Definitely Doug 8/11/23: Charge Me Up!

8.11.2023
by Doug Rice
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Few things make travelers more anxious than a mobile phone with a low battery. For years, hotels have tried to play catch-up with evolving mobile device charging standards, and many seem to have given up. Guests can sometimes find desktop or bedside USB ports (dated but still relevant charging standard), but most hotels offer only an electrical outlet, and too many times it is in the most difficult-to-reach location possible. Others have made expensive decisions to install USB ports on bedside tables or work desks, only to find them out of date when the standards changed – or broken by frequent use.

Today’s state-of-the-art wired charging standard is the USB-C Power Delivery (PD) connector. I am sure that a handful of hotels have installed ports for this, but not any that I have yet found. The older USB-A connector has been around for 27 years and mobile phones that can use it for charging at least 16 years. But most phones have moved on to better options (while still usually supporting USB-A if you have the right cables). And while many hotels do indeed offer USB-A charging ports, they are still far from ubiquitous and rarely support the “fast charging” capabilities that mobile phone users now expect.

To be sure, most road warriors carry a set of charging cables and adapters with them, but even then, they may struggle to find a spare outlet where they need it in a hotel room (about a third of the time I end up unplugging the alarm clock to free up an outlet). Cables, connectors, and converters all wear out in heavy use and constant packing and unpacking. In my experience, they always fail at the most inconvenient time.

And wired charging is rapidly becoming obsolete.

Wireless charging, where you simply set your device atop a charging pad or disk, has improved dramatically in the past few years, and is continuing to do so. Unlike wired charging, every major mobile phone manufacturer is now behind the same charging standards, vastly reducing the risk of incompatibility or obsolescence. The now-near-universal wireless charging standard has maintained backward compatibility since its launch 15 years ago. Wireless charging solutions are inexpensive, highly effective, are incredibly simple for guests to use, and can usually charge as well (and often better) than wired charging.

Today’s blog will help you evaluate the options for wireless charging. While you can spend hundreds of dollars on high-end solutions that do much more than just charge a guest’s phone, you can also buy inexpensive standalone wireless chargers for every room. By the end of this year, there will be state-of-the-art options that will support all major mobile phone models and that will be largely future-proof.

If you have not yet implemented wireless charging, there are many good reasons to consider it now.

A Brief History of Wireless Charging

Mobile device charging has never been very easy for hotels to support. Early charging solutions for devices such as the iPod and iPhone used docking stations with proprietary 30-pin connectors. Amazingly, some hotels still have clock radios with 30-pin docks, even though Apple stopped using that connector 11 years ago.

Over time, the industry moved to corded solutions, including USB cables with large rectangular connectors at the power end and miniature (and later micro) angled connectors at the device end. Apple replaced the 30-pin dock connector with the corded USB Lightning connector when it introduced the iPhone 5 in 2012.

Wireless charging has become ubiquitous only within the past few years, but the concept dates back almost two centuries, to the physicist Michael Faraday. An induction coil in the charging unit creates an oscillating electromagnetic field that a receiver coil in the mobile phone can convert back to electricity. One of the first commercial applications, about 30 years ago, was to charge electric toothbrushes.

By 2010, multiple industry consortia had started to develop proposed standards for wireless charging that would allow mobile phones to be charged by simply placing them atop a charging device. However, no single standard emerged as the winner until 2017, when Apple announced its intention to support the “Qi” (pronounced “chee”) standard, developed by the Wireless Power Consortium. Today, nearly 500 mobile manufacturers support this standard, and inexpensive Qi charging devices have become widely available in the consumer market. However, some venues, including hotels, have been slow to adopt them.

The current Qi standard has one major drawback, which is that the device must be placed (and remain) in the exact right location to get the maximum charge, or potentially even any charge at all. Moving the device even a little can cause charging to slow or even stop. It can be hard to tell if the device is properly aligned, and if it is not, charging may fail or take significantly longer.

Apple addressed this problem with the introduction of MagSafe wireless charging in 2020; it uses magnets to hold a phone (or case or other device) in exactly the optimal location for Qi charging. This past January, the Wireless Power Consortium announced that Qi2 would incorporates Apple’s MagSafe design; the commercial launch is expected by year-end and numerous manufacturers expect to have Qi2 certified products in the market at or soon after launch.

This is a major upgrade, and like other changes to the Qi standard over the years, preserves backward compatibility. To my knowledge, every device that has ever supported any version of Qi charging can be charged on every subsequent version. That should provide comfort to hoteliers who were burned by the multiple and still-changing standards of wired charging. Qi chargers from 2012 will still charge today’s mobile phones, just maybe not as fast or as well as the new Qi2 devices.

A Better Charging Solution for Guests

Even today, but particularly with the upcoming launch of the Qi2 standard, wireless charging is a better solution for most hotel guests. It avoids the need for the guest to find an outlet, get a cable and adapter from their bag, and plug it in. It eliminates the frustration when the electrical connection fails at one of the three connection points (power outlet to adapter, adapter to cord, and cord to phone), which can happen due to a poor or loose connection, or by inadvertently moving the device or tripping over the cord. It even works when the guest has lost their charging cord or adapter. Every road warrior can relate to these issues, often carrying spare charging solutions “just to be safe.”

MagSafe and the upcoming Qi2 standard provide visual, audible, and tactile confirmations when a device has been properly placed and is charging. The magnets are strong enough that it takes a fair amount of force to break the connection, so it is hard to inadvertently knock the phone away from the charger. The wattage (up to 15 watts) is higher and charging time faster than USB-A charging solutions (which are usually 5 to 7.5 watts). The fastest wired charging, now available on some newer devices (using up to 27 watts via USB-C chargers) will still not be available with Qi2 for now. But in most cases, 15-watt charging is more than fast enough. And with MagSafe and Qi2, that charging level is achieved more consistently because they ensure better alignment between the device and the charger, meaning a higher average effective wattage.

With wired charging, obsolescence was a major barrier to effective charging solutions, especially in hotel guest rooms. USB ports built into connectivity panels, furniture or light fixtures were expensive, prone to malfunction, and are now mostly out of date. The current state-of-the-art USB-C fast charging standard (Power Delivery, or PD) was introduced in 2012 and is now the default for many newer devices, but can be found in very, very few hotels. And the design of many USB-A connections deployed in hotels can mean replacing an entire, expensive connectivity panel or light fixture when the receptacle fails.

While there is no guarantee that wireless charging will not have obsolescence issues as well, the 15-year history of backward compatibility for Qi, along with the commitment of all major mobile device manufacturers, suggests much lower risk than with wired solutions. Older wireless charging devices can still charge the latest phones (not as fast, but still fast enough for most needs). And many furniture-mounted charging designs support model upgrades with a snap-out, snap-in replacement at a fraction of the cost of replacing an entire connectivity panel or light fixture.

What Every Guest Room Needs

It is no longer enough to put power outlets near the bed and desk for mobile device charging. Many hotels have added USB-A charging ports near one or both, and these are still useful, although (given that almost all travelers carry an adapter) only marginally more so than power outlets. USB-C with PD is becoming more necessary or preferable for many devices, but again travelers will usually have an adapter.

If I were upgrading my wired connectivity options today, I would provide a charging block with a couple fast-charging USB-A ports and one or two USB-C PD ports; these are widely available and in their simplest form factor are available online for less than $10; more elegant designs and flush wall-mount options are also available at various price points, but may be more expensive to replace when they become obsolete.

Wireless charging has become a much more appreciated amenity; it greatly simplifies the guest experience. Wireless chargers supporting MagSafe charging (compatible with the soon-to-be-launched Qi2 standard) cost about $40 from Apple (plus you will need a USB-C PD adapter; generic ones are available for about $5). Since Apple is rarely the price leader. I would expect basic Qi2 units to be available for lower prices once the standard is launched later this year.

Many manufacturers have built in Qi or MagSafe chargers (as well as charging ports and power) into clock radios, lamps, connectivity panels, and other furnishings, while others offer simple chargers designed for placement on or flush mounting in bedside tables, desks, or other furniture.

The former option is often convenient and avoids furniture modifications, but also means that the entire device must be replaced (at significantly higher cost) when any part of it breaks or becomes obsolete. The latter enables much less expensive upgrades or repairs. Flush mounting does require drilling holes in the furniture but has a more elegant look that can appeal to luxury hotels.

While drilling holes in expensive furniture is destructive, most wireless charging manufacturers have supported the same form factor even as the hardware has evolved, making it easy to upgrade furniture-mounted units using the same opening. Given the potential cost to venues that would have to replace furniture if the mounting dimensions changed, manufacturers have good reason to continue supporting same-size swap-outs.

Since most guests now use their phone as an alarm clock, a charging solution is needed at each bedside table in rooms designed for multiple guests. Few things annoy me more than having no place to put (and charge) my phone within reach of my pillow. If it were my hotel, I would embed flush-mounted MagSafe or Q2 chargers in each bedside table. I would then put a charging block (select service) or connectivity panel (upscale/luxury) with power, USB-A and USB-C PD charging ports, and perhaps an HDMI connector on the desktop. Bedside combination panels or mats that can wirelessly charge a phone, a watch, and a wireless headset simultaneously can also be a good choice if space permits.

I would also look at new options that some manufacturers will be offering to support the new Standby Mode that will be part of Apple’s iOS 17 release next month. This is a major enhancement (you can see a great demo here) that turns iPhones into customizable digital displays when not in use, charging, and oriented horizontally. An angled horizontal charging surface (readily available from multiple sources) can make this easily visible from a bedside table. I expect many iPhone owners will make a lot of use of this at home and will appreciate charging solutions that support it at hotels. As with other MagSafe chargers, they will also work on non-Apple devices that support Qi charging, just without (at least for now) the Standby Mode functionality.

There are many buying options for wireless charging. Consumer-grade solutions are readily available through Amazon, Best Buy, and others; for wireless charging, just look for Qi-certified products (products carry the Qi logo, or if in doubt you can check the certification registry here). Certification is important because there are safety issues with wireless charging that can lead to device overheating, damage, or even fire; the Qi standard enforces the highest safety standards through communication between the charger and the device being charged.

Aircharge and Zens are two major companies that manufacture leading-edge wireless charging solutions for hospitality. Both have been active members of the Wireless Power Consortium and contributed extensively to this article, for which I thank them. Numerous other manufacturers and distributors also carry wireless chargers (as well as wired charging accessories, connectivity panels, and combination devices) suitable for hotel use, including Azpen Innovation, Bachmann, Bluelounge, Brandstand, Bretford, Great Useful Stuff, Hotel Collection, Hotel Technologies, iPort, Kube Systems; Mockett, Raffel, SDI, TeleAdapt, Tylt, and Yatra.

Inexpensive Digital Enhancements to Wireless Charging

Charging pads also represent an opportunity for digital engagement with guests. Many manufacturers can put custom advertising or a QR code on the charging surface face. In a guest room, these can be used to invoke a web app for room service ordering, a digital directory, or other services. Aircharge also can embed an NFC tag to enable navigation to the web app via just a tap. The ability to replace QR codes and branding independently of the charger is an important design feature, as is the ability to configure the landing page for the QR code dynamically (without changing the QR code itself).

Within a guest room, the applications of QR codes or NFC tags can often be easily replicated in other ways (stickers, tent cards, etc.). But wireless charging with QR codes or NFC are particularly good solutions for restaurants, bars, meeting rooms, and lobbies, where the app can be used for at-table ordering or service requests.

Over-The-Air Charging

If you research wireless charging, you will see many references to over-the-air charging, which can enable charging devices wirelessly and at a distance (without contact), such as from a transmitter mounted in the ceiling of a large room. This could represent a major opportunity for public spaces (put your phone anywhere in the room and it charges!). Experts I spoke with did not dispute that some of these technologies (such as from Ossia) can work, but felt they had only limited applications to date, most of them not relevant to hotels.

The biggest two issues with over-the-air charging for hotel applications are the lack of an established standard incorporated in common mobile devices, and questions about the safety of human exposure to electromagnetic energy. Lack of standards means that these solutions work only with devices that have power receivers compatible with the transmitters (meaning not Apple or Samsung phones, for example). Safety issues are a cause for concern with using the technology in public spaces where humans are often present.

If the safety issues can be satisfactorily addressed in the future, and if a single over-the-air charging standard emerges, and if common consumer devices like phones and personal computers evolve to support that standard, then there would be some great applications in hotels, such as wireless charging in ballrooms, boardrooms, or public spaces without the need for charging pads and the power distribution to support them. But I am not holding my breath; I think this is still years away, if it ever comes at all.

Conclusion

Wireless charging is the new norm for consumers, and it has many advantages over wired charging for both guests (mostly convenience and reliability) and hotels (over time, replacing expensive solutions with more cost-effective, reliable ones). Qi2 (MagSafe compatible) products should be on the market by year-end or early 2024, and everyone who has used an Apple MagSafe charger can tell you how much more convenient it is than wired charging.

Wireless charging deserves serious consideration in your hotel’s 2024 budget.

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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