There Is Something in the Air…It’s Your Order

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June 01, 2001
Wireless | Technology
Greg Buzek - greg@ihlservices.com

© 2001 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction or transmission without written permission.

Wireless technology allows hotels, resorts and restaurants to network their remote POS devices with wireless communication to allow the servers to spend more time serving the customers rather than making several trips back and forth to an internal terminal.


Sure, we’ve all been annoyed to hear diners at our favorite restaurants use their cell phones to communicate with friends and family. Let’s face it most of us are guilty of doing this ourselves. In our mobile society these days, we are used to wireless cell phone conversations in restaurants, but most of us probably didn’t realize that many restaurants and resorts are now using wireless technology to network their POS devices. Orders are often being transmitted wirelessly from one end of the restaurant to another right through the air and without the annoying exuberance of the table next to us. Whether located on the outside patio, at a standard counter or in a handheld device, restaurants and resorts alike are quickly adopting radio-frequency wireless communications in their operations.

In the Beginning
In the early ‘90s, wireless POS was first introduced by NCR Corporation as an option for retailers that wanted to upgrade their POS communication speed, but had difficult environments in which to run new wires for an ethernet solution. The wireless solution was an adaptation of a PC-based LAN technology called WaveLAN. WaveLAN could transmit data at 1-2Mbps, about one-fifth the speed of ethernet. The system was effective, but costly. On a per terminal basis, the cost of the wireless connection was nearly $1,000 a terminal, three-to-four times the cost of a wired solution. At the time, a new standard was being developed for this wireless technology called 802.11. NCR, Symbol and Aironet were pioneers of the technology in retail, but there were very few installations throughout because of the high cost. For years this technology remained with the name 802.11, named after the regulatory code for which the standard was being recorded.

Fast-forward a few years and 802.11 has a new name, a much lower cost per node, higher data rates and better reliability. Now called Wi-Fi, this wireless radio frequency technology that operates at 2.4Ghz can send data up to 11Mbps, slightly faster than traditional ethernet, for a cost of approximately $200 per terminal. Symbol, Cisco, Intel, Linksys and others are the key players today. The most significant markets for the technology include warehouses, offices and home networks where multiple PCs, laptops and handheld inventory control systems.
 
Along with the lower cost, these later generation Wi-Fi systems can support distances from 200-500 feet from the access point (an access point is a device that has wireless capability but is connected to the wired network), depending on the openness of the area between access points. While intentionally a general-purpose technology, Wi-Fi technology brings a great deal of promise to the POS environment.

The lower cost is now making the technology viable for a whole host of new POS applications that allow restaurants, hotels and resorts to bring the POS to the customer rather than forcing the customer to come to the POS. When combined with the standard restaurant POS system that is already hardened from the industrial hazards of liquids and grease, these hospitality customers gain the advantage of a POS system that is environmentally appropriate for both indoor/outdoor usage and can transmit the order to the kitchen regardless of where the POS is placed (as long as it is in range of an access point).

For your typical suburban restaurants, the entire POS network can be wireless. For larger resorts, multiple access points might be used to provide for wireless POS units in a variety of locations tied to a central kitchen. Thus, even a POS device at the beach can often communicate with the central kitchen with these new wireless cards.

Wireless technology allows hotels, resorts and restaurants to network their remote POS devices with wireless communication to allow the servers to spend more time serving the customers rather than making several trips back and forth to an internal terminal.
 
In the resort industry, some are taking wireless to a whole new level by moving to fully mobile handheld devices that integrate a POS application with the wireless handheld device. Ameranth and CompuWave are two vendors that provide POS software on the Microsoft Pocket PC or Palm handheld computing platforms that allow for orders to be taken, processed and completed from a remote handheld device. Using a wireless connection and integrating a magnetic stripe reader and printer, the handheld devices allow for the server to enter the order and also accept payment in the presence of the customer. This can provide peace of mind to both the customer and the resort.

For the customer, the handheld device allows them to maintain control of their credit card/room card. For the resort, the wireless handheld device can help eliminate a nagging problem where people claim to be staying in a resort and sign the bill for a room that they do not occupy. With the wireless handheld, the server can verify the room occupant by swiping their room card or swiping a separate credit card immediately from the point of purchase. This can eliminate the embarrassing situation of a customer going to check out and finding a series of bogus charges on their room bill.

Before the Installation
Before deploying a wireless POS network, however, there are a couple of issues that potential customers must consider. The first is security. When deploying a wireless network, the data from card to card in and of itself is not encrypted. This is considered the issue of the application being deployed. Without encryption, anyone with another 802.11 device can listen in on the traffic. Although this might not be critical for coded information for orders, it is critical for credit card data. Thus, before deploying a wireless POS solution, you want to make sure that the POS solution can encrypt the transmission data at both ends of the network.

A second consideration is a site survey of the area where the wireless network will be deployed. Radio frequency technologies have problems bouncing off metals and mirrors. (This is why your cordless phone struggles when you walk into your bathroom.) The best environments for wireless are those places that have large open areas, free from mirrors, large metal objects or heavy walls. The technology will still work in many environments with these objects, but the effective distance might be cut considerably. In other words, you don’t want to have the access point in a hall of mirrors.

A third consideration is what other functions you might want to do with your wireless network. Symbol offers a voice option to their Spectrum24 Wireless LAN product that allows for a user to utilize a phone handset that works on the same wireless network as the POS data. This allows for staff within the confines of the network to be in communication with other staff or even to receive calls from outside sources (reservations, scheduling, information). A resort may also want to do curbside checkin with handheld devices or have a handheld POS at the recreation booth where customers rent a jet ski or sign up for parasailing. These are just some of the applications that can utilize the same wireless network. Potential customers will want to look for vendors that support all of the uses that they would be interested in deploying.
 
Yes, there is something in the air. Wireless POS devices should help increase service and speed at your local restaurant or vacation resort. Now, if they could just remember that side of mayo... .

Greg Buzek is president of IHL Consulting Group, a leading consulting/market research firm that specializes in technologies that are deployed in retail and hospitality establishments. He can be reached at greg@ihlservices.com or visit www.ihlservices.com.  

 



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