots, the repercussions can be trying. Today's hotel guests, especially business travelers, expect to be able to connect to their office from their guest room, if only to check the bevy of e-mails they get throughout the day on their smart phones.

When the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel (www.starwoodhotels.com) in South Boston first opened, the IT department realized that it did not have a system that could push the carriers' signals into the building. It had to depend on cell phone signals from outside to filter into the site. The culprit: steel and concrete in the building that filtered the signals.

"We were getting negative feedback on services not delivered by the hotel," says Gabriel Larralde, director of information technology at the property, which is connected to the BCEC convention center. "It's like getting blamed for an air conditioner not working when there's no power in a city. Since our guests and clients are our main focus we had to bring some type of solution to the hotel."

The Westin hired Cellular Specialties, Inc. (www.cellularspecialties.com) to install a distributed antenna system (DAS) solution that pushes the signals from all the cellular providers into the building. "Even though we aren't the service provider, we found that it was imperative that we help bring the providers' services into our facility," Larralde says.

Smart phone surge
Adding to the challenge hotels face are the proliferation of new mobile tools. Advancement is an understatement: smart phones and tablets are unquestionably adding to the great demand for wireless network availability, bandwidth, and security.

According to Larralde, it is estimated by some analysts that by 2012 1.5 billion smart devices will be in use globally. The demand for wireless bandwidth will only increase in applications like voice- and video-over-IP. However, these new tools are worthless without a strong cellular network. "Our first step was to approach CSI to work on a solution that would deliver the providers' signals into the building infrastructure. Coverage wasn't the only issue but also the ability to upgrade since technology continues to advance."

Mark Cross, senior manager for wireless mobility solutions for Harrah's Entertainment (www.harrahs.com), concurs: "If you don't have coverage outside of your property, you are not going to have coverage inside. That's a really big problem," he says. "Vendors can talk to me about all these great applications and cell phone programs, but if we don't have the coverage in our properties, all bets are off."

No map for that
Most IT managers agree that properties must partner with consultants that understand cell phone networks and have them do an assessment.

"People believe that cellular networks and data networks are the same, and they really aren't," says Bill Oliver, chief information officer for Agua Caliente Casino, Spa, and Resort (www.hotwatercasino.com), owned and operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. "They have to bring a company like AT&T (www.att.com) or Verizon (www.verizon.com) to recommend where to go for installation, and different pricing options based on budget."

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns two hotels, two casinos, a golf resort, and a concert theatre in the Coachella Valley of California, and had no cell phone coverage at all. Oliver faced the daunting task of erecting antennas capable of blanketing the resort's casinos, hotels, and golf course with quality cellular reception.

Oliver hired a third party to do a survey of the properties and design a plan as to how the network would work. "My goal was to start small first, so we covered the two golf courses and then went larger and phased in the casinos and the hotel," Oliver says.

The biggest capital expense included the repeaters, antennas, satellite receivers, and the yards of antenna cable to wire up all the different operations. The resort had to erect antennas that pull signals from the different cellular carriers into satellite receivers. Repeaters are then used to push the cellular signal distributed antenna system, which feeds the signal to different areas of the property. The actual set-up, however, is different for each property.

"It's a cumbersome process," Oliver says. "But when you get down to it, it's just like trying to erect a data network."

So why can't a property simply pick up the phone, call the phone company, and complain that it isn't getting cell phone reception in the area? It's a numbers game.

Major cell phone companies can't always justify the expense to cover locations that have a small footprint of cell phone users, even if it is a few thousand people. In this case, Oliver managed to convince one of the country's major cellular providers to post a few cell phone towers in the area, but it wasn't enough to provide complete coverage. The problem was compounded because the phone company owned the towers, and the hotel wasn't allowed to enhance the signal.

"We have a 300-room hotel and a 220-room spa resort. It just didn't provide the demographic to make it worth it," for a major cellular provider to invest in the hotel's core cellular network, Oliver recalls. "Trust me, we complained a lot to everybody. At the same time, if we complained to one company and they offered to pay for improvements, they wouldn't allow a rival signal to come in. It was in our best interest to create an all-inclusive system that supported all providers."

The exception is Sprint Custom Network Solutions (www.sprint.com) a branch of Sprint that will install a neutral-host system that can accept signals from all carriers for an additional cost, Harrah's Cross says.

"There are really only two models that work in this industry to get the coverage in," Cross says. "The old fashioned model is to write a check and have a company come in and wire up a building. The other option is to use a [wireless infrastructure consultant] like American Towers (www.americantower.com) to provide data to carriers on demographics and foot traffic. That's going to catch the cell companies' interest."

New technologies for old and weak networks
In the last half decade, a bevy of new technologies have entered the market that claim to improve cell phone network strength.

The big buzzword these days is mesh networking. Offered by companies like Cisco (www.cisco.com) and Nortel (www.nortel.com), the technology uses GPS-like technology to triangulate cell phone users and boost signals to individual users.

According to Larralde, the technology connects 802.11 access points to one another, which minimizes the need for each and every 802.11 access point. "This reduces the overall cost of material and labor to deploy," Larralde explains. "Meshing typically happens where cables are difficult, impossible, or just too expensive to run. Historical buildings, hospitals, and public venues are examples of some deployments." However, the price is very expensive and requires completely new hardware.

A newer system by American Tower, dubbed iDuct, propagates the cellular signals through the air ducts of the building, a cost-effective approach to moving a signal throughout the building. The IT team actually places an antenna at one end of the ducting, shoots the radio signal through the ducting and extracts the signal at different points using a probe antenna to pull it into the floor.

The big challenge with the system is that it can't penetrate insulation in the ducting, as well as any dampers that might have been placed in the ducts over the years.ã╬╬

In smaller hotels (less than 100,000 square feet) an option for additional cell coverage is Spotwave (www.spotwave.com), a small antenna that reaches out to existing antenna to boost a signal. It's literally a spot solution that can cover a smaller area. The system works by installing antennas inside the building and running cable to the roof. From there, the installer must point the unit to a local cell tower and boost the signal from that network.

"It's important to know that commercial cellular frequency is licensed by the FCC, and the licensees [wireless carriers] are responsible for devices that repeat/amplify their signal," Larralde warns. "Authorization should be obtained from the carriers for whom the repeater is installed to support."

Sage advice for all solutions
Ask any IT manager what they are doing to boost cellular signals and every one is going to say something different. The common refrain is that every property is different and every installation will come with challenges and benefits.

However, here's some sage advice on how to make a cellular installation go smoother before and after it's finished:

  • Vary the cellular technology to test the quality of network coverage. Newer cell phones typically receive a stronger signal while older phones can have a weaker signal.
  • Survey guests and employees to find out how important cell coverage is to them.
  • Radio frequency analysis: Do not move forward with any solution without viewing an RF analysis (or plot) that articulates how good or bad coverage is. This plot is used to benchmark the quality of coverage after the system is installed.
  • Have a tune-up methodology in place to ensure that the system is working up to specifications. There's always a chance a wire might get cut, causing the system to weaken.
  • The most important thing is guest satisfaction. In today's world of 24/7 connectivity, a weak mobile signal can be fatal for business and convention properties and a real pain for resorts.

"Just put yourselves in the same position as a guest when travelling and not having coverage at that property," Larralde says. "Then multiply that frustration by the amount of guests you have per year. That should give you an idea of the amount of negative feedback you may receive."

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