In the last few years, Internet access has been a demanded, if not expected, in-room amenity for the hotel guest.
Obligingly, Internet vendors have popped up offering a variety of services to hotels to help meet consumer demand, offering to bear the burden of providing and supporting Internet access, offering even to install systems free of charge in return for guest fees for Internet usage. They come offering access over cable, phone lines, T1s and DSLs, packaging it all in customized portals that let guests shop, find local restaurants, update spreadsheets and order room service. And now many companies are offering a new option to hoteliers: wireless Internet access.
Wireless technology is made possible through the deployment of a wireless Local Area Network, or wireless LAN. The network is created by placing access points—radios or antennas—behind the walls and above the ceilings of a property. These access points are hardwired to switches and routers, which connect the wireless LAN and make Internet access possible.
Once the system is in place, PC wireless technology works almost like a two-way radio system. By using a wireless Ethernet card in his/her PC, the Internet user sends information via radio waves to the access points, which are equipped with transceivers that receive the information and send it to the Internet. Likewise, data from the Internet is sent from the transceiver to the user’s PC. As long as the user remains within the range of the signals being transmitted, the Internet connection will be maintained, and data will continue to flow back and forth via the access points.
The champions of wireless enthusiastically point to benefits of this emerging technology, and even the wary must acknowledge the significant impact it’s sure to have in the future. Perhaps the most obvious benefit is that the solution, as the name implies, is wireless. Nothing has to be plugged into the phone system or the PC except for a wireless Ethernet card that slides into a PC port. There are no cords to keep users tethered to their desks and locked inside their rooms. Says Karin Holmgren, marketing communications specialist at Guest-Tek Interactive Entertainment Ltd., “Mobility and convenience are a major advantage. Wireless access allows guests the ability to connect when they want, where they want.” And, since the guests don’t have to connect through the PBX system, it will not be tied up and bogged down with Internet users.
Wireless solutions can also be quickly installed, because no extensive rewiring has to take place. A complete solution can be in place in a medium-sized, 400-room property in as little as two to three days.
In addition to shortening installation time, the lack of necessary rewiring is also appealing to hoteliers with historical properties in which maintaining an authentic appearance is so vital. Says Mark Goode, president and CEO of MobileStar Network Corp., “Generally, we put [the radios] in the ceilings, and we are very sensitive to the aesthetic impact of this system. In fact, very few if any of our hotels know where the radios are when we’re done.”
But Mike DiLeva, program director of the e-business hospitality practice at Unisys, cautions hoteliers that wireless solutions don’t always mean that no rewiring will need to be done. “One of the things that a lot of people forget about wireless access is that it is not powerless access,” he says. “If you don’t have power access in the areas where you’re going to mount the antennas, then you’re back to the same problem you had before.”
The other major benefit of wireless connections is speed. Goode states that wireless connections are 50 times faster than a wire-line modem, or as fast as a T1, which is 1.54 megabytes.
“With technology advancing in terms of audio and video downloads and much more graphically oriented Internet screens,” adds DiLeva, “speed is going to become more and more important.”
Despite all of the hype that wireless has gotten in recent months, some are still skeptical of the effectiveness of this new technology. Many people feel more secure with a solution they can touch and see, and are uncomfortable with a technology that shoots possibly vital data through the air around them. One issue critics cite is the reliability of a wireless connection. Devices such as microwave ovens, cordless phones and others that transmit via the airwaves can create interference, slowing down or severing the connection. DiLeva says that for hotels in high data traffic areas, wireless may not be the best solution. Wireless traffic is transmitted through airwaves, he says, and if there is other data being transferred on the same frequency, the connection can be unreliable.
Proponents of the technology, however, feel that the interference does not create enough of a usability issue to be a concern. Says Goode, “What the user may experience is that the speed of the connection slows down. When there’s interference, the radio may retransmit a packet or two [of data] to make sure that the user has received it. And that’s very different than losing a connection.” Vendors offering wireless generally also assume responsibility for the building construction issues that may cause interference concerns such as the location of elevator shafts, mirrors and metallic wallpaper which could bounce signals improperly. Says HTA Goode, “Given those constraints within a hotel, the radios are placed very carefully to make sure that you have good coverage in the areas that you advertised that you have coverage.”
Another area of speculation is the security of the connection. According to Holmgren, “There is no common standard for security right now. Different vendors have different encryption methods.”
Others argue that wireless provides security benefits that some wired technologies cannot provide, making wireless technology as secure, if not more secure, than wireline technology. Says Mark Moltzan, founder, CEO and president of Cyberoom. “If you have network snooping software, you can see what’s transpiring on other nodes on that network just by being physically attached to the same cable as everybody else. With the wireless network that’s not the case. It’s much more secure.”
Another capability that wireless networks can offer that not all wireline networks offer is support of Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs. For many business travelers, a VPN is required in order to access corporate e-mail accounts and networks. If the Internet service is not equipped to support VPNs, the business traveler may find the service useless.