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The Impact of 4G: Bandwidth Gets Personal

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November 01, 2009
Internet Connectivity
Trevor Warner

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© 2009 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Twelve years ago Magnolia Hotels went through his first major technology overhaul, adding a second telephone line to all their rooms. Second lines were a critical to attracting the business traveler. The costs were enormous, and the technology was short-lived as Ethernet and wireless quickly made the investment obsolete. Now after overhauling the existing HSIA networks for better wired and wireless coverage Magnolia Hotels is wrestling with the question; are the emerging high-speed networks from the cellular carriers going to make my investment obsolete in a few years?

Current cellular technology (3G) is already a viable option for the consumer.  Take a commuter rail or sit at an airport bar and you’ll see dozens of dongles connecting users to EDGE and EVDO networks. Third generation mobile networks typically deliver between 768kbps and 3 MBPS, comfortable speeds for collecting e-mail and Web surfing, and while streaming video is possible, compression and inconsistency make the experience less then ideal. 

High-speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA or HSPA) is being promoted by AT&T, expanding on their GSM infrastructure, and is currently in over 100 markets. Rated at up to 7MBPS, this 3.5g network bridges several gaps and makes video realistic. AT&T has committed to start rolling out 20 MBPS by the end of the 2009.

4G is the next step and we’ve already begun to take it.  Sprint and Clearwire are working on deploying the first fourth generation network in the U.S., brand named Xhom. Xhom and Clearwire already have a foothold in several small test markets. This technology is based on WIMAXX and promises to be four to five times faster then the top speeds of current EVDO networks.

Verizon is pushing ahead with LTE testing in Seattle and Boston, promising to be 15 to 100 times faster then EVDO, AT&T will be pushing LTE at a slower pace as they have HPDSA (3.5G) in place and do not need to make the technology jump that Verizon and Sprint are forced to. T-Mobile (who we all agree has the best spokesperson) is also bringing LTE to the states from Europe where it is already successfully deployed. 
Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) like HP and Qwest resell other networks--typically Sprint, Verizon or AT&T. While these are the same networks, the big boys usually reserve their premium services and trickle them slowly to these other companies that can be viewed by consumers as competitors.

Fourth generation services have an advantage over your current network because of consistent experience, known costs and security. The users know that the system works the same way each time while hotel networks have splash screens, walled gardens and complex acceptable use agreements. Technology and security teams love cellular because you can configure company equipment to work with VPNs, antimalware, content filtering and file systems. These 4G networks also insulate costs, as they are fixed and hotel prices can range from free to $20 or more per day. 

Hotels with quality networks still have a few advantages, like consistent coverage and higher speed, but only for a short period. While 3G networks have bigger coverage areas, they often have inconsistent speeds; (my EVDO card seems to fly at the airport, but often gets modem speeds when I am downtown). Coverage and interference are the main villains here, signals bounce differently off of glass, concrete and steel then carpet and drywall. Hotels have the ability to deploy access points to eliminate cold spots and often back wireless up with a wired connection; This is not feasible in a metropolitan area for the cellular carriers as zoning and usage rights dictate the amount and type of antennas that can be placed.

Fourth generation networks will overcome some of this, as the new technology allows better coverage from a single antenna array then current networks do and speeds will overcome current hotel bandwidth in the coming months. Cellular speeds are promising to approach the real life speed of fiber optic cable in the 4.5 and 5g iterations.  Hotels are already struggling to deliver the amount of bandwidth that users have at home (U.S. average 3.6 MBPS) and will become increasingly challenged to keep up.

With 4G speeds threatening to move consumers to the air waves, traditional ISPs are trying to position themselves as a better value and are getting faster.  COX, Time Warner and Comcast use a cable technology called DOCSIS 3.0 which is delivering up to 150 mbps. Qwest and several other local exchange carriers are offering 20 mbps or more for as little as $50 a month.  As the bandwidth race unfolds it opens up the development of pushing richer content which will ultimately drive the consumer response to choosing a provider.

The adoption rate for 4G will be faster than any of its predecessors as consumers have become technology savvy as it relates to personal devices/services.  Laptops are already manufactured with embedded multi-antenna chips that will work with any carrier the user wants. Personal devices have become so user friendly that even the simplest user can quickly adapt.  In the case of 4G, the consumer doesn’t make a behavioral change to adapt; the carrier makes the change behind the scenes.  Most importantly, 4G simplifies the connection process providing significantly more consistency than traditional hotel networks as guests move from hotel to hotel.  The downsides of extended connections are also being overcome.  For example, NTT DoCoMo, one of the leaders of 4G, has developed the use of solar mobile phones (self-charging) as the cornerstone for delivering movies, streaming video, games and other content rapidly over the network.  Speed, content and battery life.

4G will greatly accelerate the decline of the traditional hotel guest network, but the network will not go away.  For now, the consumer still demands the network as back up should the 3G option fail.  For hotel operations, the transition has already begun to move life safety, energy management and staff communications to the existing network.  We also see the deployment of distributed antenna systems (DAS) that repeats cellular signals allowing guests the ability to connect even in currently low signal areas of your hotel.  In the end you have a network in place to save energy, deliver new services to guests and disperse your staff in a more efficient and productive manner…and give the occasional guest a connection to the Internet.  

Trevor Warner is the president of Warner Consulting Group and co-wrote this article with Jeff Parker, the vice president of technology for Magnolia Hotels.

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