Wi-Fi 7, continued access point and switch shortages, Passpoint hotspot deployments, and the convergence of Wi-Fi + 5G are heading our way . . .
By Dick Wagner
With every new year come the most recent studies and latest predictions aimed to forecast trends that will impact our industry. 2023 is no different.
Last week the 2023 Lodging Technology Study was released and not surprisingly, mobility and self-service technologies are taking center stage. At the core of these solutions is Wi-Fi, not just to power guests’ digital experiences, but to ensure that limited workforces have the tools they need to support guests and each other.
The study shows:
• 100% of hoteliers surveyed (representing 18,000 luxury, upscale, midscale and economy properties worldwide) said they currently offer or plan to add mobile check-in, mobile key and mobile reservations this year
• 95% offer or plan to add two-way messaging with guests
• 94% offer or plan to add Smart TVs
To support these technologies, it will take a robust network infrastructure with high-quality internet access capable of delivering exceptional in-room and on-property experiences. Let’s face it, travelers consider Wi-Fi to be the No. 1 amenity for a positive stay, with most guests refusing to rebook with hotels after a poor Wi-Fi experience.
There is also the constant increase in the number of connected devices people travel with and the amount of video content they consume. This puts a growing strain on property bandwidth. And, with the new “work from anywhere” trend, many companies are looking to hotels and lifestyle properties to expand remote working capabilities for employees, while reducing their fixed office space. This new trend is driving extra business users, who tend to be more demanding and have more complex configurations.
So, what do hoteliers need to know today to deliver exceptional Wi-Fi experiences tomorrow and beyond?
Here are 5 predictions from Wi-Fi infrastructure analyst Maravedis that hoteliers should be mindful of as they prepare to future-proof their network infrastructures:
1. Wi-Fi 6/6E Continues Its Fast Market Penetration. Wi-Fi 6/6E grew to a 500 million device ecosystem in just two years, and it was the fastest and most successful launch in Wi-Fi history due to its ability to deliver significant KPI improvements, particularly high throughput, reduced latency, and better performance in crowded environments. Wi-Fi 6 was specifically engineered for a world where “everything is connected all the time,” and it assumes that upload and download speeds need to be symmetric.
Hotels are about a year behind other industries when it comes to next-generation Wi-Fi adoption. When a systems integrator delivers Wi-Fi infrastructure to a hotel, the design is based on the required coverage and bandwidth at the time of installation. With equipment changes happening every five to eight months and property Wi-Fi requirements changing over time, it is possible that additional APs could be added later in the year. In addition, the typical refresh cycle on Wi-Fi equipment is about three years, and that may be the time to do a total property Wi-Fi refresh.
Unless there is a specific application that requires higher bandwidth, most properties remain on Wi-Fi 5 today, with 20% of the market currently running on Wi-Fi 6. Even fewer adopt Wi-Fi 6E, which takes the efficiency features from Wi-Fi 6 and extends them to the 6 GHz band to provide more contiguous spectrum and less interference. Since many hotel brands are placing a bandwidth cap (e.g., 10 MB) in guestrooms, it does not make financial sense to invest in the more costly 100 MG pipeline delivered by 6E, unless it is offered complimentary with a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade.
The bottom line is this: hotels opting to upgrade their networks to Wi-Fi 6/6E in 2023 will likely start with public areas and meeting spaces due to demand; guestrooms will follow in 2024.
2. Wi-Fi 7 is coming Earlier Than Expected. Wi-Fi 7 is designed to use all of this newly available bandwidth, with features including 320 MHz wide channels, true multi-band/multi-radio Layer 2 carrier aggregation, and multi-AP coordination. In terms of the timeline, the IEEE expects board approval by May 2024, with official standardized Wi-Fi 7 devices entering the market from 2025 onwards. Chipsets for Wi-Fi 7 have already been available for several months, and routers will continue to be released during 2023 following TP Link, H3C, and IO by HFCL 2022 releases. We can also expect Wi-Fi 7 phones to be released at Mobile World Congress at the end of February 2023. In 2023, we will see early trials of Wi-Fi 7 in different live deployment environments, and the Wireless Broadband Alliance members will be some of the first to do so.
Hoteliers should not be concerned with Wi-Fi 7 today as mass demand does not exist, and there are few components, if any, available to support it. Unless a hotel is operating with an older version of a Wi-Fi (802.11 standard) network architecture (that is no longer supported) and has widespread demand for bandwidth due to multiple conventions running simultaneously while also needing to support thousands of guestrooms in multiple buildings, the migration to Wi-Fi 7 can wait. Getting mass deployment of Wi-Fi 6 across the industry over the next two years should take precedence.
3. Supply chain issues will remain for access points and switches. Although there are shorter backlogs, we expect supply chain issues to remain through 2023. Global political unrest, a lack of raw materials, and rising fuel and energy costs are the top reasons supply chain challenges will continue in 2023. The recent lockdowns in China will also contribute to maintaining uncertainty in the IT supply chain. Despite these challenges, the backlog will decrease from 5 to 6 months to 2 to 3 months, and by the end of 2023 to 6 weeks — if no major new events occur to again disrupt the supply chain.
In August 2022, the CHIPS Act of 2022 (H.R. 4346) was signed into law. The legislation provides $52 billion for semiconductor manufacturing incentives and research investments, as well as an investment tax credit for semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. While the new law must still be implemented effectively and efficiently to realize its potential, the CHIPS Act has already sparked private investments in the U.S. that will strengthen the U.S. economy, job creation and supply chain resilience.
The great news for the hotel industry is that operators don’t need to wait for this to happen to immediately receive the networking components they need. Despite industry-wide supply chain challenges, stock is available without delay. Hotels needing wireless access points, WLAN controllers and LAN switches can purchase them now from a supplier obtaining its equipment from manufacturers and OEM partners outside of China where supply problems are nonexistent. Forget waiting 52 weeks to get back-logged supply. Hoteliers can affordably upgrade their infrastructure today with the latest Wi-Fi 6 technology and effectively meet the exponential internet and IoT growth demands.
4. Deployments of Passpoint or OpenRoaming™ will gain momentum. For the OpenRoaming initiative from the Wireless Broadband Alliance, 2022 has been quite rich. By December 2023, the WBA anticipates OpenRoaming to reach 5 to 6 million hotspots — from 1 million in Q1 2022 — spanning a wide variety of public venues and already involving 2,000 companies. Deployments of Passpoint/OpenRoaming continue to rise as more brands and identity providers recognize the value of the federation to enable seamless connectivity access across different networks.
Passpoint is gaining popularity in all areas of travel. For those unfamiliar with this technology, Passpoint is a protocol developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) that allows Wi-Fi-enabled devices to discover and authenticate to Wi-Fi hotspots that provide access to the internet and internal networks. Passpoint secures access to Wi-Fi networks by encrypting the traffic sent over the wireless infrastructure, provides users with seamless connectivity to the Wi-Fi infrastructure without any user interaction, offers seamless roaming between locations where the user’s device is configured to access the network, and allows optional cellular carrier roaming where the user’s device has been configured to interoperate with the specific carrier. It is designed to operate in the same manner as cellular in that it provides seamless roaming between different carriers, while at the same time providing the user with a secure connection.
The benefits of Passpoint are convenience and security. Passpoint enables guests to log onto the hotel’s network seamlessly, without need for the PMS to look up their personally identifiable information (PII) or for guests to enter passwords. It provides the encrypted connection that travelers demand but most hotels don’t offer today. To better understand how Passpoint can be deployed at each stage of the traveler’s journey, click here.
Mass deployment of Passpoint across a major global brand will be announced later this year, with several installations underway. While brand-wide implementation is not that difficult to do, there is some resistance as smaller brands struggle with the idea of building back-end authentication themselves. Here’s more good news: some vendors will do all the hard work on the brand’s behalf.
5. Convergence Between Wi-Fi and 5G. Convergence and coexistence are always [on Maravedis’] radar as use cases emerge that work optimally over multiple types of connectivity. The convergence between licensed and unlicensed technologies will continue to play a critical role in service providers’ current and future strategies (whether they admit it or not). There is a particular agreement and focus on convergence in enterprise settings, where many stakeholders believe Wi-Fi and 5G will coexist to support enhanced flexibility for enterprise services.
Today consumers are beginning to see the replacement of copper wire or fiber connections in their homes with 5G. The next evolution will be the migration from 5G roaming to Wi-Fi 6. Should hotels jump on this bandwagon and integrate 5G and Wi-Fi 6 (a multi-access edge computing/MEC gateway between cell carriers and the hotel must exist), it would bring several benefits. For instance, a van driver using their 5G cell phone can instantly and seamlessly access the hotel’s Wi-Fi 6 network and have full transparency to shuttle bookings as if they were on the premises, or a guest off-site can order food to be delivered to the room or check room-cleaning status before returning to the hotel.
As long as guests have already checked in, they can take full advantage of the integrated 5G to Wi-Fi 6 network no matter where they are located. In addition, when on-site a guest’s 5G mobile device can automatically roam on the Wi-Fi 6 network, offering seamless connectivity. Wi-Fi 6 is table stakes for this functionality to exist. Hotels upgrading today can take full advantage of this integration capability when cell carriers begin offering the service tomorrow. Pent-up demand for this service exists among travelers today.
According to the 2023 Lodging Technology Study, “the promise of 5G to bring about digital transformation for hotel guests is well established — a robust technology infrastructure is available to deliver exceptional in-room and on-property experiences, entertainment, and so many other guest-facing and operational benefits.” The study further shows increased interest in artificial intelligence, biometrics, and voice-enabled devices, technologies that just a few years ago seemed over the horizon.
In hotels, a strong Wi-Fi connection is like hot water – you’ve got to offer it for guests to remain and return. If the hotel’s network is not “at least as good” as what travelers have in their homes, operators will not be able to remain in business. People are traveling again. The hotel’s network will determine where they stay.