Post-lockdown, how important is connectivity in hotels?

Prepandemic, guests already sought hotels that could provide them with the connectivity that they experienced at home in their daily lives. However, the COVID-19 lockdown completely changed how the average person uses technology for entertainment and productivity: video conferencing tools like Zoom and streaming services like Netflix significantly spiked in use, said Armand Rabinowitz, VP of product development at Cloud5 Communications. 

“Video tools like these require a higher bandwidth capability than simply sending emails and browsing websites, which was previously the most critical use case for Wi-Fi,” he said. “Now, services are almost necessary to meet the entertainment and productivity needs of a guest. If hotels don’t have the reliable connectivity that allows their guests to maintain their increasingly video-dominant digital lifestyles, then they’re going to go someplace else.”

The number of phones, tablets, laptops, wearables, speakers and more that the average guest travels with increases every year, and their ability to easily and securely connect to a fast and reliable network is a key driver of their satisfaction. “In addition, the use of technology to support enhanced guest experiences like contactless check-in and smart building automation has dramatically accelerated over the last 18-24 months,” said Amir Ahmed, SVP of sales for Dish. “It’s this continued expansion of technologies utilized by the guest and the property that is driving improved operational efficiencies and enhancing guest experiences. This will be the primary driver of connectivity changes in the coming years.”

Companies were forced to not only transition their customer interactions to online channels, but also their workforces. The internet-based communication, organization, sales and personal entertainment tools and platforms that were adopted over the past year and a half make connectivity more important today than at any other point in the history of technology, said Trevor Dowswell, CTO at Hotel Internet Services.

“Good internet was already a determining factor used in hotel selection by many travelers,” he said. “This has only been amplified and is expected to remain that way and increase. Individual consumers are now using an average of four interconnective devices per day, 49 percent of U.S. households now subscribe to four streaming services and there are more than 22 billion connected Internet of Things devices worldwide. Cloud-based everything is here to stay.”

John Troutwine, SVP of sales and marketing at Broadband Hospitality, said guests are also expecting more limitations on the number of devices they can use when on property and that has definitely made an impact on hotels. “As a dedicated fiber circuit provider to hotels, I can report that bandwidth consumption increases are dramatic, and are driving the current influx of bandwidth upgrade projects with current and new hotel clients,” he said. 

Contactless solutions for menus and food ordering, virtual meetings, video calling and all manner of information distribution have also led to a wild increase in Wi-Fi and mobile device usage, Dowswell agreed. “With new online services emerging at an ever-increasing rate, guest bandwidth utilization will only continue to rise,” he said. 

The rapid deployment of technologies like contactless guest check-in and smart building automation have created new challenges, and opportunities, for owners, Ahmed said:  “Many of these solutions rely on autonomous data collection and wireless control requiring low latency, increased connection capacity and high reliability—the three pillars of a 5G network.”

The Impact of 5G on Hotels

The next generation of cellular connectivity, which includes 5G, is poised to improve on the existing infrastructure to take the guest experience to the next level while providing increased longevity of technology with less need for hardware upgrades. With the ongoing deployment of smart building automation, management of these properties is yielding new opportunities to increase energy efficiency, reduce operating costs, enhance guest comfort, enable personalization, create new revenue streams and enhance overall safety, Ahmed said. 

The starting point for hoteliers is to think about the experiences they want to provide for their guests as well as the business outcomes they want to achieve and then plot these initiatives to their technology roadmap, considering the requirements for data, systems and connectivity.

“Through this process, the vital importance of connectivity will become highlighted, from not only a performance perspective but also being able to bridge today’s investment with tomorrow’s opportunity,” Ahmed. “For example, 5G will provide tremendous benefits for hotels and their guests but it is important for hotel owners to realize that 5G and Wi-Fi aren’t competing solutions. Private 5G networks are designed to work with existing Wi-Fi solutions to enhance capabilities and create a more robust and reliable connectivity experience. They should think about their investment in 5G as a way of extending and enhancing their existing networks to meet the increased demands.”

Bringing mobile carriers' 5G signal indoors is a very costly option though, warned Rabinowitz, but the 5G standard was designed to converge with Wi-Fi infrastructure. “Hoteliers need to make sure they are installing the latest Wi-Fi 6 hardware that is 802.11ax compliant to enable wireless devices to seamlessly roam between 5G and Wi-Fi networks,” he continued. 

As 5G becomes more prolific, hotels with distributed antenna systems should upgrade to 5G, Dowswell said. “Any hotels that have pay-for-use Internet should plan to offset the decrease in or elimination of that revenue source through other means, such as with room rates or amenity fees,” he said. “Outside of that, hotels can expect very little change to their operations due to 5G and should focus more on the doors opened to innovation and competitive solutions by Wi-Fi 6 and IoT.”

Troutwine believes hoteliers need to stay ahead of the “bandwidth-hungry guest” curve by having a conversation with their current or prospective fiber circuit provider. Analysis of current usage, peak usage times and trends will point to the right time to pull the trigger on a bigger pipe. “If there are gaps in Wi-Fi coverage at a property, the owner can’t continue to pretend that guests will accept inadequate coverage or performance,” he said. 

Enhancing the network with 5G can eliminate those restrictions and the potential integration of AI can predictively create a uniquely perfect guest experience without even having to open the branded application. This also creates tremendous operational efficiencies and cost savings for properties that can intelligently manage these same functions when the guest isn’t in the room, Ahmed said.

Coverage expectations are increasing for both indoor and outdoor locations. The ability to provide seamless connectivity to guests anywhere they are on property can be a differentiator for many properties. “At properties with large outdoor spaces like pools, beaches or outdoor dining areas, the cost of filling the coverage gaps with Wi-Fi can be expensive, while supplementing the network with 5G is a significantly more economical solution,” Ahmed said. 

With 5G providing consumers with the ability to process these bandwidth-demanding experiences, hoteliers can use augmented reality and virtual reality to deliver unique content, Rabinowitz said. Showcasing their property on a virtual reality platform, for example, could be one marketing strategy that catches guests' attention.