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Internet Access - It Better Work!

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October 01, 2013
Guest Services - Internet
Jeremy Rock - JRock@RockITgroup.com

The 2013 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study by JD Power recently confirmed what many of us had suspected for some time.  Internet usage at hotels continues to rise but it’s also the top problem experienced by guests. The report highlighted that of those guests who reportedly experienced a problem during their stay, 31 percent had an issue with their Internet service in terms of either the connection or speed. Internet access is considered a necessity at hotels, and whether the guest has paid for the service or it’s offered complimentary, it still impacts the satisfaction rating for the hotel.

Every year at HITEC I try to read what is happening with bandwidth and Internet access requirements. It wasn’t long ago when people were saying that the need to provide broadband at properties would be limited as the service being offered by 4G cell phones would negate the need for the property to offer the service to its guests. It was soon learned that cellular networks were overwhelmed and extremely limited in their ability to provision the service offering. It is up to hotels to offer increasing amounts of bandwidth required to service the guest’s needs. Over the last few years we predicted that because of advances in technology the demand for connectivity and bandwidth would begin to increase as the adoption of newer technologies and mobile devices by guests becomes more prevalent. As we anticipate an increase in the amount of devices that connect to the Internet and the challenges associated with managing those devices, a look into the functionality and features of smart TVs would see this technology impact the way guests obtain content. While many of these predictions have evolved it is interesting to review some of the key challenges affecting Internet access.

It’s important to understand that the provisioning of guest Internet access can no longer be a basic service. The number of devices connecting to the Internet is increasing and the requirement to manage bandwidth is becoming a critical component to ensuring guest satisfaction. Next, the complexity of the systems and applications that are accessing the network is changing the dynamic of how these networks are engineered, deployed and supported. In many cases hotels are no longer equipped to install and support Internet service on their own. The impact of newer technology and applications has resulted in networks leveraged for both guest and operational use. In many cases, hotels are partnering with solution providers that have the necessary expertise to design, install and support these converged network solutions.

In-room video solutions are also targeting content from the Internet or other sources. Whether hotels are simply looking to augment a free-to-guest service via smart TV applications or they are deploying one of the sophisticated IPTV entertainment solutions, much of the proposed content is designed to be accessed from the Internet. While the real number of deployments that take advantage of this functionality is still relatively tempered at this time, it is expected that this will become the primary driver of content in the future. That is assuming that hotels have sufficient bandwidth and the necessary infrastructure to support the demands of these systems. The success of these systems will be heavily dependent on provisioning and managing sufficient bandwidth to deploy broadband content to multiple devices in the room.

Additionally many of the advanced in-room entertainment system providers are relying on wireless networks to tie mobile devices to the TV. This is necessary to ensure the full functionality of the system’s offering and allows a guest to use his or her mobile device to access the TV or download content. In some cases providers required the property to provide wired and wireless connections so that they can control the digital rights management (DRM) of the content and ensure a seamless integration between the devices and the content system. An interesting key here is that the number of system providers who also want to install and support the Internet network is increasing. Most of the IPTV solution providers now offer this service. The question that always comes up is whether  these providers have the technical expertise to design and install sophisticated converged wired and wireless networks, and the resources to support these complex networks on a 24/7 basis.

The issue of managing the network and bandwidth has gotten more complex. The explosion of the BYOD among guests means that provisioning broadband and managing the connection to each of the guest devices is fairly complex. For the last few years this focused on approximately two or three devices per room. However, the latest reports now indicate that this could be as high as seven or eight devices in a room. This is creating a problem for the gateways to manage the connections as well as the bandwidth and throughput required to service this demand. Hotels need to reengineer these networks to accommodate the anticipated demand on their networks.

It’s important to note that properties are delivering more bandwidth to guests, most notably the luxury and higher-end properties. These segments are also the ones who are predominantly charging for the additional bandwidth usage through tiered pricing models. Upscale hotel’s network also tend to be more complex as they look to converge everything from IPTV entertainment systems to room automation and electronic door locking systems onto the same network.  They also operate wireless administrative applications such as that PMS, POS, rapid response and VoIP communications over the converged networks. Who is engineering these networks, installing them and supporting them? This complex issue combines designing a segmented network that is PCI compliant, managing network connections and throughput as well as bandwidth allocation. Bandwidth at certain properties can be limited which determines what is prioritized and can be a critical part of the overall design features. Understanding what happens to those applications and connections that are impacted by the lack of bandwidth can be critical to guest satisfaction and overall operations. Regular monitoring of bandwidth usage will become critical in the management of these aspects.

Newer technologies and emerging standards are also an issue. Two of the key discussion points include the next generation Wi-Fi w standard of 802.11 AC and Hotspot 2. The new 802.11 AC is expected to offer a huge leap in speed from the current 802.11 N standard that is typically being deployed.  It is reported that the new standard will offer speeds up to 1.3 GBps and operate in the 5.0 Ghz range, a relatively quiet range with less interference. There are a number of additional advantages including the use of beamforming technology, which targets the signal strength to the detected device rather than sending out wireless signals in all directions. There are relatively few devices in the marketplace that are equipped with 802.1 AC wireless networking capabilities, but this is about to change. Apple recently announced that its new Macbooks will be equipped with 802.11 AC capabilities and there are a number of others who will follow. This will impact hotels in the next 12 months and should be a factor when upgrading equipment and networks.

The Hotspot 2.0 initiative is designed to provide mobile devices a way to automatically connect with a home network through a “roaming” arrangement with other members of the alliance. Xfinity started advertising hotspot offerings to customers this past summer. Similar to the way that cell phones can roam on networks around the world, those participating networks would allow users to connect to a Wi-Fi network no matter where the user is located. An advantage of a Hotspot 2.0 network will be that of the security. User devices could automatically be authenticated to the roaming network allowing them to seamlessly connect wherever there is a participating network. Mobile devices that support Hotspot 2.0 are now starting to emerge in the marketplace. Hotels and resorts should keep an eye on this and how it may impact their networks and bandwidth requirements.

If Internet access is the No. 1 complaint for guests now what is going to happen when most of the guest-facing technology is driven off the need for large amounts of bandwidth and stable, robust networks? Let’s face it; the pace of the technology available to guests has overtaken our ability to deploy the necessary infrastructure to use it. If the industry is going to meet and hopefully exceed the guest’s expectations and the only way that we will be able to do this is to try and get ahead of the curve. Hotels need to start anticipating the demand for Internet service now and develop a strategy for addressing the problem both now and in the future. Unless something dramatic changes where the cellular providers are able to provide the necessary bandwidth over their networks, hotels will be required to meet the demands of guests. This will come at a cost and somehow hotels will need to figure out how to provide for this service. Based on the recent J.D. Power survey one thing is for certain; Internet access is a critical service offering to guests and that if you offer the service it had better work – whether you charge for it or not.

Jeremy Rock is the president of RockIT Group, a technology consulting firm specializing in new development and refurbishment projects. He can be reached at JRock@RockITgroup.com.

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