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November 19, 2021
Bandwidth & Wi-Fi
Larry Birnbaum

What follows is a relatively quick read on the rather complex question – What can hotels do about cellular coverage? For brevity, this is a U.S. based conversation and simplification of some technical information. There are also many more acronyms which we will ignore definitions. Just know, hotels can now own and operate their own cellular network for on property communications and in the not-too-distant future, enable cellular calls to the rest of the world. How is this possible, you may ask? Read on! 

For a long time now, cellular service has been a double-edged sword for hoteliers. Years ago, telephone and long distance were a significant revenue source for hotels. Cell service began to slowly eat away at these profits as more travelers began to carry first bag phones, then brick phones then the oh-so-cool flip phones. By the time phones could fit into our palms, carriers had initiated roaming agreements. Overnight this revenue source disappeared. Those of us in the U.S. and Canada had free nationwide toll-free service on our personal devices. The rest of the world quickly followed. Now, almost no one touches the phone in the guestroom to make an outside call. 

At the same time, hotels quickly adopted cellular service and similar radio spectrum with Push To Talk options [PTT, synonymous with Nextel] for internal use and operational support services. 

As cellular services improved to 3G then 4G, the cost to carriers to build out these services increased. As the speed increased, the ability to penetrate buildings decreased. So, cell coverage inside buildings began to dissipate as the demand for cellular services increased. 

A solution came in the form of in-building cellular equipment. In some cases, carriers and third-party providers would place equipment in hotels at no cost – or even pay for rights to place equipment in the hotel – to support their subscribers. Over time, these became cost prohibitive, and carriers ceased these programs as well. 

If a guest had poor cell coverage in a hotel, management could view it as an issue between that guest and their carrier. The hotel expected to be held blameless. While guests may have been caught in the middle, hotels found they need these services too as PTT spectrum went away and staff operations became reliant on cellular. 

Which brings us to where we are now. Guests and operators rely on cellular coverage for all communications on their devices, 5G is being built out in cities and metropolitan areas at great expense, faster wireless traffic is unable to penetrate newer Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) efficient building skins. Building operations need internet of things (IoT) devices to reduce costs and improve guest experiences. 

Several people have wished – and some have said out loud – that Wi-Fi and 5G wireless services would eliminate the need for the other. The fact of thematter is both services operate differently, enable different applications for differing devices at different times and both remain highly valuable for travelers. 

So what options are available for hoteliers who are in this bind? Companies can purchase a flavor of radio access networks, (RAN), distributed antenna systems (DAS), small cell (outdoor DAS), microcell (a signal booster) – in short, all the stuff that connects a cell phone and user applications to the internet. 

They can partner with a third-party company and cede control to the service provider in exchange for carrier services at their hotel. Both still rely on cellular carriers, and there’s a monthly recurring cost for devices to enable property communications and other traffic that never leaves the hotel. 

Enter the Federal Communications Commission and some radio spectrums released for commercial use in 2015, named Band 48 (a large, fast-moving spectrum band which had been reserved for the Department of Defense (DOD). Initially called Citizen Broadband Radio Service [CBRS], the trade industry name is OnGo. 

So, we have a big chunk of spectrum which can be used by all, yet still needs some controls. Tier 1 still belongs to the DOD, Tier 2 is reserved for priority access licenses [PAL] and Tier 3 offers general authorized access for the rest of us. OnGo functions like long term evolution (LTE), a type of 4G technology, cell phones and other devices with Band 48 (another name for CBRS) chips installed can work on the network. Samsung, Apple and other makers have been shipping devices with Band 48 chips for some time. 

As with Wi-Fi, property owners can deploy their own OnGo network and enable these devices for communications. OnGo can replace the PTT devices. Since the hotel owns the network and devices, the monthly recurring services model changes. Hotels will have to work out roaming agreements with carriers to move this traffic to their LTE/5G networks and allow cellular calls to move off property. Each of the major mobile network operators, like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.

As with all technologies, early adopters show the value of the services. Fast followers will pick up the technology and start a trend. Mass adoption will create scale to reduce costs and speed deployments. We’ve all seen this time and again. The number of companies building CBRS equipment and platforms is staggering. The OnGo Alliance has close to 200 member companies. The FCC has authorized over 220 client devices for use in the spectrum and the list is growing fast. These devices include CCTV cameras, IoT devices and other sensors. OnGo travels much greater distance than Wi-Fi, so users can place devices in the farthest reaches of a property – they only need local power to communicate. 

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