Can You Hear Me Now? Strong Cell Signals, Strong Satisfaction

Today’s hotel guests arrive on property using smartphones for everything including more ways for hotels to offer greater convenience and a better guest experience, however, a weak or non-existent cellular signal within the building will result in the opposite.  

Hoteliers are often more willing to invest IT dollars into upgrading their WiFi network — 54% of hotels with IT budgets of 4% or greater plan to upgrade or change WiFi suppliers in 2019, states Hospitality Technology’s 2019 Lodging Technology Study. Improving cellular signals often does not take as high of a priority, but it should.  

“Cellular and WiFi signal is an inherent guest need,” says Ken Barnes, CIO, Omni Hotels. “Just like hot water, lighting and excellent customer service — cellular coverage and WiFi have become another utility that needs to both exist and work seamlessly for every guest during every stay.”

 And poor cell signal can cost hotels in the long-run. 

“According to Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts, hotel owners lose approximately $4 per square foot due to poor guest connectivity. In fact, 30% of hotel guests will not return if LTE coverage is poor. Even a single ‘dead zone’ can mean a loss of thousands of dollars in hotel revenue,” explains Alan Ewing, executive director of the CBRS Alliance.

Right-size Cell Solutions 

According to Zinwave, one of the most common reasons for poor signal is the impenetrability of building materials: concrete, steel and stone.

 Additionally, the structural density of a hotel — the number of walls and their thickness — can contribute to bad cell reception as can the distance a hotel is from a cellular tower. Impediments between the hotel property and the tower such as other buildings, hills and trees can also be a problem, says SureCall.

Hotel basements are also infamous for their lack of cellular reception as are buildings that are environmentally friendly, says Nextivity. Low-emission glass is manufactured or coated with materials that reduce UV penetration. This treated glass also prevents cellular signal from entering the building. 

To combat these issues, there are a variety of options. First, it’s important to identify the issue that plagues a property so hoteliers can choose a proper solution.

Technology providers agree that signal boosters are a  good option for buildings up to 500,000 square feet and that have a usable cell signal outside but very weak cell signals inside the building. Unfortunately, they are not useful if there is no signal outside of the building or when the building size exceeds the boosting limit.

Signal boosters take signal from the outside towers, amplify the signal so it is stronger, and then redistribute it throughout the building using cabling and indoor antennas, Nextivity says. Site surveys need to be done to determine where there is poor signal from which carriers to so as to determine where the antennas need to be placed. The booster system planning needs to be designed around the walls and floorplan of the buildings, down hallways and into basements. Depending on how many wireless carriers need boosting, this solution can become equipment-intensive.

 Small cells are compact, low-power devices that can easily be installed by IT teams using existing network cables, similar to WiFi, to bring mobile coverage and capacity into a building, says a Small Cell Forum spokesperson. A small cell is an operator- or carrier-controlled radio access node. While a signal booster relies on a strong outside signal, a small cell connects to the Internet to create a voice over IP signal, meaning it can create a cell signal indoors even if there is no cellular signal outside. Its coverage can range from 10 to several hundred feet, and the compact nature of a small cell means it offers hoteliers more flexibility when it comes to installing the equipment.

 Mobile operators will ship hotels small cells for self-installation to fix isolated coverage gaps. For large multi-floor and high-traffic areas, larger scalable systems are available too. For larger buildings, or as usage requirements grow, the system can be scaled up by adding extra access points. 

“Early small cells were single-operator only and DAS was the only choice for multi-operator indoor solutions,” says the Small Cell Forum. “Now, there are neutral hosts which are using small cell solutions to provide multi-operator services for hotels.”

In anticipation of potential signal issues, Trump Hotels opted to install Passive DAS, says Eric Brunnett, vice president of IT. The hotel chain retrofitted some of its properties with Passive DAS and actively added it to building plans for new properties. The Passive DAS operates at Trump Hotels as a separate network as the cabling, antennas and technology are all specified for the cell signal from the carrier. 

For some of its properties, Trump Hotels had to “get creative” with the installation. For instance, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., is housed in a historic building built in 1899.

 “A historic building doesn’t lend itself to running cables through it easily,” Brunnett said. “It took some work but we got creative with bouncing antennas off one another to ensure we had strong cellular signal for our guests.”

 Omni Hotels & Resorts started out using signal boosters and small DAS networks. However, it eventually partnered with ExteNet Systems and the cell carriers to install an Active DAS with dedicated base stations at many of its properties. This was to address not only coverage issues, but also capacity issues in the outdoor network, Barnes says.

Generally, Active DAS solutions are carrier specific, however, Omni implemented carrier-grade neutral host DAS networks with radio base stations, remote radio-head and small cell carrier radio sources as their dedicated resource.

This solution has worked particularly well for its larger resorts, such as Amelia Island Plantation resort which sits on 1,350 acres, offers 400 guestrooms, nine on-site dining options, and 80,000 square-feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

While most of its cellular signal improvement technology was retrofitted to existing properties, Barnes says that Omni is taking advantage of new technology and new construction to add in the technology from the very beginning.

“We took advantage of the construction phase and with ExteNet’s help, built in the DAS network integrated with a GPON network,” he explains. “Since the GPON network supported security, IPTV, room phones, WiFi and other applications as well as the DAS, this was a very cost-effective solution in our larger properties. Omni is also considering CBRS network applications for Private LTE and mobile off-load applications.” 

Marriott’s Moxy hotel brand prides itself on offering a tech-forward design that would appeal to guests that want and need smartphones to work perfectly at all times. Therefore, an excellent cellular signal within Moxy hotels is of critical importance. Lowell Beebe-Center, corporate director of operations, pre-opening/NYC, development team at the Lightstone Group, oversees the process of renovating or building new hotels for the Moxy Brand in New York City.

 Beebe-Center recently worked with Nextivity to install a Hybrid DAS at its Chelsea location in New York City. The Chelsea location is a 37-story building with smaller buildings surrounding it. They blocked cellular signal from entering the lower floors. The site survey found there was sufficient cellular signal entering the upper floors so the hotel felt it only needed to amplify the signal on four floors: sub-cellar, cellar, first and second floor.

 “To install the Hybrid DAS, the installer came in to work when we were installing other low-voltage cabling. When we were getting ready to close up the ceilings, the installer came back and added in their terminations and got the whole system up and running. Once we hooked up the power antennas and the amplifiers we were amazed at the instant and impactful results. It’s going to be a very enjoyable experience having a system that won’t need tweaking,” says Beebe-Center. 

Keeping an Eye on CBRS 

Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a new set of frequency bands that can be shared or lightly licensed for private communications. This is in the process of regulatory approval in the United States. The 150MHz of newly available spectrum represents a potential windfall of capabilities for hospitality companies. 

“OnGo, a technology based on the 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum band, improves wireless coverage and capacity on a massive scale,” Alan Ewing, executive director of the CBRS Alliance, says. “Building owners and property managers can run their own OnGo in-building networks using standard 4G LTE cellular technology. These private LTE networks are as secure and high-performing as traditional LTE networks, but are managed like WiFi and more cost effective than traditional cellular networks.”

 In cases where hoteliers don’t want to design, install or manage their own private LTE networks, managed service providers (MSPs) are planning to provide neutral host networks capable of providing OnGo enabled private LTE services for hotels, Ewing added. A neutral host network is a network deployed and managed by a host operator where the network resources are shared by multiple mobile network operators. As a neutral host, hotels have a business agreement with service providers to provide service to mobile customers while they are on the network. Neutral Host Networks powered by OnGo allow hoteliers to create high performance networks tailored to their unique needs, allowing them to serve high performance LTE to all their guests, regardless of their wireless carrier.

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