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Internet Access: Keeping Up with Changing Requirements

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June 01, 2012
Internet Access
Jeremy Rock - jrock@rockitgroup.com

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The reality of providing high-speed quality Internet access at a property has become extremely complex in a very short space of time. Newer technologies and the insatiable demand for bandwidth have changed the playing field and many properties are being left behind for a variety of reasons, the least of which are infrastructure constraints. Remember the days when everyone in the industry referred to high-speed Internet access as simply HSIA? The term HSIA has really been replaced by simply Internet access and the expectation is the service is fast, and the way that it is provisioned at your property could have a dramatic impact on the services that you ultimately provide to your guests and your hotel operations.

What has changed and what are the key issues? More importantly, what key factors should be considered when partnering with an industry solution provider?

Key Factor: No.1
Understanding Providers
The first thing to understand is that generally speaking most of the current industry solution providers appear to be using the same basic wireless access points and network switching equipment for their deployments. If you poll a number of the hotel companies and service providers you will find that they have the same generally approved access points, controllers and switching equipment that they deploy at their properties. Effectively this means that the defining differences between various providers is typically determined by seven important items as shown in the adjacent sidebar.

From a generalized point of view, the key difference between many of the providers typically comes down to the backend solution, technical capabilities and overall support.  Where hotels used to be held somewhat hostage to a provider due to the level of the capital investment that they made in their proprietary equipment, they can now technically reuse most of the equipment should they desire to switch to another provider. 

Key Factor: No. 2
Bandwidth Management
The second key factor is bandwidth management. The number of devices that we are now attaching to the networks has grown substantially. Many guests are traveling with three or more devices each needing the Internet. Additionally, there are the increasing demands placed on bandwidth from multiple areas on property including: guest Internet access (premium and basic service), IPTV,  meeting/function space, administrative requirements, and cellular communications (offloading of cellular traffic onto networks).
As such, properties must provide sufficient bandwidth to meet these demands and there needs to be a way to effectively manage the bandwidth across all key demand requirements.

Most properties are primarily focused on offering tiered pricing options, and need to ensure that they are delivering the bandwidth sold to guests.

The worst thing that a property can do is promise a certain amount of bandwidth and then not deliver. The bottom line: it is critical to ensure that you have sufficient bandwidth to meet and hopefully exceed guests’ expectations.

We are looking at a moving target and the usage levels continue to rise as technology requirements change. Fortunately, there are tools and methodologies that can be deployed to assist addressing the demand. Through the use of link/load balancing devices properties can take advantage of a multitude of circuit options to ensure that in most cases they are providing the necessary bandwidth to deliver the services required. Some providers, such as Ethostream, are also building these features into their backend gateways, which allows the system to attach and control multiple circuits being provisioned at the hotel.

Because the majority of usage is focused on data downloads, many properties are deploying cable modems and other solutions that offer fairly inexpensive options for delivering bandwidth and limit the amount of expensive options that are focused on upload speeds. The additional circuits also provide redundancy in the event that the primary circuits fail. In most markets the price of bandwidth is coming down and many properties can access fiber-based options for reasonable pricing.

Key Factor: No.3
The third item of note is that of the increased use of the guest wireless Internet network to operate administrative applications. More and more properties are trying to leverage their guests’ wireless networks for the use of administrative applications and communications. From VoIP applications to POS applications, hotels are taking advantage of the wireless networks to deploy and operate new mobile applications to enhance their service offerings. By tying in traditional in-room technologies such as energy management and electronic door locking systems, properties can maximize their ability to control and manage important operational systems. In the past, properties would deploy two separate physical networks to ensure the security of the information that was transmitted on the administrative network. Today, properties are able to use the same physical networks through the use of VLANs and firewalls. The property’s service provider must assist with engineering solutions that allow the property to take advantage of the guest network and leverage the existing infrastructure and support. Given the importance of securing the data on these networks, service providers need to provide the necessary data and network security on their networks to meet PCI and other data compliance requirements.

Key Factor: No. 4
As a fourth element, infrastructure and overall network engineering design need to be considered. Most solutions require that access points be placed in strategic locations within building structures to provide effective signal coverage throughout the hotel. Solution providers typically use predictive modeling applications to assist them with the identification of the locations for these access points and where they require connectivity. Often this can prove to be problematic, especially in cases where the engineering model does not take into account the surrounding building materials that can impede signal or locations where major construction efforts will be required to install new cable and locate the access point. In many cases a work around solution may be cost effective and can alleviate some of the costs associated with rewiring the building.

Using a solution provider that truly understands how to design infrastructures and understands the construction process can prove to be invaluable. While new category 6 or 6a cabling is usually preferred, there are a number of alternative options that are either on the market or coming to market that can be considered in instances where new cabling is not an option. Some of these alternatives include but are not limited to, mesh architecture (amplifying the signal and tying into surrounding access points), Ethernet over copper solutions, which can facilitate broadband over Cat 3 cabling (i.e., Phybridge), and IP over coax solutions.  Some companies are working on a relatively inexpensive access point that will attach to the VOD set-top boxes. Most providers will always prefer the installation of new cable in the building as it future proofs the property for newer technology deployments.

There is also the relatively new trend of using tiered pricing structures for managing bandwidth and charging guests for premium service. Hotels are moving to this method of managing the service provided to guests for these key reasons:

1. It provides guests with a free service offering. While most hotels severely limit the bandwidth on this free offering, it is designed to allow guests to connect and download basic email and provide for minimal surfing of the Internet.

2. The second and third tiers offer guests the option of purchasing a premium service for the streaming of broadband content.

Overall this structure offers guests the service that they desire while still allowing the hotel to generate revenue to offset the costs of providing the service.

There are some downsides to the pricing structure which should also be taken into account. Most guests will initially try to connect to the free service to avoid having to pay for the service. (It’s human nature to always try to get things for free.) The problem arises when a guest discovers that the basic service is not working adequately and they want to upgrade. Most systems do not allow guests to return to the splash page or easily find the option to upgrade the service. Guests either end up calling support to get the upgrade or just use the slower speed. Either way this results in a negative experience for the guest.

If you charge guests for the premium service you had better have the bandwidth to back this up. A hotel cannot charge for a service and then not deliver the bandwidth. Many guests are technologically savvy and are prone to running speed tests when service is impacted.

It is often difficult to attach multiple guest devices (such as a guest's iPad and smartphone) as the sign-up option only allows for one connection per room.
Given these challenges, the key question is who should I go with as a service/solution provider? While the question seems fairly simple and easy to address the truth is far from it. Properties can be very complex and a proper understanding of their requirements both now and in the future needs to be undertaken before the vetting process. There are many good Internet solution providers in the marketplace, but for the most part they are specialized. It’s not a question of one size fits all.  The providers have varying degrees of technical expertise and support mechanisms, as well as different price offerings and these all need to be considered.

The key challenge in determining which companies are best equipped to provide a solution for a particular property comes down to understanding what the hotel is trying to offer and facilitate from a technology perspective. If one looks at who is offering services in today’s market, you generally find that providers come from the one of the following focused areas:

Guest Internet Service Providers: Companies whose primary focus is that of providing good and consistent Internet service in the guestrooms. The networks are designed to provide guests with options for wireless and/or hardwired in room and often other areas of the property. These providers typically install and manage a gateway on the back-end of the network and interface to the PMS to be able to charge for service or authenticate the user. While some companies have skilled resources that can configure, engineer, install and support converged networks, for others this may not be a core competency.  Understanding a company’s capabilities and resources are key to making the right selection.

In-room Entertainment/IPTV Solution Providers: There are a number of IPTV companies in the market whose core business is that of providing Internet services to the guestroom. These companies are focused on providing IPTV systems where the content is largely Internet driven. They have the ability to combine video and Internet access into single packages and deliver VOD content from their systems to mobile devices assuming the security protocols are in place. The IPTV solution providers typically also have the ability to integrate administrative network requirements into a secure converged network, and interface with Intelity devices to provide added guest access features. 

Audio Visual Companies: The AV companies’ primary focus is delivering an integrated solution between the meeting/function spaces and guestrooms. These companies provide an added advantage in that most have support personnel onsite during the day to act as first-tier user support. They are able to deploy Internet access for group and meeting functions on an as needed basis.

The bottom line is that properties need to know and understand their specific requirements prior to engaging with a solution provider to ensure that all their needs and requirement are going to be met.

Lastly it’s important to realize that usage and Internet requirements for properties are changing. The industry is moving to an era where applications and solutions are hosted rather than premised-based. Content is located in the cloud where everyone is dependent on accessing information from a distance. As a result the demand for bandwidth is continually growing and properties need to ensure a position to accommodate the changes in technology as they become available.

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.

©2012 Hospitality Upgrade
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The defining differences between various providers is typically determined by the following:
  • Back-end gateway and head-end equipment
  • Effective engineering capabilities of the company
  • The ability to support multiple networks and converged networks
  • The ability to effectively install and support their solutions
  • The ability to interface with other systems and accommodate multiple devices in the guestroom
  • The ability to manage bandwidth
  • The level of user support offered to properties
Tiered Pricing Structures: Challenges
1 When basic services are not adequate does the system have an easy way for a guest to upgrade to the premium service?
2 If a property charges for bandwidth, deliver. This is not negotiable.
3 When guests bring multiple devices to a hotel many sign-up options only allow for one connection per room.

Which provider is right for you?
There are many good Internet solution providers in the marketplace, but for the most part they are specialized. 
Please check out the following providers found in this issue:
Blueprint RF, pg. 92
Bright House, pg. 103
Guarded Systems, pg. 155
Guest-tek, pg. 108
Intello, pg. 113
LodgeNet, pg. 52
SuiteLinq, pg. 167
Verizon Wireless, pg 51
Windstream Integrated Solutions, pg. 185

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