Hoteliers are looking at what they can do now to get ready for when Wi-Fi 6 and 5G mobile networks become widespread.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Guests’ expectations for hotel Wi-Fi will only continue to increase, which means hotel owners and operators will have to invest more into their properties’ networks.
Knowing now what type of connectivity will soon be available to consumers, hoteliers can plan ahead to make sure their hotels, both newly built and freshly renovated, are ready to meet their guests’ online needs.
The future landscape of Wi-Fi includes 5G (which marks the next generation of technologies insuring better service from mobile carriers) and Wi-Fi 6 (new standards for networking technologies similarly expected to boost performance) both being built to allow more seamless handoffs for better experiences, said Armand Rabinowitz, VP of strategy and workgroups at HTNG. Some of those experiences are available today, such as Wi-Fi calling, which is pretty common on most mobile carriers, he said.
“The future of 5G is really going to be reliant on greater coupling with Wi-Fi signals, which are fairly ubiquitous within buildings,” he said. “It’s going to be critical for owners and operators to plan for the upgrade of their Wi-Fi infrastructure to take advantage of that.”
What are these upgrades?
Unlike previous generations of wireless technology, 5G is more than just an advancement in speeds and capabilities, Rabinowitz said.
It involves multiple frequency bands, some of which are being made available to consumers on mobile devices for the first time, he said. With these new frequency bands, there are physical limitations and advantages that are significantly different from previous generations.
The move to 5G isn’t necessarily about being faster, because people are general satisfied with the speed and responsiveness they’re getting, he said. However, as a network becomes more congested as more people use it—such as at a stadium, a mall on Black Friday or at a big conference—it slows down.
“5G has the potential to eliminate that,” he said, adding that only happens if the mobile devices can connect to the signal indoors.
With upgrades from 3G to 4G and then LTE, sometimes the signal dropped in different parts of buildings because it couldn’t pass through energy-saving glass and other materials, he said. Distributed antenna systems became common in hotels to allow the 4G and LTE signals to better penetrate the buildings.
“5G is going to be even more constrained in how that signal propagates through exterior walls and even interior walls,” he said. “It is a very powerful, high-bandwidth frequency, but it has extreme limitations on how it can penetrate through materials.”
The current Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac, which is available in most homes and most up-to-date networks, Rabinowitz said. Most devices can handle the transition between cellular and current Wi-Fi standards fairly well, but authenticating to a Wi-Fi network is sometimes challenging.
Many innovative solutions and experiences have been deployed at hotels to make that less cumbersome, but Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is designed to be a seamless experience transitioning from cellular networks of any generation to Wi-Fi zones, he said.
HTNG is working to help answer hoteliers’ questions on this topic, Rabinowitz said.
Setting the stage
Hoteliers said they’re taking action now in their new-build and renovation projects to ensure properties are ready for these wireless updates.
Concord Hospitality’s new-build hotels include multiple entrance conduits for telecommunications services and the company requires at least one spare, Concord Chief Information Officer Brian Cornell said. Every hotel opens with fiber service, and the company makes sure it can always bring in redundant or new carriers via the entrance conduit.
A fiber riser is put into every new-build property to allow bandwidth distribution to the various wiring/equipment closets. Fiber to the guest room is still pricey, but continues to drop in cost, he said.
Every room is capable of having its own wireless access point if necessary, he said. Typically, Wi-Fi signal levels require an access point in every second or third room.
Several Concord hotels had to repeat and amplify the external 4G signal to provide enough coverage for guests, Cornell said. The company expects the same situation with 5G, he said.
“There will be a marketplace for small, in-building 5G repeaters/cells for commercial and hospitality buildings,” he said. “When we build hotels, we do include a spare roof conduit in the event the location is selected by a cellular carrier for a rooftop cell tower. These are typically lease arrangements and generate additional cash flow for the hotel.”
Properly sized equipment rooms are also critical, Cornell added.
“All too often, the computer room or network closet is undersized, which presents a challenge when accommodating future equipment upgrades,” he said. “Installing the proper cabling infrastructure today reduces the likelihood the property will need to be re-cabled for an upgrade or during a renovation.”
Hotel renovations can be trickier due to wiring infrastructure and cost constraints. Concord tries to enforce the same standards during a renovation that would be implemented in a new-build property, because a “reimaged” hotel should have the same capabilities of a new property, he said.
Making the investment
Cost is the biggest problem owners face in preparing to update their hotels’ Wi-Fi networks, said Mike Getzey, COO at Marshall Hotels & Resorts.
“I’ve seen owners’ faces when we give them these costs for these upgrades that are mandated by brands like Hilton and Marriott. They just freak when they hear those numbers, but it’s because they really don’t understand what went into it and how much of an actual change it is upgrading the systems,” he said.
Much of the actual work is putting cable into the older buildings that weren’t built and designed for how the industry is cabling now, he said.
“That’s the biggest part of this whole thing where people get a little shocked,” he said. “If you’re building a new hotel, that’s rolled into your construction costs, and it’s not that bad.”
Upgrading internet service in hotels in the past has required adding amplifiers and access points in hallways, but that won’t be enough anymore, Getzey said. Now hotels need access points in every guestroom to provide the connection that guests need, he said.
Savvy owners understand the importance technology plays with guest return intent, as well as with staff efficiency and productivity, Cornell said.
“It is critical to have open dialogue early to identify the costs so there are no surprises,” he said. “At Concord, I like to employ the ‘Goldilocks’ principal: not too little and not too much; find the right balance that satisfies everyone.”