Networking: Wireless in Antwerp

Setting up a wireless network throughout an historic hotel is quite a challenge, and even more so when the building stretches...

Setting up a wireless network throughout an historic hotel is quite a challenge, and even more so when the building stretches half the length of a city centre square. Ross Bentley reports

Chris Hermans faced increasing demand from business guests at the Hilton in central Antwerp for high-speed access to the Internet. But there were obstacles. For a start, the hotel was an historic building, which made putting in more cables difficult, and then there was its huge size.

The answer for Hermans, who is cluster IT manager for Hilton in Belgium, in charge of IT for four Hilton hotels in Antwerp and Brussels, was to implement a trailblazing wireless solution.

Before deciding, he weighed up several possibilities. One option was to run digital subscriber line (DSL) into each room through existing cables. But, according to Hermans, taking this route had its limitations and implied reinvestment in the infrastructure at some point.

He also looked at installing more cabling to each room, but several factors made this option impractical. "The Hilton in Antwerp is an historic building so we would have to have been very careful installing cables. We couldn't just rip up ceilings," says Hermans.

Another factor was the sheer size of the hotel - it stretches half the length of the city's famous Groenplaats square. Running cable throughout the building via its 211 rooms would have been a massive job.

So Hermans decided on a wireless solution. While he won't be drawn on an exact cost of the implementation, he says the wireless solution was "at least 50% cheaper than the next cheapest solution, which was DSL".

Hermans says his team carried out a site survey before they started putting the wireless base stations in, measuring the signal strengths and looking for suitable places to install the equipment.

In all, 37 access points were required. All the base stations are hidden and are connected by cable to switches and routers. Hotel operations went on more or less as normal during the installation. "The implementation took two months and caused virtually no disruption," he says. "The guests hardly noticed we were rolling out the network."

This lack of disruption was crucial. "A hotel is a 24-hour business," he says. "If a room is out of action, that equates as lost revenue for us."

The hardware Hermans chose was supplied by Avaya. "At the time, Avaya was the only supplier offering the ability to upgrade from 11 megabits per second to 54 megabits per second - you just have to replace the antennae rather than the whole access point," he says.

The network was up and running by February, and has freed up guests to connect anywhere in the hotel. "Guests can go where they want to get Internet access - their room, the bar, the lounge, even the outside terrace. They are no longer limited to where there is a phone point," Hermans says.

He claims that, while other hotels offer wireless Internet access limited to the business centre, for example, his is the first hotel in Europe to offer wireless coverage throughout the premises.

Hermans says US guests are more au fait with the technology, although a common comment he found is, "We've had this stuff on our laptop for a while, but this is the first place we've been able to use it."

Hotel guests without a wireless PC card can get one from the front desk. They are then routed to a portal site, where they log on and are given a user account. They can choose to pay either through their room bill or directly by credit card. The portal route prevents non-hotel users surfing the Internet for free.

Hermans is aware of the security issues surrounding wireless networks, but he says, "Every system can be hacked - wireless or not. There are a lot of factors that come into play, including how the laptop is set up."

In fact, he says one of the teething problems for the new network was he built in too much security. "Originally we had two firewalls protecting the system but we had to take one out," he says. "The VPN [Virtual Private Network] restrictions were too strict, and conflicted with the Web browser. We had to fine-tune it."

With the wireless network in place, Hermans has plenty of ideas for adding extra functionality. He is looking at installing wireless barcode readers for minibar consumption, as well as voice over IP (VoIP) phones for Hilton employees. "The paging system used by the hotel staff is more than 10 years old. You never know what the technology will bring, but we are ready for VoIP. There is no need to invest again."

One issue Hermans has yet to resolve is how users pay for their use of the network. He says several Hilton hotels in Germany are planning to install wireless local area networks. In their case, however, they have entered into an agreement where the hardware remains the property of the supplier and both hotel and supplier share the revenue generated by users.

Hermans is glad he bought his hardware outright because, he says, "we retain control of the network. We think the provision of high-speed Internet access has the same revenue-generating potential as our PBX [private branch exchange] boxes. If Internet revenues start to grow like telephone services have, we want to be in control of the revenues."

To encourage guests to use the network, Hermans says the hotel is keeping the rates at a reasonable level. "We are charging a flat fee so people know how much it will cost," he says. "But at some point we will have to put a limit on downloads. At the moment, it is possible for users to download as much as they want - even movies.

"We may turn to a similar model used by the GPRS [General Packet Radio Services] providers where the fee is based on the amount of data downloaded."

An initiative Hermans has introduced is a user manual to help users get onto the network. "You never know what laptop your guests will use, and you never know what level of competency the user has. Some users are IT-literate; some are not," he says.

But sometimes users will require some help from the hotel's IT staff. "There may be situations where the guest won't be able to help themselves, such as if the operating system is not installed as it should be, and simple things like the PC card slot is broken," says Hermans.

So has this resulted in an increased burden on IT as far as support is concerned? "You are always going to have people asking for help. People who call about wireless don't call about a fixed-connection issue. Whereas before I used to go to rooms to help with modems, I now go to help with wireless connections," he says.

Hermans' hints
  • Look at the solution to see if it can be upgraded at a minimum cost

  • Put together a comprehensive manual of issue to cover all levels of expertise from the whizz kid to the first time user - don't take anything for granted

  • Consider your pricing models and service models carefully.

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