High Speed Internet Access: No Longer "Optional".
By Chris Hartmann
Sunday, 4th June 2006
High-speed Internet access is quickly becoming a required amenity. This article provides some background and advice on this important part of the guest experience.

The world's largest hotel affiliation, Best Western International, announced in 2004 that high-speed Internet access will be available in all properties (though not all rooms) by the end of that year. Likewise, Marriott and Hilton began mandating access last year for all new properties while widespread adoption continues at existing owned, operated and franchised properties. Their initiatives are likely to make Internet access a necessary, competitive amenity at almost every hotel in the U.S.

If you are one of the many hoteliers now scrambling to install high-speed Internet access in your property, here are some tips for a successful experience. And for anyone who still believes that a dataport and a second phone line constitute high-speed Internet access – sorry, it's not even close.

End to End
A guest Internet connection begins at the guest's computer and ends at the Internet connection point. That may sound obvious, but many people focus on the hotel's wired or wireless infrastructure and assume that that's all they have to worry about. Let's work backwards (from the Internet back to the guest's computer) and examine the components of high-speed Internet access.

Making the Connection
There are three main ways to connect the hotel to the Internet: dedicated (T1), cable modem, and DSL (digital subscriber line). Connection speeds can be anywhere from 128Kb and up. I would not recommend anything less than 512Kb throughput. Of course the greater the throughput, the better the access for each guest, and more guests can share the Internet without a noticeable degradation. A T1 line supports 30-50 simultaneous users. While cable modems may have a theoretically greater throughput, they are not designed to handle more concurrent users. Availability of DSL may be limited in some areas.

This connection can range up to the speed of a full T1 and even much higher, at a lower cost than a T1. The major differences are 1) no performance or uptime guarantees, and 2) they usually download much faster than they upload – which is actually a good thing for a hotel.

Your connection to the Internet can go to a tier-1 (basically, right on the Internet), tier-2 (to a tier-1 point) or through a tier-3 or -4 provider. Though not exact, the closer to tier-1, the faster and more reliable the connection. A tier-1 connection is likely to be only available as a dedicated T1 circuit. Another consideration that becomes important is called a "static IP address". Almost all business Internet connections are available with a static IP address for a nominal additional cost and you should opt for it. A static IP address makes it possible to have more secure connections called VPNs (more on that below) for your guests and provides some other benefits as well.

Managing It All
Once the hotel has established a secure and reliable connection to the Internet, equipment to "manage" that connection is needed. The connection supplier will most likely provide a modem or router. The other components, supplied either by the hotel or a network management company include a firewall and (optionally) a connection host server. The server is required for billing usage and for bandwidth management (explained later under "You Get What You Pay For"). The firewall protects guests from hackers and can also be used to provide VPN services. A VPN (virtual private network) secures data traffic between the guest's computer and a remote network, by encrypting data between the guest's computer and their corporate server. VPN offers the assurance of decent security on a wireless connection and also makes a wired connection more secure. As indicated previously, a guest's ability to use their VPN requires the hotel to have obtained a static IP address.

With an Internet connection, firewall and (maybe) a connection server, you now need to complete the connection to the guest's computer. A hub or switch is also required – the device allows multiple computers to share one Internet connection. Switches are recommended as they keep computers better separated, provide greater throughput and cost only a little extra. Hubs and switches can be connected to other hubs and switches, so a single connection can be subdivided many times. For the rest of this article, I'm going to refer to "hub or switch" as simply "switch".

Wiring it all together – or Not
The wired verses wireless debate rages on, with many hotels unwisely deferring installation until they perceive consensus or defeat of one of the camps. Proponents and opponents of wireless will still be debating at the end of this decade, long after the majority of good hotels have addressed their guest's increasing need for access – in one way or another. Wireless is a bit of a misnomer in that wires are still needed, just not as many and not to each computer. Instead, a wire is run from a switch to a wireless access point (WAP). The WAP is a transmitter and receiver that talks to a wireless card in the guest's computer (or another wireless device) and transmits data between itself and the network (switch). Wireless access has some inherent limitations, but one big (obvious) advantage – no wires needed. The limitations are: 1) security: because it is a radio signal it's easy for someone to "eavesdrop", and 2) throughput: each access point must share its total throughput with everyone who is "talking" to that access point. Therefore if one computer is "talking" slowly, every other computer talks slowly as well.

Many new computers have built-in wireless capabilities and many guests who travel have wireless cards with them. It's advisable however, for the hotel to have some wireless devices for loan or rental. Wireless cards and USB wireless network devices can sometimes cause problems if they require that software be installed. In some cases a guest's computer settings may have to be altered in order to work. Wireless Ethernet Bridges, available from many wireless providers, are self-contained wireless cards that have a standard wired connection coming from them that connects to the computer. These devices look like a wired connection to the computer and don't require any software installation. The most portable units get their power from the computer's USB port and therefore don't need to be plugged into the wall.

Beyond the scope of this article is discussion on how and where to place wireless access points to ensure maximum coverage within the hotel. Suffice it to say this is best left to professionals who will bring some Star Trek equipment to the building to measure the signal transmission characteristics of the hotel.

Wired connections to guest and meeting rooms come in four flavors: 1) new wire (recommended cat6 or cat5e), 2) a pair of unused (low quality) telephone lines, 3) sharing the phone line with the phone, and 4) sharing the video (coax) cable with the TV (least common). New wire will provide the greatest throughput by far, but even the slowest of these connections will be more than adequate to handle Internet traffic. Wiring that relies on sharing the phone wires or using existing, older telephone wires, should be tested by the supplier and similar to the new wiring, should come with a guarantee. The equipment necessary to share the lines will be more expensive than that needed for new wiring and less reliable over the long run, so it's not a step I would recommend unless there is a significantly larger expense in running new wires.

Billing is simpler with wired connections because you know where the connection is being made (which room) and can bill accordingly, most often on the guest folio. Wireless requires some sort of passcode or credit card number entry in order to establish billing or even the "right to use" since a wireless connection can be made from anyone within range of the access point, even someone outside the hotel.

You Get What You Pay For
As for billing and rate, that should be determined by the property and the practices of its competitors. In general, guests do not mind paying for Internet access provided it's reliable and provides reasonable throughput. Giving away access and having 100 guests sharing a single 256k DSL connection to the Internet is not going to make anyone happy. Personally, I favor bandwidth-based charges, where low throughput is free, but guests pay a reasonable amount for more capacity. This however requires more sophisticated equipment and billing software that is not offered by all service suppliers. Your service provider should provide billing (and in the case of wireless, authentication also) equipment and software.

An important component of guest Internet access is support. For most hotels, having a knowledgeable person available most or all of the day to help guests get on the Internet is not an option. In a hotel with any sort of business clientele, it's important to have a service provider that supplies 24/7 support for guests. At the same time, there must be someone at the hotel that can work with the supplier's support center in resolving hardware (hotel, not guest) problems that arise. This person needs to be comfortable with computers and basic networking (like making sure a network cable is not defective), but by no means needs to be a dedicated "techie".

Do You See What I See?
The last piece of the high-speed access puzzle is content. What do guests see when they connect to the Internet? First, I strongly recommend a disclaimer. Most of the service providers supply these, but you may want to have your legal counsel review and revise it. It's important that guests acknowledge that viruses, access to inappropriate or even illegal material and any other data transmission through the Internet is their responsibility and the hotel accepts no liability. You might also inform guests that the hotel and its suppliers will cooperate with law enforcement in any way you deem appropriate and that the guest will not be informed of such cooperation. I'm not a lawyer, so the exact language should be carefully crafted. It's not adequate to simply have the conditions available, the guest should be asked to acknowledge that they accept them (again, a personal, not a legal opinion) before proceeding to the Internet. Some hotels provide free access to a limited amount of information and charge for general Internet access. The limited content is called a "walled garden" and generally includes information about the property and related properties and often local news, weather and attractions.

Separate but Equal
Another consideration when providing Internet access to guests is the hotel's network, used for staff Internet access, computer servers, the PMS, and other software. This network should be kept completely separate from the guest network. Not only does it contain sensitive data, you very likely will want to restrict usage of the Internet by employees but not for guests. Next week's article will deal with setting up the hotel's administrative network. As a preview, the more isolated guests are from hotel data, the better.

Still Have Questions?
I will be presenting a more in-depth look at high-speed Internet Access at this year's HITEC (for more information, see www.HITEC.org ). In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments on this subject, or any technology-related subject, please contact me at: chartmann@HVSit.com

Chris spent 18 years as Chief Technology Officer at Grey Advertising, a top 10, worldwide advertising agency based in Manhattan. At Grey, Chris oversaw the evolution of Grey from an EDP department of 8 serving one office, to an IT infrastructure of 100, serving over two dozen offices around the world. As in hospitality, the challenge was rarely purely technical, but as well finding solutions that worked within the operational, financial and organizational frameworks. Since creating the Technology Strategies Division for HVS in 2000, Chris has consulted to organizations from independent properties to large mixed use resorts, always with an eye on ROI and optimizing the value of existing organizational capabilities.

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