|By Vicki Lee Parker, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 16, 2004 - Wi-Fi: It's the new HBO.
Just as the popular cable-television channel was a highly sought-after feature at hotels when it first broadcast more than two decades ago, wireless Internet access is now a "must-have" for business travelers with laptop computers.
And hotel operators, realizing that they can't afford to lose those lucrative customers, are rushing to install Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, connections. The service, which is also popular at cafes, airports and other public "hot spots," allows customers to log on to the Internet without plugs or phone lines.
"If you don't have it, you can forget about getting some business contracts," said Bob Winston, founder and chief executive of Raleigh-based Winston Hotels, which owns 45 hotels, including eight in the Triangle.
Winston's local hotels are among the dozens in the region that have installed wireless equipment in the past year.
National chains are adding it too. Hyatt Hotels & Resorts announced this month that within a year, it plans to offer wireless Internet access in public areas and some rooms in more than 200 of its properties.
About 6,000 hotels around the world now provide Wi-Fi access, according to Pyramid Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm. By 2007, the number will grow to 25,000, said Anshu Dua, a senior analyst at Pyramid.
The services and costs vary from hotel to hotel. Some offer wireless connections in their rooms, while others have Wi-Fi only in the lobby, by the pool or other public areas.
A number of hotels offer free Wi-Fi, but many charge a variety of fees. Some provide free adapters for guests whose laptops do not have wireless equipment.
Eventually, most hotels will probably offer free Wi-Fi, Dua said. He said that wireless Internet access is quickly becoming an expected amenity in the hotel industry, much like free shampoo and cable TV. Such perks earn no revenue for hotels, but hotels must offer them to remain competitive and attract new guests.
Both Winston Hotels and local Holiday Inns offer complimentary Internet services to their customers.
InterContinental Hotels Group, the parent company of Holiday Inn, has said that all properties must have wireless access in guest rooms and public areas by the end of the year. The Holiday Inns in Cary and North Raleigh have been equipped with wired and wireless high-speed Internet service since November, said Jovan Dockmanovich, who manages the hotels.
"We recognize the trends of the business traveler," Dockmanovich said. Wi-Fi "has become the necessity, just as one time it was a big deal to have phones in guest rooms."
It's important for consumers such as Chris Bair, who travels three weeks a month as regional vice president of Inflow, a national Web hosting and data security service company with an office in Durham.
Bair said he prefers the wireless connection over the wired because it gives him the freedom to work in different locations in the hotel, and not be tethered to a wall in his room.
"It's a big criteria," he said. "When you travel alone, sometimes you need to get out and go down to the lobby. It's good to be able to get on your laptop and not just have to read the paper."
As a result of surging demand, hotel managers make special efforts to let customers know they offer Wi-Fi.
The Sheraton Capital Center in downtown Raleigh, which has been offering wireless Internet access since January, posts a sign at the registration desk to let visitors know that it's available: "Got Wi-Fi? We do."
The Hilton North Raleigh has offered wireless online service in its lobby and other public areas for the past three years, said Shirley Hughes, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. The hotel is in the process of extending the wireless connection to its 180 rooms, which should be complete in 60 days. Hughes said there will be no charge to go online in guest rooms.
Most hotels owners prefer installing wireless equipment, to wired high-speed Internet service, Pyramid's Dua said. It helps attract more business and can also help the hotel operate more efficiently, he said. For example, housekeepers could use hand-held computers or other devices to let the front desk know when a room has been cleaned.
But the biggest benefit is that costs less than wiring buildings for high-speed Internet.
Winston Hotels paid $55,000 to wire high-speed Internet service to its Hilton Garden hotel near the airport more than a year ago, Bob Winston said. When it recently installed a wireless system in a similar size hotel, it cost $15,000, he said.
Randy Choplin, chief executive of Raleigh-based WindChannel Communications, which installs wireless technology for businesses, said that a hotel typically pays $100 to $150 per room for wireless equipment, compared with $200 to $300 per room to install wired high-speed Web service.
WindChannel has about 50 hotel clients, Choplin said. Last year it had none.
But for some hotel owners, installing wireless equipment has not been possible. Some structures have made it too difficult to get wireless signals throughout the building, especially in every room. Installing hot spots in lobbies and other public areas is usually simpler.
Holiday Inn's Dockmanovich said that his company was unable to install wireless equipment in its Cary hotel because the building has a lot of steel, which blocks the service. Concrete is another barrier that's tough for the Wi-Fi radio signals to penetrate.
The Cary Holiday Inn offers wireless access in its public areas; guest rooms have wired high-speed Internet service.
There are some travelers who still prefer wired connections because of security concerns. They worry that confidential information could be intercepted as they download it via a wireless link.
Dua with Pyramid Research said some Internet service providers offer virtual private networks, which provide a more secure connection directly to the company's system.
But that could be a drawback for some travelers if the hotel's Internet provider does not recognize their VPN addresses. This occurs because hotels, cafes and other wireless hot spots use a variety of Wi-Fi companies. Some install the VPN equipment, others do not.
"Sometimes I have had problems with my VPN [at hot spots] and it was hard to solve," said Paul Mahoney, account director for Capstrat.com, a Raleigh-based communications firm. He occasionally travels with his laptop.
"If you've got a problem, you are on your own. You can't call up the manager and tell him to redo his entire system," Mahoney said.
Dua said that as technology advances, there will be fewer glitches.
He also said that over time, travelers will notice more small and midsize hotels starting to offer wireless Internet access, depending on their customer base.
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