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Deploying WLANs in Hotels

The mobile workforce is rapidly becoming dependent on information, as they need to stay in touch via e-mail and continue to access corporate applications while on the road. Nearly all road warriors carry laptops today, and wireless connections are becoming very popular. Because of this, hotels are beginning to offer broadband wireless access throughout their facilities. Wireless LANs improve a guest's experience by providing complete mobility.

Hotel WLAN Applications

There are very few hotels today that have WLAN access for guests. That's bad for users, but good for system integrators! In order to offer effective wireless coverage, hotels should install access points in their convention centers, ballrooms, meeting rooms, lobbies, swimming pool areas, and possibly guest rooms. In order to facilitate access to the network, hotels should readily offer radio cards for guests to purchase or rent while staying in the hotel.

A hotel WLAN can enable guests to do all of the following during their stay:

  • Browse the Web at the pool or in the fitness center.
  • Remotely and securely access their corporate networks from their room.
  • Review online schedules and get driving directions.
  • Share a high-speed Internet connection with multiple conference participants.
  • Remotely print from guestrooms to printers in the business center.
  • Conduct videoconferences with associates or family members.

The staff and management of hotels can also reap huge benefits from wireless LANs. For example, the deployment of a wireless LAN makes the following tasks much easier and efficient:

  • Conduct room inspections to see if everything is back in order and no damage was done to the room after guests check out of the hotel. The staff can check the room and send feedback to the main computer via a 802.11-enabled PDA.
  • Perform security and safety inspections to make sure doors are locked, fire extinguishers are charged, emergency lights are in working order, etc. All of the information is updated in real-time, saving time and the possibility of error.
  • Keep in contact with maintenance workers by using WLAN phones. This enables them to keep tabs on the location of every worker. Management will then be able to contact them whenever needed, resulting in quicker response times.

Issues to Consider

As with every other WLAN deployment, there are some issues to consider when implementing Wi-Fi in hotels. Security is always a big issue. Because of the issues of key distribution (that is, the encryption keys, not the hotel door keys) and limited security, hotels shouldn't bother to implement 802.11 WEP for guests or staff users. It is a necessity, however, that hotels implement stronger security mechanisms to protect any sensitive information guests and staff might need to transfer.

For staff users, hotels can implement proprietary mechanism because they can mandate the use of specific user hardware. Guest users, however, need standards-based security. Hotels should consider the use of Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA)-enabled access points, as WPA becomes more available in hardware. In the meantime, a hotel may not be able to provide any encryption for guests. As a result, guests would need to utilize VPNs for accessing corporate accounts, which is generally the norm for business travelers.

Performance is also an issue to consider. Hotels have the potential to get a large number of people accessing the network at the same time, which can cause performance to suffer. For example, the conference center of the hotel, which draws most wireless users, could hold hundreds of people within a relatively small area.

The installation of enough access points in the right locations to accommodate high volumes of users is a must. The use of 802.11b access points is crucial, and it may be necessary to decrease transmit power to very low levels in order to increase the number of access points and resulting capacity in the areas having lots of users. Some hotels may also want to consider the use of a higher bandwidth, 802.11a (in addition to 802.11b) network to help maximize capacity.

Another performance issue to consider is possible spotty coverage and dead areas where guests have no coverage. This can definitely be an issue in hotels, because the common omni-directional antennas, often integrated within access points, really are not well suited to cover long corridors found in hotels. To solve this problem, hotels should use fixed directional antennas or access points with steerable antennas in applicable areas to ensure full connectivity.

Of course the bottom line consideration is to determine whether there are enough benefits to justify the installation of a wireless LAN at a hotel. With staff applications, you can at least formulate a return on investment based on the costs of the systems and the resulting improvements in profit based on gains in efficiency.

The difficult part is to determine the return of providing wireless access to guests. In many cases, you'll likely need to combine the benefits of both guest and staff applications to make the wireless LAN palatable to the accounting folks.

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs and offers computer-based training focusing on wireless LANs.

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