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Wireless World: Hotels new 'WiFi' hotspots

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, UPI Technology News   |   April 9, 2004 at 10:45 AM
A weekly UPI series examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.

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CHICAGO, April 9 (UPI) -- A hotel is nothing short of a hovel for most business travelers these days -- unless it happens to be a wireless fidelity hot spot.

Whether it is the Chicago City Centre, two blocks from Michigan Avenue, and just as close to Navy Pier, or Manhattan's Hotel Gansevoort, a boutique operation in Soho, in the meatpacking district, complimentary Wi-Fi service has become an expected feature by the guests -- just as much as a heated pool or a room with a view.

Recently, the prestigious Zagat's Guide, publisher of hotel and upscale restaurant reviews, confirmed Wi-Fi's emerging cultural icon status by creating the Zagat's 2003 Wi-Fi Hotspots Guide.

"We actually feel it is a necessity," Kevin Johnson, general manager of the Amara Creekside Resorts in Sedona, Ariz., told United Press International. "We already had complimentary, high-speed Internet access for the guests in their rooms. But for the type of clientele we wanted to attract, we had to have Wi-Fi."

Johnson said business travelers can sit on the balcony of their suites, with a laptop computer, or at the resort's pool, or even in the business conference center, and stay connected to the Internet, and all of their e-mail, through the hotel's Wi-Fi network. The wireless access is usually 100 times faster than conventional, dial-up connections.

The trend really has taken off during the last six months, as business confidence has begun to return. Hotels are joining restaurants, Starbucks coffee cafes, and even major downtown convention centers, at the Wi-Fi vanguard.

"We wanted to accommodate our customers to their business connection on a complimentary basis from the moment they set foot on our property," said David Hall, general manager of Chicago's City Centre, an up-market Holiday Inn property.

The technology tactic also attracts a local clientele. At the downtown facility, in either the upper lobby or lower lobby, one often sees local businessmen and women checking their e-mail via the wireless connection.

"The free wireless access often drives these customers to our restaurants," Hall told UPI.

The investment in technology is not cheap for these facilities, however.

The Westin Convention Center Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, in a somewhat typical example, just completed a $10 million renovation, including significant upgrades for wireless communications for business travelers, who want to be productive no matter where they are.

"While traveling, whether at the airport, at a trade show or in a hotel, reliable broadband connectivity will enable people to get more accomplished," said Jeffrey L. Parker, chairman and chief executive officer of ParkerVision, a technology provider to the Wi-Fi industry. "Longer distances and higher throughput will provide the biggest advantages to increase productivity," he told UPI.

A survey released this week by Intel Corp., the chipmaker, demonstrates how the Wi-Fi network build-out is national in scope.

The San Francisco Bay Area was the most "unwired" area in the nation, surging ahead of Portland, Ore., according to the "Most Unwired Cities" survey, released on April 6. The survey examined the technology's usage in 100 metropolitan statistical areas and noted other leading wireless hotspots include Washington, D.C., New York City, San Diego and Middlesex, N.J.

"It's increasingly clear that computing without wires is more than a trend -- it's the next wave in communications," Sean Maloney, executive vice president of Intel, said in a statement accompanying the survey's release.

Hotels have been very active of late, installing Wi-Fi technology all over the world.

For example, a survey by STSN Europe, a division of STSN Inc., of Salt Lake City, earlier this year disclosed a three-fold increase over the prior six months in new, partner hotels that offer secure, wireless access to the Internet. The partners include Marriott International, Mandarin Oriental Intercontinental, Swissotel and Hilton United Kingdom and Ireland.

Availability of wireless access can be the decisive factor for corporate planners when choosing a hotel for a convention or business meeting.

Thus, the hotels and technology providers are working with wireless service providers, such as Sprint PCS, to build and manage these networks. The hoteliers also are collaborating with router and bridge makers -- such as Vivato, in San Francisco -- to install 2.4 gigahertz Wi-Fi switches on the property of the hotel, extending the range of the wireless connections their customers can enjoy.

To manage all of the technology, some hotels are even creating a new position, the IT concierge, to help customers get connected, and stay connected, for the duration of their stay.

"They can go to your room, and assist you with your PC," Hall said.

Many hotels had added in-room Internet connections a few years ago, but realized it simply was not enough to keep their clientele happy with the requirements of today's wireless world. Having just one connection in a guest's room "tethers them to one spot," Hall explained.

At the Sedona resort, wireless access is so widespread that customers can saunter "down to the creek-side, and remain connected, via Wi-Fi," Johnson said. "We're nestled on a hill, near a creek and we added boosters to improve access."

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Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications and technology for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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