Does Your Hotel Charge for Connectivity?

George Leposky

I havenít yet tried wireless computer connectivity, but in principle Iím all for it.

For almost a decade, I roamed the world with a slow, clunky Toshiba laptop computer that already was antiquated when my then-employer assigned it to me. I used it primarily to take interview notes, but it also provided away-from-home access to my office and personal e-mail accounts, and to the Web.

That access, of course, involved dialing up through a telephone line. Few hotel-room telephones had dataports then, so I carried a long phone cord with male jacks at each end, and a female-to-female socket adapter. Sometimes I could detach the hotelís phone cord from the telephone and use the adapter to connect it to one end of my phone cord.

Elsewhere, however, the telephoneís wires terminated inside its body and werenít detachable without dismantling the body. That forced me to unplug the telephoneís cord at the wall socket and plug in my computerís cord there. Often, this entailed considerable effort and inconvenience.

Iíve found telephone wall sockets located in the most annoying places: behind the bed or the wardrobe, across a room from any convenient work surface, on a kitchen counter in a suite where an uncomfortable high stool was the only place to sit and work, and behind a wall-mounted phone at shoulder level above the kitchen sink with no seating or work surface anywhere within reach.

Grand Prize for Inconvenience

My personal grand prize award for inconvenience in cyberconnectivity goes to a hotel in Napa, California, that had a telephone with the aforementioned internal wire termination and a phone jack set in a wall socket behind the bed. To make matters worse, the phone jack had no spring clip, so I couldnít remove it from the wall socket.

I called for the hotel maintenance man, who arrived and literally pried the jack out of the socket with a screwdriver. He said people were stealing the telephones, so the hotelís owner deliberately made them difficult to unplug. Upon my promise not to steal the telephone, he let me borrow the screwdriver so I could plug the phone in after telecommputing and remove it later for another telecommputing session without having to summon him again.

I wonder how (or if) that hotel is coping with todayís connectivity revolution. The hospitality trade journal Hotel Business estimates that 27 million consumers now carry laptops. Moreover, 10 million computers are expected to have Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) hardware providing wireless Internet connectivity through the 802.11b protocol standard by the end of 2002. A competing radio-frequency technology, Bluetooth, also is available, although only a few hotels now offer it.

Wireless technology provides considerably faster transmission than a dial-up connection. The fastest dial-up modems available today are rated at 56,000 bps (bytes per second), but in practice their transmission speed may range from 50,666 bps down to 45,333 bps or less, depending on the quality of the telephone lines in the connection. An 802.11b system supports a transmission speed of 11,000,000 bps Ė typically expressed as 11 mb/s (megabytes per second). A newly emerging protocol, 802.11a, supports transmission speed of up to 54 mb/s.

Expect To Pay

The cost for connectivity in your hotel room soon may become Ė if it isnít already Ė an important factor in your choice of accommodations. Many hoteliers want to charge you when they provide the infrastructure (wiring for high-speed Internet access, and/or receivers and transmitters for wireless) that allows you to access the world from within their walls. However, according to a recent survey by Hotel Business and Unisys, 50 percent of hotel guests said they donít use high-speed internet access because they wonít pay a daily fee for the privilege.

Carlson Hotels Worldwide is advising its franchisees to increase the room rate instead of charging a daily fee, and to install the technology in stages as demand for connectivity increases. The problem with such a strategy, of course, is that paying more for a connected room Ė if you know youíre doing it Ė effectively means youíre paying a daily fee even if it isnít stated as a separate line item on your hotel bill. Thatís a topic worth discussing when you make a reservation for yourself or negotiate a bulk purchase of hotel space for your company.

The Milan Hotel in Atlanta, a Crowne Plaza owned by Noble Investment Group, illustrates another approach to the new technology. Early this year the hotel installed a wireless high-speed Internet system, SuiteOnline. It works in all 300 guest rooms and in 9,600 square feet of meeting space, has a capacity of up to 300 users, and can be expanded if demand warrants. The hotel charges $9.95 per day for connectivity, and will loan a wireless network card without charge to guests who need one. For computers lacking high-speed capability, the Milanís in-room telephones have dataports to facilitate dial-up connections.

Wireless access also is becoming available in other parts of the world. This month, the Hyatt Regency Istanbul in Turkey began offering 802.11b wireless access throughout the hotel, including all guestrooms and the pool area. It plans to upgrade soon to the 802.11a protocol. The system provides connectivity to all guests with an 802.11 card in their laptop computers, at a daily cost of $15. Notably, the wireless-service provider is a subsidiary of the Turkish company that owns the hotel.

Telecom Firms Enter the Fray

Further complicating the wireless picture is the effort by major telecommmunications carriers to establish ďthird-generationĒ networks offering wireless telephone service with high-speed Web browsing and e-mail access. With this technology, you may not need to lug a laptop around to achieve the Internet and e-mail connectivity a telephone couldnít provide before.

AT & T, Cingular, and Verizon are among carriers that already have third-generation networks in selected cities. Earlier this month, Sprint PCS announced the launch of a national third-generation network that makes data speeds up to 144,000 bps available to 87 percent of the people in the U.S.

In the future, Hotel Business predicts, major telecom companies may offer wireless connectivity from a satellite infrastructure. Such arrangements could bypass hotel-based wireless infrastructure, or involve the hotels in new cooperative marketing arrangements with the telecom companies. Either way, as these future arrangements evolve, connectivity is unlikely to be free in most hotels that help you to access it.

George Leposky is editor of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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