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5 GHz – Is It Worth It?

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June 01, 2014
Room Area Networks
James Lingle - james@jameslingle.com

You would think that after more than a decade we’d finally be able to stop talking about Wi-Fi. The truth is, Wi-Fi is the industry problem that won’t go away.  For all the attempts at future proofing (a concept I don’t really believe in), you would think that we would finally get past the issue.

Here’s a news flash that won’t surprise anyone – it’s not going to happen. We try to fix this problem that has existed for years with technology that is on its way out and is inadequate to meet the needs of our guests today, much less in the future. We convince ourselves to do the minimum necessary only to find in a year that we are facing the problem yet again and have to answer that age-old question: Didn’t I just pay a lot of money to fix this?

That doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t be trying. I said earlier that I don’t believe in the idea of future proofing. However, I do believe in the idea of future preparing. This is where I believe that we make our biggest mistake. We don’t take the long view. We are trying to solve the problem that we’ve had for years with a technology that is already on its way out (albeit slowly). In order to have a great guest experience you must have two essential components – great bandwidth and great infrastructure. Bandwidth is a topic for another day.

There are challenges to deploying a 5 GHz network. Wi-Fi solution providers are just beginning to offer 802.11ac solutions.  Have they had the opportunity to test it in their labs and work out the kinks?  What is the brand position?  How do you explain the technological advantages to the non-technical people?

Let’s not forget the cost – it is the single biggest challenge to this whole idea. Due to the smaller coverage area of 5 GHz, a significantly larger number of access points is required. If you add 802.11ac to the mix, the cost goes even higher. Factor in the additional cabling and network infrastructure, and all of a sudden it begins to feel like the costs are getting out of control.  Any smart owner, asset manager or operations leader will bring up the cost issue first. You will be asked to provide an ROI on the additional cost and that is a difficult nut to crack on the best of days. We work in an industry where cost trumps many things. It is up to us to make the sale.

In order to validate the cost of any project, not just Wi-Fi, you need to focus on three key areas – return on investment, guest experience and brand standard.
Return on investment is the hardest to validate for Wi-Fi. No one has to validate the need for hot water, it’s simply the price to be in business. Today, Wi-Fi is the new hot water. It helps to quantify lost business (particularly group or major accounts) or customers that have indicated they won’t return due to their Wi-Fi experiences. If the owner is holding the asset for a while or there is construction in play, the ROI comes from doing it now and not later, thus avoiding increased additional costs. It’s cheaper to do it once than to do it twice.

Guest experience is the single biggest selling point. The consensus is that Wi-Fi is the No.1 issue in hotels and often in the entire chain. It ranks above nearly every complaint you can think of – bad mattresses, not enough towels, thin walls, no hot water and noisy neighbors. A well-designed and deployed network will move this far down the list of issues, bring higher guest satisfaction scores and giving hotel operators a No.1 problem that isn’t technology related.

So – is it worth it? Everyone is going to have a different opinion.  If you focus on the short-term answer or the money, then probably not.  If you take the long view, probably so.  We will eventually need to be there.  I happen to believe that there is here and now. 

James Lingle is the an independent consultant, formerly the CIO and VP information technology for Sage Hospitality. He can be reached at james@jameslingle.com.

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The long view is 5 GHz. In a nutshell here’s why:

1 Open airwaves – Try as you might you probably cannot create a comprehensive list of all the devices that use the 2.4 GHz spectrum.  Bluetooth, ZigBee, cordless phones, hotspot devices, microwaves and our own wireless access points are just a few of the 2.4 GHz devices you are likely to find in hotels today.  Much like 4G/LTE when it was introduced, the 5 GHz band is relatively free of detritus and provides for a better, faster experience.  No, it won’t last forever, but it will last long enough to allow devices and technology to take advantage of the open airwaves.

2 Device density and capability – The average person carries 2.8 mobile devices into a hotel. Most of the world’s most popular mobile devices now support 5 GHz coverage. While not all of them support the AC standard, it’s coming. The bottom line is that our guests are using it already so let’s enhance their experience by building a better network.

3 New guest experience opportunities and operational efficiencies – Better networks will allow us to deploy new technologies that provide new guest experiences (Apple TV, anyone?), and mobile operational tools that allow our teams to be more efficient in their jobs and their guest interactions.

4 802.11ac – The AC standard was finally ratified in January of 2014.  Now many of the hospitality-centric providers of equipment have introduced their first products to service providers and they are beginning to find their way into the sales stream.  802.11ac offers many advantages to address the concerns that our industry faces particularly device density.  AC access points are also backwards compatible if needed for older guest technologies or heart of house mobile technologies.

5 Dual band APs – One of the greatest advantages of designing a 5 GHz network is that you don’t have to abandon coverage of the 2.4 GHz spectrum. Even if you don’t deploy AC access points, your 802.11n access points can still cover both the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz spectrum. This still allows you a network design that will lower the cost of deployment when you do decide to move to 802.11ac.   

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