Jeffrey Stephen Parker
Jun 1, 2014

I R.A.N., I R.A.N. so far away...

I R.A.N., I R.A.N. so far away...

Jeffrey Stephen Parker
Jun 1, 2014

As I sit in my room in Barcelona, I want to catch up on SportsCenter (European sports seem to be all about sailing and soccer). I try to hook my streaming device into the HDMI port of the TV, and I am amazed to find that the HDMI ports have all been locked down. I might understand this in a hotel trying to prop up pay-per-view (PPV), but that is not true at this hotel. They seem to have just locked out the ports to spite me as a traveler.

For the most part, traveling internationally is fun, but often the downside is the television content in the room. There are few if any English-speaking channels, and if there is one, it is always CNN International. If I have to hear one more time about African micro-entrepreneurs…let’s just say content is a problem. This is not just an American abroad issue; it is a problem for travelers even in their own countries. As hoteliers we can never deliver the right amount of content at the right time to the right guest, and it is time we enable our guests to deliver it themselves.

Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku and AppleTV are just a few examples of devices that have become so easy to carry, simple to use and inexpensive that they are becoming issues for hotels. They are issues because guests are befuddled as to why they cannot use these devices in the same manner as they use them at home.

The buzz words are BYOD, BYOE, BYO. The problem is the same: how do hotels deal with the proliferation of devices (from iPads® and Galaxy S®5s to PlayStation® 3 and Xbox One) that our guests are bringing into our rooms. How do we deal with the shift from the Internet primarily being used as a business tool to it being more about social and entertainment?

I am not about to argue the more-bandwidth-vs-more-control vs. tiered pricing here. There have been several great pieces on all aspects of these points in this magazine over the years. I want to focus on what is happening in your rooms, on your networks inside the gateway of your guest networks.

Millions of Chromecast sticks and Roku players have been sold and Amazon just released Fire TV. Xboxes and PS3s have been seen on our networks since they were released. Most laptops come with HDMI out, and a quick search of Amazon or EBay will yield hundreds of HDMI to whatever device you carry dongles.

I know this is not headline news, but pay-per-view is dead. I see you in the back of the room with your hand up, and I am sure you are the one hotel that is actually making tangible monies off of your system, or one of many vendors that has a great ROI spreadsheet; but those are rare exceptions. PPV is not able to deliver the content our guests want, or we have been forced by studios and partners to price content so high that our guests balk at the price.

With Netflix and Amazon, guests have access to hundreds of thousands of titles, many for free with subscription, and we simply cannot compete with that, nor should we. Hotels will never know what episode of “24” room 102 is watching to catch-up before the new season, or have that quirky Nicolas Cage film he did during his artsy phase. (BTW, I am two episodes into season three of “24” and prefer Nick in movies with a little more action.)

Licensing is a big hurdle, and I do not have an answer that will help our solution partners jump over it. Studios are protecting a model that is no longer working. Until they have the epiphany that guests are going to figure out a way to stream (legally or illegally) content to the hotel room, they are not protecting anything. They are only putting us in a position to say no to our guests. That leaves us in a position to enable our guests to use the devices they have to watch what they want. I have seen many a system promise to stream content from my guests’ devices, whether they be tablets or laptops, phones or cameras, but I have yet to see an elegant, simple in-room (versus in-lab) solution. Hoteliers need to push for this and vendors need to really figure it out beyond the demonstration floor.

The answer is our networks, and this is something we can monetize if we do it right and set appropriate guest expectations. You already know WAN, LAN, PAN; it’s time to deploy RAN, room area networks, and set it up so your guests can do it on the fly as an upgrade. A RAN will let guests create a VLAN bubble for them to share content among different personal devices. A RAN is a value proposition to guests. A RAN can be sold.

In my perfect hotel room of the future, I would get a splash screen that offers free Internet, higher speeds for a price, and my own room area network that would allow eight devices that can all talk to each other and a bucket of bandwidth. The dream gateway would then create a custom RAN for the family, room 208 RAN or Jeff’s RAN, as part of the connection process, with its own SSID and key, and the first device would move over to the RAN automatically, with instructions for connecting all the other devices. The best part is: once the RAN is created, the other devices just need the SSID and a shared key to connect, because many devices that stream do not have browsers to authenticate with.

I know some HSIA partners are working on building RANs, particularly to deal with Chromecast. This needs to be simple for our clients, and that is a challenge. The current gateway technologies don’t have the intelligence to move a device to a new network seamlessly. Basically what has to happen on the back end is similar to some of the apps that are doing this, switching networks on the fly. The app for my scale at home can do it, and my washing machine app can do it, it has to be possible for our networks. I have to believe you can innovate something that makes the handoff easy. I hit a button on my phone and it finds the nearest pint of Guinness, there has to be a way. In the short term, give them some easy-to-use instructions to make the switchover.

For families, it’s a value as everyone has one or two devices. The parents can hook up an entertainment streaming gateway to the TV and change to channel 16, which is mapped the easy-to-access HDMI port, and stream whatever content they have at home on their tablet or even on one of these new USB drives that stream. This works for the business person that is catching an out-of-market White Sox game or using the screen to work on a presentation. If done right it can allow for that video call back home.

There is money to be made here, so it is self supporting, you can pay for it, or at least offset some other costs. You can still offer free Internet; this just becomes part of the tier system.

We are in the business of improving the guest experience. I believe if we can perfect the RAN, our guests will continue to run to our hotels.

Jeffrey Stephen Parker, CHTP, is the vice president and Chief Funologist for Stout Street Hospitality.

Potential Problems

1) We are still trying to hold on to a PPV model, partially because diamond and star ratings still include this, and partially because some brands require it, but mostly because we still think we are offering an amenity to our guests they really want. While the case might be they only use PPV because we have disabled other options.

2) We are challenged by supporting devices hooked up to our TVs, so we lock down the ports or make it impossible to access them. This is not new. We did it with component video and S-video, we seem to be stuck in this philosophy as an industry.

3) To address security concerns years ago, we isolated each device network session, protecting guests from each other. This now is biting us in the back side, as guests are bringing in equipment that needs to talk to each other over our networks.

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