Breaking Cellular Barriers

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Breaking Cellular Barriers

By Tammy Mastroberte, Contributing Editor - 12/17/2015
Mobile devices are taking over, with the majority of today’s consumers carrying more than one device with them on a daily basis. According to the 2014 American Trends Research Panel survey by the Pew Research Center (www.pewinternet.org), 64 percent of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35 percent in the spring of 2011. When staying at a hotel, guests not only expect to stay connected through those devices via Wi-Fi, but they also want the ability to make phone calls from their mobile phones without fighting for a signal or getting dropped mid call.

Hotel operators can control Wi-Fi by adding more bandwidth with their providers, but with cellular signals, it’s not as simple. “The nature of licensed frequencies creates this scenario where the carriers hold full control over who gets access to cellular signal and when they get it,” says a source at a major hotel company that right at press time requested to remain anonymous. “It’s a huge issue in the industry and we can’t control the purchase or delivery of signals as easily as we can with Wi-Fi. Also, any solutions we create need carrier consent and to meet FCC guidelines.”

The issues hotels face are twofold: coverage, or where the cellular signal can be accessed, and second, capacity, which is how many people can access the signal without interruption. In some cases, a carrier, such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint, will come into a hotel and invest to create a better signal, with some even paying the hotel an ongoing fee, but in the majority of cases, they are not willing to invest and the solution falls back on the hotel operator.

“The hard part of cellular is it’s not a black and white solution, and very few hotels qualify to get a system put in by a carrier and to get a commission,” said Trevor Warner, president of Warner Consulting based in Columbus, Ohio. “Maybe there is one percent of hotels where they can get a free system and get money out of it.”

Putting money where the signal is
For the majority of hotels, the answer to cellular signal issues is to either install some type of signal booster or build a distributed antenna system (DAS), the latter of which is very expensive. Either way, carriers need to be consulted.

“For existing buildings, we developed internal processes to allow properties to provide feedback on their cellular service availability, and we use this information in our regular meetings with carriers,” our anonymous source explains. “As for new hotel openings, our stewardship process with them includes sharing detailed information about projects opening as far as three years in advance. Our goal is to provide all relevant information, allowing them to consider each individual property in their development pipeline. With that data at hand, each carrier runs their own ROI model and identifies possible locations to allocate their investment.”

When they are not willing to invest, depending on the circumstances and the location, carriers may approve a signal booster, such as a repeater, which takes the signal from outside the property and repeats it inside. Small cells are also an option, which utilizes the property’s bandwidth or data circuit to connect with the carrier’s network.

Additionally, if a hotel is placing a repeater on the property, which is borrowing capacity off an existing network, they need to follow FCC rules for equipment selection, and register it with them to make sure there is no interruption to the current network or other networks.

“You can have an FCC agent come to the property, and they carry instruments around to determine the strengths and frequencies to make sure you are not overpowering another network or carrier,” says Adam Jones, director of IT for the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles with The Dorchester Collection (www.dorchestercollection.com).

The more “fool-proof” option is to put in a DAS, but it is much more expensive, says Warner. A repeater is a less costly alternative, but in some cases is only “putting a Band-Aid on the situation because they could be repeating a signal that is already weak,” he notes.

At the Beverly Hills Hotel, the location is ideal for carriers, so Verizon and T-Mobile have antennas on its roof. However, over the years with renovation, including more marble interiors and bedrooms, it experienced some issues, specifically in its two presidential suites with rates between $22,000 and $24,000 per night, according to Jones. The rooms did not have strong enough signals, so it was up to the hotel to invest in a DAS.

“We worked with Manley Solutions (www.manleysolutions.com) and SureCall (www.surecall.com) to install a DAS, and it’s all hidden in the ceiling and covers both suites,” he says, explaining it was worth the investment because of the high room rates.

Additionally, while renovating the Hotel Bel-Air, which is in a more residential area, the company realized they had no signal coming in. The solution was two donor antennas on the North and South side of the property to bring in the signal through fiber connections from the street into the building.

“The antennas look like two gigantic trash cans covered and painted, and they pick up the signal and rebroadcast it,” Jones says. “We pay for the service, and have AT&T and T-Mobile bring the signal through the fiber optic cable and extend it to the two giant antennas, which blankets the property with cell coverage.”

Another solution is to use a passive distributed antenna system fed by a wideband repeater, such as RoamBoost (www.roamboost.com). An antenna is placed on the outside of the building and grabs the signal, rebroadcasting it indoors using a network of antennas. “This becomes a viable option in less saturated markets,” the anonymous source shares. “Market RF engineers evaluate the solutions and provide consent as long as noise or interference aren’t noticeable in the neighboring macro networks.”

Is Wi-Fi the future for cellular?
One thing that could change the cellular dilemma for hotels is the conversion to Wi-Fi calling. T-Mobile allows calls to be made over Wi-Fi when a cell signal is not available, Sprint is moving to it this year, and AT&T launched their own available on iPhone 6, 6S and 6S Plus. Verizon is also expected to be moving in this direction.

“Wi-Fi calling is set for an exponential growth in a short period of time, becoming the mainstream option for venues that would not be eligible for a cellular network otherwise,” our anonymous source says.

Some customers, especially those traveling internationally, are using voice apps rather than a cellular signal, and that also uses Wi-Fi, Jones explains. Many are also using Facetime and Skype, also using the Internet. “Customers are getting smarter, and there is a huge push for apps with voice communications that utilize a wireless network,” Jones notes.

If Wi-Fi becomes the solution for carriers and customers to keep up with cellular demand, hotels will gain more control over customer service because Wi-Fi bandwidth at the property is much easier to expand internally.