High Quality, High Speed

By Lisa Terry Contributing Editor | October 01, 2005

Merely providing high-speed Internet access is no longer enough in many hotel markets. These days, that service must be dial-tone reliable, easy for the guest, available via wired and wireless connection and scale up to offer adequate bandwidth to attract large tech-intensive conference business. Hotels are bypassing or leaving behind Internet service provider generalists and awarding their business to companies that specialize in the service needs of large users such as hospitality operators. Some are choosing to consolidate multiple networks into one and seeking a partner to manage it all. The 156-room Hilton Garden Inn in San Mateo, California, was buying its DSL service from the local phone provider and suffered dropped lines and customer complaints.

"Every time they sent someone out it was a different person, and each one wouldn't know what the last guy had done," recalls Derek Hudson, general manager.

So Hudson brought in NextWeb (nextweb.net), and saw an immediate improvement in service levels. "Memorial Day weekend, we had a group come in that thought they might need more bandwidth, and at 3pm on Friday afternoon, they decided yes, they needed double. NextWeb got it working later that day." Reliability has been key to keeping his tech-savvy business clientele coming back. The hotel recently added 100 percent wireless coverage.

The Blackstone Group had the same priority when it chose to go all-wireless for its extended-stay hotels, avoiding the cost of wiring.

"Not all companies offer 24-hour support and can implement an aggressive timetable to 300-plus hotels," covering the entire country, says Clive Taylor, CIO. "It's important to find somebody you can partner with," and to support its guests, since properties typically don't have technical people on site. Blackstone is working with Guest-Tek (guest-tek.com).

Chain mandates

Mandates from many hotel brands are having a major impact on the deployment of HSIA. At Doubletree, 40,000 guestrooms and more than two million square feet of meeting space across its collection of more than 150 hotels now offer high speed Internet access to guests. For Anupe Shah, president, Sleep Inn Maingate at Walt Disney World, responding to a brand-wide mandate to offer high-speed Internet access also drove his move to offer highspeed Internet access.

"Shah's three-story interior corridor property would be expensive to hardware and even many wireless options proved expensive. Shah finally turned to Telkonet (telkonet.com), which offers HSIA via powerline communications (PLC). "We knew that we did not have enough business travelers," Shah explains. "After 9/11 we wanted to have a more diversified mix of guests. This was something we felt would make us more competitive."

Although Disney vacationers make up the bulk of Shah's guests, he notes that business travelers have grown to about 10 percent of the mix. Another company that waited before jumping in with its wireless offering is Mandarin Oriental. "We wanted to do it right and use it for administrative staff as well," says David Heckaman, acting vice president of technology for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in the Americas. "We wanted to deploy it in an engineered and thought-out process," addressing security and enabling use of multiple protocols and WLANs, he says.

Rather than saturate the property with access points, in Mandarin's New York City and Washington DC properties, Inner Wireless (innerwireless.com) installed one on each 80,000-square-foot floor, supplementing it with antennas to boost the signal. The Internet service is part of a converged network also running Mandarin's in-room entertainment system, telephones, administrative system, guestroom Internet, and door-lock system, and will soon be integrated with the InfoGenesis (infogenesis.com) POS system. The system was designed to allow capacity for future uses such as RFID asset tracking. "If there's one guest using wireless in every room, you're still only using ten percent of the capacity of any access point," says Heckaman. This approach avoids that over-saturation while providing enough bandwidth for guests.

Antennas also boost coverage in meeting rooms, but three access points are installed to offer signal on three different channels and ensure capacity even with high-density demand.

To further serve customers, Mandarin installed cellular antennas in the NY and DC properties to boost cellular coverage through the building, and also uses that signal to enable communication to Blackberry-equipped employees throughout the buildings.

"We're offering paging services, cell phones, Wi-Fi, and fire safety," says Heckaman, by enabling emergency services to plug into its two-way radio system if necessary. Staff also use voice-over-WiFi, which will be offered to guests next year when they change to a Session Initiation protocol (SIP). "Clients will check into the room and have a cordless, wireless phone they can use throughout the complex."

The Wyndham Franklin Plaza, Philadelphia, installed two separate Internet access systems to support its clientele, one for guest rooms and the other for meetings. "We have an Internet conference coming that requires the most complex of systems, and we're able to do that because of our Wayport (wayport.com) connectivity and the knowledge of the manager we have on site," says Kevin Bishop, general manager. The hotel offers both wired and wireless connectivity.

The separate network is key to being able to provide robust service for meetings and has helped attract that business, returning dividends beyond the shared/implementation, shared/ revenue investment. "It exceeded [our investment]," says Kevin Kobishop, general manager. "This year it will pay ten times what we expend."

To charge or not to charge

Where hotels disagree is whether high-speed Internet is premium service or an amenity guests expect for free. Silicon-Valley based Hilton Garden Inn saw low usage when it charged nearly $10 a day for high-speed Internet, and a spike when they dropped the fee. Other hotels have seen less change in traffic between free and paid service.

"If we had 10 guests using it, that was $100. With one additional guest staying one night, we've made more money," Hudson contends. According to Hudson, Hilton Garden Inns must offer free high-speed Internet service in meeting rooms by the end of this year and eventually offer wireless in the entire hotel; free Internet is already standard for guest rooms.

Wyndham Franklin Plaza charges a daily fee for guest and meeting room Internet use, but it's free in its cybercafé and waived for members of its loyalty program--in fact, it's a program driver.

While Fairmont Hotels recently announced that Internet access would be free for its loyalty club members, many other high-end hotels believe their guests are willing to pay, says Heckaman. "Part of the reason is, there is a lot more security involved. In most standard hotels you're not guaranteed security from room to room." Starwood recently selected IP3 Networks (ip3.com) to provide access control and security for its high-speed Internet networks.

"It's a very fluid thing at the moment," says Blackstone's Taylor. "The US is moving faster down the road of free than the rest of the world. But there are still costs involved in putting systems in for clients."

 

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