Wireless Access Everywhere

By George Koroneos Contributing Edi tor | September 01, 2007

In today's connected world, guests no longer have to go out of their way to request an Internet-ready room just to connect to the office. Today's tech savvy property owners are going so far as to make sure every spot in the hotel can get a wireless signal. They know that once a hotel has gone wireless, the tech options are limitless.

"Our generation isn't happy with simply having wired Internet," says Brian Borucki, director of infrastructure and technology at Marcus Hotels. "People want to lie on their beds and watch movies on their laptops with their Slingboxes (www.slingmedia.com) , or they want to use their laptops with their telephones."

Some brands are requiring that WiFi be accessible throughout the whole property, because they recognize the guest demand for it. It then becomes a balancing act of the capital dollars to deploy the system. And one perennial debate still continues: should guests be charged for WiFi, and if so, how much? "Of the few hotels we have that charge for WiFi, the technology revenue offsets the cost for support of the system and the cost of the hardware," says Ken Barnes, vice president of information technology at White Lodging. 

Being an early adopter
Winegardner & Hammons, a full service hotel management company whose brands include Marriott, Double Tree, Embassy Suites and others, chose to go wireless in its full-service properties from the get go back in 2003. The company installed a Guest-Tek (www.guesttek.com) wireless access solution in all of its guest rooms and meeting locations within the hotel such as the spaces at its full service hotels. "We felt that for the future, wireless was the way to go," says Linda Stigler, telecommunications manager at Winegardner & Hammons. "We converted a few of our wired hotels to WiFi, and now every single property is wireless."

Guests who don't have a WiFi card can visit the business center for a hardwired connection. In the future, the company is looking at other technologies that take advantage of the WiFi signal. "As the franchises move towards new wireless technologies, we are considering wireless kiosks and other similar machines," Stigler says. "A lot of our decisions are based on franchise recommendations and standards. For example, Hilton is now requiring wireless check-in and -out kiosks in hotels."

WiFi allows guests to be able to work or access e-mail from the lobby, restaurants, and hallways. "Guest-Tek understood that if I was going to put this kind of system on the property, I needed to have a stable network with total coverage -- I can't have dead spots," Stigler says.

The problem with being an early adopter is that something new is always around the corner. Most of the Winegardner & Hammons hotels are running the older 802.11b wireless standard. While the technology offers a high-speed connection, it is nowhere near the strength of the wireless signals currently offered by the latest routers. In its newer hotels, Winegardner & Hammons is installing faster 802.11g solutions by Cisco (www.cisco.com) .

"You always have to have in mind that things are going to change and we budget to refresh our equipment every so many years," Stigler says. "Just like any other technology, you have to budget to upgrade wireless."

Retrofitting tactics
The biggest tech challenge for hotel owners looking to add wireless to older properties is the need to rewire the hotel's infrastructure to connect the wireless access points. Faced with a similar situation, management firm Marcus Hotels & Resorts turned to Telkonet (www.telkonet.com) to install a solution that allows hotels to pipe

Internet signals through the existing power system. "This permits us to get access points in areas of the property where we could never get a wireless signal," Borucki says.

This technology has proven beneficial to larger hotels that are older and harder to retrofit. The Telkonet iBridge is a small device that plugs into standard power sockets. A small cable is run from the device to a wireless access point. With the system installed, all wiring on that electrical panel can support an Ethernet signal. The Internet signal does not interfere with the electrical system; it simply uses the existing cable as a conduit for the Internet.

"Everyone has an electrical system, so adding these Ethernet injectors on the power panels can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades," Borucki says. The Telkonet system does require a broadband service to make the solution work.

Marcus Hotels also installed redundant Internet services to make sure that there is never downtime on the system. "People will check out if there isn't Internet," Borucki says. The two lines come into the system and are run through an inverse multiplexer that regulates the data stream and makes sure guests always have access to the Internet.

The wireless network at Marcus Hotels is not just for guest use. The signal is also used with the hotel's wireless digital displays. For example, if the hotel is hosting a meeting, and the meeting planners want a digital television monitor to show the location of events, 42 in. Samsung (www.samsung.com) LCD monitors can be moved anywhere that has a power outlet. All information or video on the screen can be manipulated or controlled wirelessly by a computer hidden out of site.

Wireless staff communication
Wireless isn't just for bells and whistles. The technology can also be used as a state-of-the-art telecommunications system. The Mansion on Turtle Creek was one of the first hotels to pilot the Vocera (www.vocera.com) wireless communication solution that acts almost like a GPS system for hotel staff. The unit, which resembles a skinny cell phone, tracks down employees closest to the place where they are needed. For example, if a guest calls the front desk in need of towels, the operator calls Vocera's automated dispatcher (affectionately called "The Genie") to communicate the situation to the houseperson that is closest to the room in need.

The communications system can also be used to notify an arrival group that a guest has entered the hotel and needs service. A valet can check the name on the luggage as he removes it from the trunk, and call in through the system that "Mr. Smith" has arrived. The system then notifies the proper employees (bell hop, doorman, front desk) to be ready for the guest. "Everyone that you want on hand to greet the guest now knows the name of the guest and it makes them feel more at home," says Kathy Wilbourn, Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas , Texas . "More importantly, the system makes us more efficient, it speeds up communication, and it's the latest technology on the market."

The solution replaces the archaic pager system that does not offer two-way communication. It works off of the wireless infrastructure already installed in the hotel. The Mansion had to run CAT6 cabling throughout the building in order to set up a wireless Internet system in the guest rooms. Vocera came in and installed its own access points that were free with the service subscription. According to management, the Vocera system only costs a monthly licensing fee, which the hotel says is cheaper and more efficient than the older pager system.

Too much of a good thing?
With so many uses for wireless, broadband can run thin, especially as more guests use voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phones to make their calls. "That's a premium service offering that requires more bandwidth than what is offered at the free service level, and that costs more for us to maintain," says White Lodging's Barnes. "The challenge for the high speed Internet vendors is that they need to design a systemthat offers a premium service that we can then potentially charge for, but it must be a premium."

There is also an inherent issue with the proliferation of cheap, easy-to-access wireless signals -- everyone, particularly in metropolitan areas, has a wireless signal and most people don't secure them. This leads to confusion among guests who don't know what server to access when they start up their laptop. "Sometimes they think they are connecting to the hotel's wireless system, but they are not," Borucki says. "They could be connecting to the spa across the street or McDonald's down the road that has a much weaker signal."

To solve this, many hotels are installing systems that automatically load a branded sign-in page when the guest opens their browser. The system then prompts them to either pay for a service, or simply choose a private login and password for security and a guaranteed strong connection.

Why do some hotels still lack WiFi? "Owners have to balance and prioritize the need for customer-driven improvements and upgrades like renovating guestrooms with new bedding packages, lighting and flat-screen televisions," Barnes says. "They want to do the right things; they ust can't do everything at once. As we go through HSIA infrastructure change-outs, that's when we are recommending that wireless be the first area considered."

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