A five-star hotel room high above New York's Central Park sounds like a nice place to spend the night, but if your iPhone doesn't work, it may seem like little more than a gilded cage.
That was the frustration felt by many guests at the Mandarin Oriental New York before the facility installed its new Wi-Fi infrastructure. The hotel, housed in upper floors of the 750-foot (229-meter) Time Warner Center and opened in 2003, is too high for cellular data service and until late last year had an outdated and inadequate network of access points.
Guests have always been able to get wired and wireless Internet access in their rooms, which start at about US$700 per night, but when the mobile revolution hit, suddenly many more wanted to cut the cord. The wireless network couldn't serve them all.
"As soon as that iPhone came out, it was very apparent that we had a major issue, and it just got worse from there," said David Heckaman, vice president of technology, North America, at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. "As soon as the iPad came out, it was ... more or less a disaster."
Mandarin had been getting by on one or two Wi-Fi access points per floor, using the IEEE 802.11b technology that was current when the hotel opened. A DAS (distributed antenna system) extended the coverage down hallways, but there wasn't enough capacity to serve more than a dozen users per floor, Heckaman said. The advent of the smartphone meant more Wi-Fi devices in more rooms, more often.
Apple AirPorts, in a pinch
The DAS, primarily a set of wires above the ceiling of each hallway, carried cellular signals from all the major carriers as well as the Wi-Fi. But that system still only offers 3G coverage, and guests wanted the additional speed of Wi-Fi. In a package offering along with wired broadband, Wi-Fi costs US$15 per day, with discounts for longer stays. To accommodate guests who asked for better wireless throughput, the hotel sometimes attached Apple AirPort Express portable routers to the wired Internet connection in the room, Heckaman said.
As iPhones proliferated and iPads hit the market, the Mandarin looked for a way to permanently boost wireless capacity. But its networking challenges didn't end there. There were limitations on the services that could be provided over the data lines provided to each room. The hotel had adopted VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phones from the beginning, and in a typical room, three lines were dedicated to phones. The Mandarin also provides high-definition TV and video on demand over the IP network, which took up another line each.
Any upgrade involving new wires, including a better DAS, would be expensive and disruptive. So the Mandarin found a way to make better use of the wires already there. The solution used the same principle as the AirPort Express, but went much further.
The Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex 7025 Wi-Fi wall switch now installed in each room links to the hotel's network via one of the five existing wires. But it incorporates four 10/100M bps (bit-per-second) Ethernet ports as well as an 802.11n Wi-Fi access point. So the Mandarin was able to plug the in-room wired Internet line and video-on-demand connection into the ZoneFlex. There is still room to add a planned IP-based system for thermostats and other in-room control systems to the ZoneFlex switch, Heckaman said.
"It just kind of all fit together" to solve several problems at once, he said.
Fed by the 20M bps or more of bandwidth coming to each room, the Wi-Fi service can now deliver the kind of speed users expect. Complaints about poor Wi-Fi speed went from several per day to zero, Heckaman said.
For smartphone and tablet users who prefer to use their cellular plans, the Mandarin is also working on a plan to improve cellular capacity.
As with the Wi-Fi crunch, new devices are putting pressure on cellular users at the hotel. Today they depend totally on the DAS, because the carriers' outdoor base stations don't transmit high enough to reach the hotel, which begins on the 35th floor of the mixed-use complex. "More or less nothing comes from the outside in," Heckaman said.
While the DAS is good for voice and "mediocre" for 3G data services, it has no provision for 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution), Heckaman said. He's looking ahead to supporting that technology, especially because he expects Apple's iPad 3 to include 4G.
Instead of ripping out the DAS and upgrading it, Mandarin is exploring the possibility of setting up small LTE cells in selected guest rooms to serve that room and several others nearby. Now that the Wi-Fi wall switches are installed, there is one free high-speed IP connection available from each room to act as backhaul from the small cell.
The Ruckus devices aren't necessarily appropriate for every Mandarin hotel, because the New York location stands out for its high occupancy rate, premium room rates and high altitude, Heckaman said. But the company has learned from the rollout and has an upgrade path for Wi-Fi in other locations, he said.
Why charge for Wi-Fi?
Heckaman defended the practice of charging guests extra for Internet access. Tying the guest network to a revenue stream helps when it comes to justifying upgrades such as the one just carried out, he said.
"It allows us to be more flexible in deploying infrastructure and services to meet the demands of the guests," Heckaman said.
Meanwhile, the mobile revolution that jolted the Mandarin Oriental New York may even change the design of hotel rooms themselves, he said. Business and personal travelers with mobile devices prefer to use them in bed, on a couch or in a comfortable chair, Heckaman said. "It's almost like the desk becomes a little irrelevant," Heckaman said. Hotel room designers are now looking to make working spaces less desklike and "more of a common space."