There are few things more annoying to travelers than paying for hotel Wi-Fi that only works when and where it wants.
The total tonnage of conversation revolving around Wi-Fi cost has traditionally far overshadowed any discussion about quality. So to better understand what’s involved in delivering a strong hotel Wi-Fi experience, we spoke to technical representatives at Hilton Orlando and New York Hilton Midtown. Both properties have recently installed all-new wireless networks.
When wireless technology came to the fore following the iPhone launch in June 2007, the earliest technology was very basic. Since then, the technology available to hotels in terms of equipment infrastructure, and consumers in terms of their devices, has steadily improved. However, the technology required to really support a 500+ room hotel where guests all have 2-3 devices is only a little more than a year old.
The technical term for today’s most advanced wireless standard is IAEE 802.11ac. The “ac” is the most important part. The Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers Standards Association officially approved the use of IAEE 802.11ac in January 2014. On the consumer side, devices like the Apple MacBook Pro began shipping with 802.11ac hardware in October 2013.
“The technology has slowly improved to the point where the industry is now able to truly deliver what we always hoped would be the promise of Wi-Fi several years ago,” says Gabe Gilligan, SVP of global operations & business development for XpoNet, the internet provider for Hilton Orlando.
The hotel wrapped up its Wi-Fi infrastructure upgrade in January, and the hotel resort fee, which includes Wi-Fi, rose from $20 to $22 this month. For meetings and events, Hilton Orlando now guarantees that if Wi-Fi service goes down for more than 30 minutes at any one time, it will fully refund the Wi-Fi fee.
Gilligan explains that only a few years ago, the earlier 802.11 basic standards, operating in the 2.4 GHz (gigahertz) spectrum, were for Wi-Fi systems often tied into existing copper phone or television lines. Also, the system architecture at the time relied on only a few access points (router antennae) to cover a large area. The wireless technology was never originally intended for large commercial environments.
The new 802.11ac standard, sometimes referred to as simply “5 GHz spectrum,” is exponentially more powerful. This standard applies to Wi-Fi networks designed around dedicated fiber optic cables that transmit data at much higher speeds, along with higher incoming data bandwidth and many more access points aimed at smaller, dedicated areas of coverage.
“So where you used to have something that would transmit over a very, very large area, now you focus almost like flashlight beams into rooms and convention space where you can really kind of direct the signal to help people get much better bandwidth and a much better Wi-Fi experience,” says Gilligan. “So the fundamental approach has really changed just over the last year.”
The 802.11ac technology also provides many more channels to divvy up the Wi-Fi stream to different sections of individual hotel spaces, so bandwidth-hogging guests and corporate clients can’t hijack the whole system.
In the “old days” of hotel Wi-Fi, for example, there would be one access point on one channel in the hallway of a guest room floor. Today, the most modern networks have access points for every two rooms with higher bandwidth divided over multiple channels.
“Channels are essentially where you can really focus and provide connectivity for certain people, and then provide connectivity right next door to other people on a different channel,” explains Gilligan. “What that means is more people can connect in a smaller space. That was the bigger problem with the older technology where you ran out of connections quickly.”
The end goal—the thing everyone is craving—is a high level of “network throughput.” That relies on a few things. In an area with high demand, you need to be close to an access point with multiple channels to get a good signal. That’s shown by the level of bars you have. But at the same time, there also has to be enough bandwidth coming through the “pipe” (cable backbone) to deliver a high level of “data rate” measured in megabits per second (Mbps).
“The size of pipe can be a challenge but you really need to bring both to the table—strong signal and strong bandwidth—so you need to invest in both,” sums up Gilligan. “You can build the rails, that’s fine, but you also better build a darn good locomotive to run across them.”
New York Hilton Midtown completed its $3 million, 8-month Wi-Fi infrastructure upgrade in November 2013, so its system operates on the 802.11n standard, which is still within the more modern 5 GHz spectrum. The “n” Wi-Fi standard iteration directly preceded the “ac” standard.
Alvin Abadilla, director of telecommunications at New York Hilton Midtown, also emphasizes that the quality of hotel Wi-Fi depends on a multitude of factors.
First, Hilton installed all new fiber optic cables so the Wi-Fi network is a fully independent communication system. Abadilla explains that unless a hotel makes that infrastructure investment, they will never be able to offer true full-time, high-speed Wi-Fi if they’re still piggybacking off the phone or television cables.
“The cabling infrastructure is just as important as anything else, because without it, none of this new technology that we have would work very well,” he says.
Wi-Fi management systems are also much more sophisticated today versus just a few years ago. Next generation wireless controllers are a combination of servers and switches that basically act like the brains behind the Wi-Fi network. If a specific channel is too congested in one section of the building, the controller will compensate for that and switch to other channels that are less congested.
“One very important component when providing hotel Wi-Fi is providing bandwidth management,” says Abadilla. “Because say you have a 100 Mbps circuit coming from the service provider, and you’re not properly allocating that bandwidth to different users, you can have one person or group of people taking up all of the bandwidth and leaving nothing for other users.”
New York Hilton Midtown’s Wi-Fi cost structure is priced on a tier model. Basic is $14.95 daily, offering three megabits per second data transfer; premium is $18.95 for 30 Mbps.
“The system allocates caps on users for the basic plan,” says Abadilla “Although, three megabits of bandwidth is on the high end of the spectrum for what’s available at hotels today. A lot of hotels offer one or two megabits per second, or even less than one. We can now offer in our rooms basically what any cable company offers to consumers at home.”
Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at email@example.com.