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Wi-Fi reaches maturity

The hotel industry is one of the sectors with the most massive attachment to "wireless fidelity", better known as Wi-Fi.The initial cause was to meet demand from business clientele, and now because portable computers have become a practically indispensable travel accessory. But there are different ways to address the Wi-Fi question within hotels. Particularly now that this technology is no longer limited to simple web access.

Each day the reach of Wi-Fi spreads further and further around the world. According to a recent study by the New York company ABI Research, there should be 143,700 hotspots (Wi-Fi access points) around the world by the end of the year: growth by 47% over 2005. And in this same study, hoteliers show up as the biggest hotspot hosts. Today some 40,000 diffusion terminals may be found within the world’s hotel inventory. After the first spectacular entry onto the sector in 2003 (particularly with the history-making partnership between Orange and the Accor Group with an aim to outfitting the entire French hotel supply), the mid- and upscale are now mostly equipped, although there is still room for growth.The market thus continues to be strong and the hotel industry continues to be interested in it. This is because internet access is not the only Wi-Fi application that interests hotel properties. Wireless technology is expanding to the world of video-surveillance (via webcams) and even plastic money: "it allows hotels to transmit credit card transactions using our secure infrastructures as well as benefit from a drop in costs and interesting uses in terms of statistics," explains Nicolas Vonthron. Many predict that the transition from plastic money to Wi-Fi will be the real detonator of the explosion of the protocol alongside the generalization of dual mode telephones meaning telephones that are compatible with both Wi-Fi and GSM. Despite less spectacular market penetration than expected, the latter should generate 3.5 billion dollars by 2009. They will surely, if it has not already happened, make hotspot indispensable in every hotel and across all categories.In France, the more economic segments such as 2* are still not there. Not yet at least. "Most people who stay at these hotels don’t have the means to purchase a portable computer with Wi-Fi. But as this technology becomes more generalized, this will happen too," predicts Nicolas Vonthron of the company Meteor Networks, number-two operator on the French market. One thing is certain: in hotels, the number of Wi-Fi sessions is growing fast… very fast, as is the duration of the connections. An ADSL connection in the room is no longer enough to satisfy clientele in 2006 who are increasingly nomadic, and want to be able to connect no matter where they are in the property. And preferably without any additional cost. A survey of 1,000 Wi-Fi users in six European countries shows that the availability of free Wi-Fi for clientele increases sales and develops loyalty. 84% of those interviewed are more likely to consume in properties that offer free Wi-Fi and 96% declare that they come back to use the service. For guests, there is a real added value that is perceived as such. Particularly with the advent, or really the adaptation, of technologies such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) to the Wi-Fi protocol: this solution competes directly with traditional telephone services. This technology is doubly profitable for both clientele and properties.So, should preference be for a free or paying business model? The sector is split over this question. For some, Wi-Fi only serves as a true sales pitch if it is free, others believe that "giving away" Wi-Fi is the same as cutting out a major source of revenue that should continue to grow even difféfurther. So much so that today’s high-speed technology makes it possible to download films (albeit illegally) or to telephone for free using web solutions such as Skype.In other words, giving free access to Wi-Fi would severely damage the sale of payper- view movies, as well as the billing of telephone calls made from the hotel. Alistair Forbes, CEO of the company Acentic, which specializes in multimedia solutions for the hotel industry, has studied the question: "In the United States, free Wi-Fi is practically the standard whereas hoteliers and access providers used to share the revenue it produced. This implies that the service now has a cost for hoteliers. Now more than ever, it is necessary to find solutions with a better value for price and be more cautious about their spending in the area. The hotelier must imperatively exercise careful control over this part of the budget so that it remains profitable. The same phenomenon is beginning to occur in Europe". According to Nicolas Vonthron of Meteor, "free Wi-Fi is the choice of the hotelier who must pay the service provider no matter what. It must not be confused with free Wi-Fi which, once the terminal has been installed, requires the hotel to fully manage its network without an operator. While offering Wi-Fi can prove to be a judicious marketing decision, wanting to manage everything is very expensive and very risky. In case of fraudulent use of the network it is the hotelier who is responsible in the eyes of the law. Moreover, the quality of service will necessarily be inferior. Managing problems will become very complicated, and likewise for securing connections and preventing the phenomenon of squatting by internauts outside the hotel". In short: the option isn’t feasible in light of the reality of the situation.When Wi-Fi is billed to guests, there are different ways for paying. The two primary ones used are online payment with a credit card or the use of prepaid cards. "They are just about equally popular," explains Nicolas Vonthron, "with the prepaid card, which is available in different formats, coming in just ahead: Wi-Fi minutes, unlimited from one to thirty days and cards for business meetings that authorize up to 100 and even 200 users simultaneously. Today we also offer micro payment solutions by SMS".Recently, agreements for roaming (meaning shifting from one network to another among different players in telephone and Wi-Fi providers) are multiplying. This is one of the major challenges on the market since it allows guests to connect using any terminal through their usual telephone operator (Orange, Bouygues Telecom...). The increase in transparency is noteworthy. In France, the sector’s giants are bound by mutual agreements that prevent supplemental roaming costs. But on the international scale things are very different. Meteor Networks, which is considered an alternative telephone operator, is already compatible with 500 telecommunications operators worldwide. In the end, it is the client who wins since he can surf throughout his travels using his traditional contract.The presence of Wi-Fi at hotels is not a simple thing: from its unfurling to its operation, the pitfalls are many. This is why Meteor Networks intervenes at all levels of the chain: the ready to go installation of the private network in the hotel, training of personnel for its use (management of the most frequent technical problems), activation of the portal, support for promoting the service using special advertising signage, proactive supervision of equipment and finally the existence of two hotlines (one for guests and the other for the site’s managers).Internet security, in particular, is a crucial problem. Companies have long shown a certain amount of defiance with regard to Wi- Fi for fear of information leaks from their collaborators’ portable computers when they travel. "Access control is the nerve of the war," admits Nicolas Vonthron. "Solutions for securing networks are to be found on several levels: the quality of equipment is essential. For example, WPA keys are better than WEP keys, which are still quite widespread, however. In the same way, protection via an efficient access code system is indispensable for preventing intrusions."On the periphery of the debate on free access, another factor raises doubts for certain operators with regard to the durability of Wi-Fi: Wimax. These new generation antennae can work as a mega Wi-Fi terminal with coverage reaching several dozens of kilometers. They could make the presence of different terminals in nearby properties debatable or even unnecessary. But that means forgetting about efficiency since the debit available would have to be shared simultaneously by hundreds of users. This would result in slower speed that would be insufficient for supporting applications such as high-definition television. Not to mention security, which becomes far more delicate and costly than for a simple Wi-Fi terminal. In other words, in the current state of technology, Wimax is in no way tolling the bell for private Wi-Fi. Instead it acts more as a complement to create a tighter weave for web access, with more solid and extensive coverage of the territory.The market thus continues to be strong and the hotel industry continues to be interested in it. This is because internet access is not the only Wi-Fi application that interests hotel properties. Wireless technology is expanding to the world of video-surveillance (via webcams) and even plastic money: "it allows hotels to transmit credit card transactions using our secure infrastructures as well as benefit from a drop in costs and interesting uses in terms of statistics," explains Nicolas Vonthron. Many predict that the transition from plastic money to Wi-Fi will be the real detonator of the explosion of the protocol alongside the generalization of dual mode telephones meaning telephones that are compatible with both Wi-Fi and GSM. Despite less spectacular market penetration than expected, the latter should generate 3.5 billion dollars by 2009. They will surely, if it has not already happened, make hotspot indispensable in every hotel and across all categories.

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