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The Battle for the High-Speed 
Internet Guest
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By Geneva Rinehart / Reprinted from the Spring 2000 Issue of Hospitality Upgrade Magazine, formerly the Hotel & Restaurant Technology UPDATE Magazine / grinehart@updateplus.com

February, 1999 - There are few technologies receiving the attention that Internet access in the hotel has been given. Six months ago there were rumors about it, but the technology is here now, and a handful of pioneering hotels have taken the first steps toward implementing high-speed connections for their guests. 

Currently many hotels have data ports in place that allow Internet connections via a phone line and modem to corporate networks or an Internet Service Provider (ISP). While simple to plug into, setting a laptop  to reach a local ISP's access number can be complicated for many users, the connection can be slow and is only as reliable as the hotel switch or local phone company system.

Hotels are constantly reminded of the increased demands on their phone lines between voice and data requirements - known in technology circles as the battle for bandwidth.  Investments in rewiring a hotel to resolve this issue can be prohibitive.  As more travelers want to use the Internet for business, email or leisure this problem will increase.  While the percentage of "road-warrior" business travelers is relatively small today compared to the total travel community, the hype surrounding "High Speed Internet Access In the Hotel" will convince more travelers, business or not, to expect it. 

The companies mentioned in this article provide service and marketing plans for Internet access in the hotel industry, and new ones providing similar solutions are appearing at every turn.  The average hotel is watching those pioneering hotels to see where things go.  And so are we. 

Get outta the way.

The two principle issues driving  this topic are: Internet access for the guest at speeds much higher than conventional modems; and, alleviating stress on the PBX while demand on it increases.

By implementing this new technology , instead of using the hotel's switchboard, high-speed Internet connections can be made through a central computer server at the hotel. That server is hooked to a T-1 or T-3 line, which is a direct pipeline to the Internet. Data can then be accessed at about 1.5 million bits per second (approximately 50 times the speed of a conventional modem). 

Generally, for these types of systems the only requirement for the guest is to carry a laptop with an Ethernet card and the connecting wire. This, while seemingly simple, can potentially become problematic as travelers haven't been educated to always bring along an Ethernet card on their travels or don't know how to configure one the hotel might loan them, or may not want to (know how to) reconfigure their laptop once returning to their office. 

New in-room Internet  technology requires a limited amount of existing infrastructure, usually just a Category 3 wiring system. As such, it can be used to assist older hotels that can't, or won't, rewire their guestrooms.  Most of the major solutions can offer services over an existing infrastructure to allow for simultaneous voice and data, bypassing the PBX, and in turn, eliminating the costly rewiring factor. 

One example of the many solutions catering to the needs of older hotels is Elastic Networks.  Elastic Networks (www.elastic.com), a spin-off of Northern Telecom, developed a prototype of the EtherLoop technology in mid 1996. 

Jeffrey Smith of Elastic Networks said, "The key principle (at Elastic) is to provide Ethernet over a hotel's existing wires where it is physically impossible to rewire to Category 5 wire." 

Besides hurdling the rewiring challenge, Elastic's solution, iProxy, also allows guests to access voice and data simultaneously, connect to the Internet at speeds up to 200x faster than conventional modems and requires no complex configuration set up. Another benefit is it can be implemented without disrupting or disturbing guests and guest rooms. 

Understanding your guests

To make this technology work there must be an understanding of the market as well as an installation and support network capable to deliver such technology, believes Peter Klebanoff, Director of Industry Development at LodgeNet Entertainment, which offers a high-speed connection as an option to its Pay-per-view in-room movie service.  He said,  "By using our (LodgeNet's) understanding of the hotel guest we are delivering ever more robust solutions to improve customer satisfaction, including high-speed Internet connectivity." 

One of the things that sets LodgeNet Online sm (www.lodgenet.com) apart from the other Internet Access Providers  is its use of Virtual Internet Protocol (VIP). The VIP assigns a "legal" IP address to a guest's computer. Other technologies may give a proxy (shared) address for use by the guest. While for the most part this is adequate for surfing and email there are limitations to using a proxy address - key among these is restrictions from accessing virtual private networks, which is where many feel the future of in-room connectivity lies. As with the majority of this technology, the key to success is making this all work while being invisible to the guests and requiring no reconfigurations by them. Hoteliers and providers interviewed agreed overwhelmingly  that ease-of-use for the guest is paramount or the guest will never be persuaded to use it. 

Anyone looking for high-speed connections?

Sticking to the theme of unobtrusive, high-speed connections small providers from other industries are emerging on the hospitality industry.  One such company is Minnesota-based Orbis Internet (www.orbis.net) whose primary business began as an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and whose main interest lies in creating secure, as well as fast, connections, including Virtual Private Networks (VPN).  Using Orbis's hardware a faster signal can be sent over existing copper phone lines and a modem "box" is placed in the guestroom.  This technology uses Digital Subscriber Lines, another technology that utilizes telephone lines to transmit high-speed data. 

Move Over Guest Phone.

San Diego-based ATCOM/Info (www.atcominfo.com) partnered with Microsoft Corp. last year to provide and market a high-speed Internet access solution based on Microsoft's BackOffice family. The ATCOM-developed IPORTT product offers users access to the Internet through a T1 or other high-speed connection. 

A hotel would set up a SQL Server-based LAN and Windows NT server, with Ethernet ports in all the rooms the hotel wants to connect. Hotels can offer the service over existing telephone lines by using CAIS Internet's OverVoice technology, which also allows for simultaneous phone and Internet service. 

According to Stan Julien, Hospitality Industry Marketing Manager at Microsoft Corporation, there are two things driving this technology in the hospitality industry today. The first is a thriving demand for this type of service, keying to the needs of the business traveler. The second deals with the guest's perception of hotels within the business segment. "This is a massive differentiation for the business segment. Hotels in this market will not be able to be without this technology going into the year 2000. It will be more important than having a phone in the guest room." 

Julien believes that one of the benefits of IPORTT is that the basic service can be built upon. "The Internet is only one of the services that IPORTT (and other Internet access solutions) can be used for, for example, in the near future other services offered can be video conferencing, access to pay-per-use premium web sites or software rentals from the guest room." 

As stated before, the challenge facing these leading-edge technologists is educating business travelers to bring along their Ethernet cards with their laptop. While some estimates claim that 75 percent of laptops are equipped with Ethernet cards, perhaps only a fraction of those are mobile with the laptop at all times, since many are left behind in a docking station. Guests need to be aware of the advantages of the high-speeds Ethernet allows and return to their corporate offices encouraging their companies set up Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) so that they can conduct business on the road more efficiently and more securely. 

Portable Radios, Cellular Phones, Why Not Cordless Internet?

If all this Internet-speak isn't newfangled enough for you, the Dallas, Texas-based MobileStar Network (www.mobilestar.com) has taken the technology one step further. MobileStar is bringing high-speed Internet access to the hotel, allowing guests to establish a cordless connection with MobileStar Access Points installed within a hotel.  The Access Points are inconspicuously placed in public areas, such as the hotel bar, lounge, meeting rooms, restaurants or concierge floor and allow the guest to establish a cordless connection at 20-50 times faster than a modem.  The system is designed to allow a large number of connections at one time, making it an excellent amenity for meeting rooms. 

Besides the obvious benefits wireless/cordless offers (no more fumbling for the input or phone jack), the MobileStar solution circumvents the major challenge the other solutions are plagued with: Guests who have forgotten or don't have a modem or Ethernet card can rent MobileStar's special PCMCIA card from a participating hotel's front desk. 

Coined "The Portable Internet" MobileStar is a subscription service. Subscribers pay a low monthly fee and may purchase or lease the special wireless Ethernet (PCMCIA) Card. On the flip side, travelers who are not subscribers can rent the PCMCIA card from the hotel. The card, which fits into the PCMCIA slot of a notebook computer, is actually a radio transmitter that sends digital data to the Access Points. 

"The 'in-the-wall' solutions just don't provide the convenience to the guest, both in cost and connection," said Larry Cain, Vice President, Marketing, MobileStar Network Corporation.

Not only is this wireless connection easy and convenient, it is provided at no cost to the hotel.  MobileStar provides installation, equipment, customer support, maintenance, promotional materials and subscriber billing. This guest amenity is developed as a revenue sharing program. Subscribers pay a low (about $1) access fee each time they connect to the network. The hotel property receives 50 percent of each connection fee incurred at its property. 

"We believe MobileStar provides benefits for everyone. The system is installed at no cost to the hotel, the guest receives easy and convenient service and the hotel receives additional revenue as the system is used," Cain said. 

Into the future

Wide spread use of high-speed Internet connectivity will come after a reasonable installed base is in place validate pricing protocols and demanded services, and after the marketplace better understands that this technology exists and how it can best be utilized. Other similar technologies exist including high-speed Internet access through the guest television. LodgeNet Entertainment andOnCommand   already have similar products implemented for access through the guest television. 

While most of the initial trials have been positive, there is still a long way to go. "This is just the beginning," said Julien, but the industry is buying into the idea. "I confidently predict that at least one major hotel chain will commit to a (high-speed Internet) solution before the end of 1998."  Judging by the number of hotels scouting out these solutions, his prediction is most likely correct.

The utilization for high speed Internet access in the hotel is growing and it will take a few pioneers to get the ball rolling. "Unless hotels are willing to take the leap into the unknown it will only get harder," Klebanoff said.  "But when this technology becomes expected - watch out. It will happen quickly. Hotels need to be aware that in order to be in the game then, they have to be in the game now."

Something to keep in mind if you are building or remodeling a hotel in the near future: Run 4-pair strand Category 5. Allow your hotel to expand as the communication technologies progress. you should be thinking about how to add-on to your phone service as it increases. 

Geneva Rinehart is the Associate Editor of Hospitality Upgrade Magazine and often covers emerging technologies in the hospitality industry 

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Contact:
Geneva Rinehart 
Associate Editor 
Hospitality Upgrade magazine 
and the Hospitality Upgrade.com website 
http:/www.hospitalityupgrade.com
grinehart@updateplus.com
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Also See: Biometric Payment: The New Age of Currency / by Geneva Reinhart / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Mar 2000 
Internet Access for the Road Warrior Easier Than Ever / July 1998 
Technology: A Guide to Lodging Internet Connectivity / HMM / Russell Shaw / June 1998
LodgeNet To Bring Internet Laptop Connectivity to 120 Wingate Inn(R) Hotels / Jan 1999 

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