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Balancing Act: Addressing Access, Privacy and Security in a Wired World

Today, guests expect Internet connectivity to be a part of their hotel experience. In their eyes, charging extra for basic Wi-Fi access is like levying an additional fee for bath towels. The results of a recent J.D. Power North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study reflect the growing expectation that Wi-Fi will be provided at no charge: The study found that luxury brands incurred a 65-point drop in guest satisfaction with costs and fees when they charged for Wi-Fi access.

While hotels typically have housekeeping processes in place to deliver the other amenities customers expect, many still struggle to provide  guests with strong WiFi. To deliver a great guest experience, hotels have to find an effective way to balance access, privacy and security.
News of major hacking incidents at companies of all sizes in virtually every industry is becoming almost routine, and the hospitality sector has not been immune. In 2014, the “Dark Hotel” threat undermined guest safety at hotels across the U.S., Germany and Asia, infecting hotel Wi-Fi networks and enticing unwary guests to install malware that captured private data. Last year, hackers exploited an InnGate network router vulnerability to record data, distribute malware and hack keycard systems worldwide.

Following are some key points for hotels to consider when planning for WiFi from the co-founder of Untangle, Inc.

Consumer Wi-Fi Hotspots and Hotel-Provided Access
Delivering a high-quality Wi-Fi experience can be a differentiator for hotels, but it has to be handled carefully. Hotels have run afoul of regulations governing Wi-Fi access and incurred costly fines. Late last year, the FCC fined M.C. Dean, an electrical contracting company that serves convention centers, more than $700,000 for blocking personal mobile hotspots.  The FCC also proposed a $25,000 fine against Hilton Worldwide Holdings for obstructing an investigation into alleged blocking of consumer Wi-Fi devices.

Instead of blocking consumer access to personal Wi-Fi, hotels should focus on delivering a safe, secure, reliable Wi-Fi experience, which can be profitable if handled correctly. It’s no longer sufficient to simply provide Wi-Fi at no change. As mobile devices have become increasingly integrated into daily life (as well as being indispensable business tools), hotels have to provide resources to support all of the different devices a guest might use to connect, which may include smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Adequate coverage is especially important when guests and organizations are holding a conference or other event at a hotel. In that scenario, it is absolutely critical for hotel managers to ensure that adequate Internet resources are in place. Participants and sponsors of tradeshows, conferences and other types of business events require Internet access to relevant materials. Non-business events like weddings also frequently include a technology component, so hotel managers must make sure participants also have uninterrupted Internet access.

Effective Control Helps Hotels and Guests
Hotels that fail to meet Wi-Fi access expectations can lose business. But hotel IT teams have a legitimate interest in controlling access to protect the organization’s profits while delivering fast, secure and reliable connectivity for guests. That means IT will require the ability to gain user consent to terms of service via a captive portal, deploy a firewall that enables unified threat management to protect privacy, block inappropriate content and prioritize content to support business operations.

For example, web filtering software can enable hotels to block bandwidth hogging, peer-to-peer file sharing sites like BitTorrent and gaming sites, which cannot only consume an outsized amount of resources while users download full-length feature films or play graphics-heavy games but can also cut into profits from in-room movie or video game services. Web filtering can eliminate the problem.
Bandwidth control software also enables hotels to more effectively manage their Wi-Fi offering. With the right bandwidth control solution, the hotel can efficiently manage online traffic and ensure that bandwidth is available for mission-critical tasks like point of sale systems. A rules-based solution can enable IT or hotel management to set specific priorities to make sure hotel operations are supported and that access is distributed fairly to guests.

Another important aspect of optimizing the connected experience for guests and employees alike is a thorough understanding of privacy regulations. Hotel managers need to monitor network traffic for security reasons, but it’s imperative to balance that with privacy concerns. That means hotel management must determine what a reasonable expectation of privacy is for both guests and employees, then establish and respect boundaries. It is also important to restrict access to traffic data to IT professionals with a reasonable need to monitor network activities. In this way, hotels can balance security and privacy.

Free Wi-Fi access is a must-have today, and hotels that continue to charge guests for usage will pay a high price via the loss of repeat business. Simply offering free Wi-Fi access isn’t enough either, however. To successfully manage demand, hotels need a way to deliver fast, secure and reliable connectivity. Hotels that find a way to balance access, privacy and security will be well-positioned to secure guest loyalty.
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