Having a network infrastructure that balances Wi-Fi and Cellular (3G voice and 4G/LTE Data) is key to meeting the needs of mobile-dependent travelers

By Pam Angelucci

If I were to ask 10 hoteliers who just recently made a sizeable investment in their hotel's Wi-Fi infrastructure, "Do you think your guests are happy?" chances are high that all 10 would say "Yes." The answer to my next question, however, may be more telling . . . "Do you have any dead zones in your hotel? Any places where obtaining a cellular signal is iffy or nonexistent?"

Today's travelers expect to have lightning-fast speeds to connect to the Internet no matter where they are on property, and the same holds true when they want to make calls or access data from their mobile phones. If cellular coverage is weak in some areas of the building and nonexistent in others, guest satisfaction scores may not be as impressive as you expect. The only way to eliminate guest complaints regarding inadequate cellular coverage and improve guest loyalty is to provide a safe and reliable cellular infrastructure.

Consider these recent statistics:

  • 80% of mobile data connections take place indoors
  • 70% of mobile voice connections take place indoors
  • Wireless data traffic is up 50,000% in last seven years (AT&T)
  • 67% of workers use personal devices in the workplace (Microsoft)

Before determining how to ensure a strong cellular infrastructure, it's important to understand the differences between Wi-Fi and Cellular. Wi-Fi in a hotel will enable your guests to access the Internet, but Wi-Fi calling is far from meeting mobile user needs. While many guests will connect their smartphones to the hotel's Wi-Fi upon arrival to access data, transmission speeds will be slower, and network security is questionable. Although technically Wi-Fi does allow Wi-Fi calling in buildings, the problem in its actual application is 3 fold: slow speeds, lack of security, and devices not being set-up for access. There is a lot of lag time (even during conversations), and one would never want to hold a private conversation, such as mobile banking, on a hotel Wi-Fi. To further compound these issues, the latest handsets are required to use Wi-Fi calling. Most handsets doesn't allow it unless they were released 2015 or later.

When guests can't access a cellular network inside the building, it is typically a structural interference problem (such as metal, concrete, and newer, more environmentally efficient materials). For example, LEED glass is often used to improve a building's energy efficiency, but the reflective coating on the window inhibits the penetration of the mobile phone signal if the hotel is using specialty glass the prevents heat loss. In either case, the fix is the responsibility of the hotel and not the carrier.

Cellular carriers are responsible for adding signal-source towers in proximity to the building. If guests can get a strong signal outside the building to make a call, the signal quality from the cell tower is high, and the carrier has done its job. In the past, carriers would fund cellular projects for large resorts in high profile metropolitan areas as long as the hotels were considered anchors of the city or community. Funding for these types of projects is drying up, however, and in some cases, despite signing 10-year exclusive agreements that preclude hotels from doing business with other carriers in exchange for project funding, services are simply not being provided.

If a signal cannot be achieved inside the building, then something structural is lessening the signal quality. The best way to improve signal quality is to add a Distributed Antenna System or DAS.

What is DAS?

DAS is a network spatially separated by antenna nodes connected to a common source via transport medium that provides wireless service within a geographic area or structure. In laymen's terms, it is a system that places DAS amplifiers in areas of the hotel or property where coverage is nonexistent. These boosters can fix areas as small as 5,000 square feet or provide coverage throughout a multi-story property. Once installed, guests and staff will immediately see a three-bar improvement on their phone’s signal strength meter and hotels will see an improvement in satisfaction scores and social media reviews.

Why do hotels need DAS?

There are several reasons why hotels should consider implementing DAS. Guests expect cellular service, period. While today's guestroom phones are ideal for charging mobile devices, guests certainly are not using them to make phone calls. Groups also are demanding exceptional cellular service if the hotel is to secure their business. Staff also requires a strong cellular network to enable them to provide superior service; if the property or brand has an intricate mobile strategy, inadequate cell coverage can make that plan moot. No hotel today can afford negative reviews on social sites. Chances are extremely high that if guests can't make or receive phone calls, they'll tell the world. The bottom line is that ignoring inadequate or nonexistent cellular coverage — even if it's just in one area of your hotel — means that guests and groups may begin ignoring you. Is it worth the risk?

If you're still unsure if your property needs DAS, ask yourself this question: "Have you ever walked out of the hotel and suddenly a voice message pops up?" Guess what — that means you have an issue with the quality of the signal. Just because you can make or receive cell phone calls doesn't mean that the building's cellular network is operating efficiently.

What type of DAS would my property need?

In theory, installing a DAS sounds like a simple fix, but in reality, it's a complex design that isn't yet broadly understood by the architectural/engineering/construction community, and requirements can vary from city to city. In addition, DAS can be costly depending on the specific solution needs. Understanding what DAS can do for your hotel is just first step; Identifying which type of DAS to install comes next.

There are three types of in-building DAS designs: Passive, Active and Hybrid.

Passive DAS design uses coaxial cable, antenna, splitters and BTS (base transceiver station) or BDA (bi-directional amplifier) equipment. These systems utilize a straight coax connection. The coaxial cable is capable of supporting multiple carrier frequencies. Typically there is no amplification between the antenna and BTS equipment, the antennas located farther from the BTS can encounter higher signal loss, thus exhibiting a much lower output power in the downlink and higher noise in the uplink compared with antennas that are closer to the BTS. Passive DAS is the least expensive and can be the perfect solution for properties spanning up to around 300,000 square feet, and beyond in some cases, to keep the cost in line with the property’s budget.

Active DAS design doesn't solely rely on the coaxial cabling from RF source to the antennas. Instead, these systems distribute the signal using managed hubs, remote access units (RAUs) and standard cabling. An active system uses single-mode or multi-mode fiber from a main hub (MHub) to various expansion hubs (EHubs), and then uses fiber or coax cables to connect to each expansion hub to its RAUs and antennas. The optical link allows the EHubs to be located up to 6 km (approx. 3.73 miles) away from the MHub, which is why active DAS design is most commonly used when large coverage/footprints are required (greater than 300,000 square feet). Consequently, active systems are more expensive than passive DAS design due to the active electronics used throughout.

Hybrid DAS design is a combination of passive design (coax) with vertical optical links (fiber) for distributing the signals along the vertical risers of the building. Although the hybrid system has lower signal loss than pure passive systems, the loss still incurs since the antennas are connected via coaxial cable.

Selecting the right type of DAS can be a daunting task; that's why it's critical to find a qualified DAS provider to help make the selection process easier.