Hotels Cut Costs, Go Green with Solar-Powered WiFi

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Hotels Cut Costs, Go Green with Solar-Powered WiFi

By Jason McCarthy, General Manager, Sandman Inn, Santa Barbara, CA - 03/31/2009
Hotel guests have certain demands: cable television, a pool, or perhaps 4-star room service. Yet more likely, their primary demand is increasingly to have consistent, robust wireless internet access. Now, what if they want wireless by the pool, or in that outlying cabin surrounded by forest? What if the hotel property is in a location or country without a reliable electrical infrastructure?

Operators have two choices: 1) spend a few thousand dollars and a few weeks with electricians digging trenches and laying new wires to place an outlet on a rooftop to plug in a WiFi radio within range; or b) install a solar-powered long-range WiFi radio.

When planning a WiFi deployment in a hotel of any size, one must consider and accommodate a whole host of variables: the construction materials (masonry and steel may suppress the signal significantly more than woodframe construction); terrain (are there buildings amongst trees and hills that may impede the signal?), and distance between access points.

Although it is rarely anticipated in the way the presence of cable or DSL infrastructure is in pre-deployment planning, access to electrical power can be a roadblock of epic and expensive proportions. Beachfront, poolside, or remote buildings may not have electrical wiring at all. Extending electrical up onto a roof can cost thousands of dollars before hotels even have installed a WiFi radio. A solar solution could provide a cost-effective alternative.

Eco-friendly WiFi
Solar WiFi hardware works much the same as a plugged in or power over Ethernet enabled unit. When considering the options, hoteliers will want to decide how much they want to do themselves and how much they can afford to pay an installer and systems integrator. The hardware available often requires considerable technical know-how to cobble together and bring online with an existing network.

When considering a solar wireless network, operators need to evaluate different systems' battery technology, the power sub-system, and intelligent power management software. These considerations pay off in the end, because hoteliers will need assurance that the electricity generated is efficiently stored for use at night and on cloudy days.

Those who like to get their hands dirty might choose a more traditional solar-powered wireless system and host it locally. Generally, these require a complex systems integration effort, where systems integrators build the network from the ground up using multiple components: charge controllers, batteries, panels, software, and wireless radios.

For those without a technical staff, an integrated solution may be more desirable. For example, The Sandman is not a big chain hotel, and there are no IT professionals on-site. Management needed a fast, inexpensive solution that wouldn't require an engineering degree to deploy. Going off of a recommendation by a local tech contractor, The Sandman chose Meraki. Meraki offers an integrated solution and its solar units are essentially plug-and-play. It integrated into our existing mesh network automatically and was instantly online. All the installer had to do was climb onto the roof once, secure the unit in an optimal position to maximize sun exposure.

The savings of installing a solar WiFi solution are vast thanks to the affordable hardware and ease of installation. It operates completely off the grid, so it also reduces electrical bills.

Not only does going solar with your WiFi solve many practical issues for a difficult installation, it provides a very marketable hotel amenity. It doesn't hurt a hotel to be seen as "green" and "state-of-the-art" in a tight, competitive market. Many properties are "going green" because guests are demanding it.

Jason McCarthy has been general manager at The Sandman Inn since 2000, and has been with the hotel's parent company for 20 years.  He is the past president of the Greater Santa Barbara Lodging & Restaurant Association (GSBLRA), a member of the CH&LA's Education Committee, and serves on the Advisory Board for the Santa Barbara City College School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management.