Guest WiFi Celebrates 20 Years Part 2

by Donald Jensen
June 03, 2019

Part 1 of this blog series recounted the early days of hotel guest WiFi. Part 2 will examine network advancements as WiFi moved from being a novelty to a staple of guest expectancy and where we believe the industry is heading.

Guest WiFi Celebrates 20 Years in hospitality

Wireless becomes free to guests

The single largest factor of accelerated WiFi utilization in hotels is the decision to offer the service “Free to Guest” in the guest room. Early on, the industry enjoyed revenue from the meeting space and from high-speed connectivity originating in the guest room. There were some early adopter chains who recognized the occupancy benefits of offering free guest broadband, but the majority offered connectivity for a fee. Major chains held on to this charging model as long as they could, however the popularity and usage of WiFi continued to increase as hoteliers replaced their wired connectivity with WiFi. Competitive pressures for more occupancy drove all brands to offer it for free at some level. As decisions were made to integrate “Free to Guest” into the basic room rates, take rates spiked upward.

To drive value and maintain revenue streams, variations of the “Free to Guest” model surfaced. Many hotel brands developed a “tiered model” which charged a premium fee for a higher level of bandwidth. Another strategy was to use WiFi as a CRM tool, requiring enrollment in a rewards program to gain free access.

Networks become versatile

Given the lack of bandwidth and questionable reliability of many of the early WiFi network offerings, it was not surprising that the initial designs for these networks were singular in purpose. Early networks were installed solely to carry guest, meeting, and front-of-the-house traffic. Typical designs consisted of a single VLAN segment which carried all traffic. These “flat” networks had limited capacity or network intelligence to segment different applications and types of traffic. As Ethernet switching, wireless equipment and managed network software became more advanced, multi-segment networks started to emerge. Integrators became more sophisticated and began to build higher quality networks. Terms such as “triple play” or the combined delivery of voice/video/data to a guest room and convergence, translated as the migration of multiple applications onto one network, were used to describe the versatility of these networks. In most modern networks, guest WiFi is considered one of the applications in an engineered Ethernet transport system, versus the early days when it was the sole reason the network was being built.

The 5 Ghz frequency and rise of mobile OS

By 2010, consumer device manufacturers started to create another dynamic in the evolution of guest WiFi. WiFi-enabled mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad were becoming standard equipment for the travelling consumer. Traditional wireless designs for guest rooms, which ensured coverage was available at the work desk, now had new coverage requirements. Guests needed more ubiquitous coverage, including four corners of the guest room, the lobby and wherever there was guest dwell time on property.

WiFi access points were traditionally produced with a single, 2.4 GHz frequency. Many of the new mobile OS devices primarily emitted signals on the 5 GHz frequency. Wireless AP manufacturers had to adapt and build radios that accommodated “dual‑band” signaling. The higher cycling frequency (5GHz) would not travel as far or penetrate as well as the lower cycling frequency (2.4GHz), so the designs for these networks became denser, requiring more access points, switching, and infrastructure cabling. The industry yet again was being called on to invest further in these network buildouts.

Today’s hotel WiFi

In 2019, no one is challenging the importance of a good wireless guest experience. Take rates routinely equal 3 times occupancy. Most of the major hotel brands now have tightly controlled standards and work with a select group of vendors who fulfill and scale to their campaigns. Rated cabling (i.e., Category 6 copper or SM/MM Fiber) are table stakes for a network design. At the WAN level, bandwidth continues to spike, as the appetite for guest bandwidth increases.

The current level of security with any visitor-based network, whether at your local coffee shop or at a 5-star resort, is most likely equally rated as fair to poor. There is a balance between areas of concern and opportunity for the hotelier related to the security of the network. Vulnerabilities of the infrastructure, defined network segmentation, and stateful packet inspection are all areas for review.  Additionally, a technically-adept support partner who can recognize and manage security breaches is increasing in importance. Hotel owners will need to look at services like proactive network security audits and the additional budgeting costs required to complete them as a cost of doing business.

What’s in store for the future?

Since inception, there have been 5 versions of the IEEE WiFi standards, including 802.11a, b, g, n, and ac. WiFi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax) is starting to be commercially introduced and carries some hospitality-friendly advancements.

  • Advanced MIMO (Multiple Input/Multiple Output) capabilities will afford a better experience for highly dense areas, such as meeting rooms or trade shows floors at school room capacity.
  • As 4K video content finds its way into the guest room, the added bandwidth capacity realized by by WiFi 6 will allow streaming 4K video content delivery with minimal latency.
  • Power-saving capabilities that won’t drain batteries as quickly will be particularly important for guest’s mobile OS and the property’s IoT devices.

The future of public WiFi security is in a standard called WPA3, which is a replacement for the existing WPA2 standard. WPA3 will resolve many of the issues by encrypting the data between the device and access point, which typically is the most vulnerable segment of the connection. This level of cryptography should become a security game‑changer for public wireless networks.

Lastly, there is a notion that cellular data services, such as LTE and 5G, will supplant the need for public WiFi networks. The appetite for managed and secure WiFi bandwidth has been on a steady increase for the past 20 years, showing no signs of slowing down. For example, new virtualized gaming services will require minimum connections at 40 MBPS per device. These connections speeds will continue to out-strip current standards and apply additional pressure on public venues such as hotels to stay ahead of the curve.

Many are turning to well-versed hospitality partners to help improve guest interactions with the latest in data, communications, networking and security technology. Windstream Enterprise just so happens to be one of them. Our hospitality experts will be at HITEC June 18-20. Stop by booth #2932 with any questions and learn more about our offerings.