How Hotels are Keeping Pace with the Bandwidth Curve

By Tammy Mastroberte, Contributing Editor | June 05, 2014

When it comes to setting up and upgrading wireless networks for hotels, the biggest issue operators face is the guest side of the coin. For properties that are part of a larger chain, the front desk is often connected to headquarters via a chain-supplied, PCI compliant network, but the back-office and guest networks are usually left up to the individual operator. While the back-office doesn’t require much bandwidth — and doesn’t change very often — guest demand is always increasing.

“From the admin side, we are not looking at very much — between five and 10 MB is all that’s needed,” says Mike Blake, CIO of Commune Hotels & Resorts (www.communehotels.com) based in San Francisco, with 34 hotels and another 12 in development. Commune is using Eleven Wireless (www.elevenwireless.com) as its guest internet management software provider. “It’s totally different on the guest side. We used to say you need at least 10 MB for a 100-room hotel, but today it’s more like 1 MB per guest room.”

At Wyndham’s Hawthorn Suites (www.hawthorn.com) in West Palm Beach, Fla., general manager Bill Murray runs two properties in the area, and for years operated with a 3 MB line for guest access and a 3 MB line for back-office operations at each location. Three years ago, the hotels upgraded to Comcast Business (www.business.comcast.com) with a 50 MB pipe for the back-office and 100 MBs for the guest network.

“It was like somebody flipped a light switch three years ago and all of a sudden the Internet at hotels became the number one priority over cleanliness and breakfast, which used to top the surveys,” Murray says. “You have to meet the demand, and the demand is big.”

Many hotels chalk up the cost of providing more bandwidth as the cost of doing business, and are not passing the cost onto guests. However, at higher-end hotels, the tiered approach of offering a certain amount free and charging for increased bandwidth is helping with return-on-investment. HT’s 2014 Lodging Technology Study found that nearly 60% of hotels include WiFi at no additional cost. A sub-segment breakdown confirms that nearly 100% of economy hotels go the free-to-guest (FTG) route, while mid- and upper-tier are more evenly split
between FTG, flat-fee or tiered.“We have a three-tier pricing plan where we give away a half MB, and then up to 3 MB is a paid tier, and from 3 MB to 6 MB is at a higher premium,” Blake notes. “Generally, good streaming is around 3 to 4 MB.”

New Builds Vs. Upgrades
When opening a new hotel, demand has to be forecasted based on the size and number of rooms, and many operators talk to providers and peers to accurately predict needs. But the key is to install something to allow for easy upgrades in the future.

“The first thing is to make sure whatever pipe or fiber you put in initially can burst so you have the flexibility to build up over time, even though you don’t think you will ever need it,” says Blake. “In some of our properties, we can burst to more than 1 GB. We may never need it, but it’s nice to know you have it.”
The same is true for any cabling, which has come down in cost, he says. If done right the first time, an operator should not have to ever readjust it. Power and switches, however, require ongoing adjustments, and should be looked at about every six months, according to Blake.

For upgrades, the issues are usually coverage — having the right number of access points needed to reach all areas of the hotel — and capacity, which is how much bandwidth is available. At Hawthorn Suites, the last upgrade to 100 MB for the guest side was two years ago, and Murray is now looking at another upgrade because on occasion, with a large group and in the evening hours, they are coming closer to topping out at capacity.

“It’s something that needs constant attention, tweaking and enhancing,” he explains. “People don’t give it enough attention, or do, but only for a short period of time in the beginning and expect it to continue on its own.”

Securing the Networks
Security on both the guest side and the back-office side is a top priority for hotels, and many use two completely separate feeds, along with password-protected access. At the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center (www.sheratonrtp.com) in Raleigh Durham, N.C., the property uses Time Warner (www.timewarnercable.com) as its network provider, offering a 50 MB fiber line for guest access, and a separate 100 MB pipe split for the meeting space and administration functions.

“From a security point of view, guests accessing the network can create a security nightmare if it crosses over to the back of the house,” says Michael Martino, general manager at the property.

The hotel uses a 100 MB per second download and 10 MB per second upload pipe, and segments 70 percent to the meeting rooms and 30 percent to the administrative side — each with its own router. For customer credit card information, a separate pipe from Starwood’s headquarters is used just for reservations, checking people in and processing cards, Martino says.

The same is true at all Best Western (www.bestwestern.com) hotels in North America, which provides a Hughes (www.hughes.com) VSAT line to connect each hotel to the headquarters in Phoenix, Ariz., says David Velasquez, vice president of information services at Best Western International.

“You can never do enough network security testing. That is something that will be with us until the end of time,” says Martino, who now has a staff member dedicating 20 or 30 hours a week to Internet support, observation and upgrades. “You have to constantly question yourself as to where the opportunities are for people to get in the back door, and make sure all the holes are plugged.”

Additionally, guests at the Sheraton hotel need to use names and room numbers to access the guest network, so someone not checked into the hotel doesn’t have access, he notes.

Keeping Up with the Pace of Change
At Hawthorne Suites, the next upgrade is on the horizon, and Murray plans to go up to a 200 MB pipe this summer. At Best Western, Velasquez says it’s something they are constantly chasing, and are looking at the needs daily because it changes so dramatically.

“We have standards and a set of minimum requirements for our hotels, and recommend they go above and beyond that,” he notes. “The requirements are changing again later this year to accommodate the new needs.”
Another trend Commune Hotels is putting into action is placing access points or routers into each hotel room, rather than in the hallways. These will not only feed the Internet, but also the television and telephone, says Blake.

“Ruckus (www.ruckuswireless.com) put forth this lower cost access point with others that feed off of it, so we have only one drop per room versus two or three drops, and it actually costs less,” he explains. “Before, each drop had a switch fabric to build behind it, and now we have less drops.”

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