Hotel Wi-Fi Evolution - What Does It Mean To IoT?
By Tony Heung Senior Director Global Product Management, Exceptional Innovation | January 27, 2019
In the past ten years, hotel guests have changed from using heavy laptops to connect to Wi-Fi using 802.11b/g with roughly 12Mbps practical throughput to ten years later using lightweight mobile and large screen tablets to connect to Wi-Fi using 802.11ac with the possible reach of 1Gbps throughput. Many readers may not realize the iPad was not even launched until seven years ago on April 3, 2010.
Traditional Wi-Fi Design
Traditionally Wi-Fi Access Points (WAP) were installed in the guest floor corridor and one WAP would service six to eight guest rooms with some coverage gaps. It was based on the assumption that guests would bring just one Wi-Fi device which is the laptop making the desk area in the room mandatory. Today's business travellers bring on average three Wi-Fi devices, including a laptop (some may have already dropped it), tablet and smartphone. And more importantly the location of where guests will use Wi-Fi is now everywhere and anywhere within the hotel property.
Ten years ago, internet was mostly used in one direction, i.e.: downloading, as all the network traffic was pulling down from static websites but not much for uploading. Today the usage pattern has shifted since the introduction of Web 2.0 and the popularity of social networking and video streaming sites. The upload and download network traffic ratio used to be 1:10 but is now getting closer to 1:1 in some hotel networks.
It is obvious that a ten-year old Wi-Fi network will not fit today's needs, so how can you foresee the Wi-Fi network you are installing today will not be obsolete in ten years?
Today and Future Use of Wi-Fi Network
Even though the term IoT was created back in 1999, it was not until 2014 IoT became the popular search pattern on Google. IoT means 'The Internet of Things' and refers to the networking of devices including household appliances, automobile, or any other items embedded with electronics. It also extends to include healthcare devices, environmental devices, and almost anything that can do input/output (IO) operations. Some experts predict that by 2020 the global IoT market would be worth $7.1 trillion with over 30 billion IoT objects.
A good hospitality example is Marriott International in Nov 2017 launched the IoT Guestroom Lab partnership with Samsung and Legrand. The room is designed to allow Marriott to test and analyze upcoming IoT devices relevant for hospitality and hotel guests. The first demo room includes smart lighting, intelligent temperature control for air-con and shower as well as a voice-controlled personal assistant. All these settings and preferences can be linked back to the IoT cloud which can be associated with the guest reservation profile, and no matter which hotel you visit, you will get the personalised guest experience to reinforce the better than home experience.
The IoT guestroom has showcased the personal assistant using Amazon Echo Show. The voice-controlled personal assistant market is booming with these giant players, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana. Most of the devices facilitated for the voice personal assistant are still based on the Wi-Fi connectivity rather than ZigBee, Near-Field Communication (NFC) or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).
Another IoT example that sounds futuristic but it is actually closer than we expect is the robot butler. Starwood (Now Marriott) had trialled robot butler "Botlrs" at Aloft Cupertino back in 2014. The primary task of the robot butler is to deliver amenities to the guest room. It communicates with the elevator and doorbell via Wi-Fi connectivity.
Next-Gen Network and Wi-Fi Design
Whether installing a new Wi-Fi network at a new built hotel or upgrading an existing Wi-Fi network during refurbishment, it is important to define the specification not only enough for today's needs but also future proofing to protect the CAPEX investment. There are a number of factors to be considered including coverage, redundancy, traffic management, network security, and future proof capability. We will look into each designing factor in detail below.
Wi-Fi Coverage - Guest Wi-Fi devices and moveable IoT devices would roam not only around anywhere in the guest room but also anywhere in the hotel. Wi-Fi needs to cover anywhere and everywhere. Take the robot butler as an example. Wi-Fi coverage is key at the elevator so the butler can request the elevator and choose on which floor the elevator should stop. Traditionally laundry rooms would not have Wi-Fi coverage. However, with IoT-enabled washing machines to allow washing prioritization and utilization of lower electricity tariffs during off-peak times, Wi-Fi coverage in the laundry rooms contributes to ongoing operating cost reduction.
Wi-Fi Redundancy - Hotel utility supply is so critical that a back-up system must be in place. Hotels invest in diesel engines to provide a back-up electricity supply, as well as installing a back-up solution for hot water supply. The same would apply to Wi-Fi redundancy. There are already growing demands to have the first level of redundancy on the Wi-Fi controller, firewall and core switch. It is however seldom the hotel owner would invest in WAP redundancy in the guest room. Most hotel operators would rely on onsite spare units. When a faulty WAP is detected, the technician would just replace the faulty unit. This still involves some downtime and when the lack of Wi-Fi is so critical, guest experience and hotel operations will be impacted. It is worthwhile to invest in increasing the number of serving WAPs per location, e.g.: having two to three WAPs to provide overlapping coverage and the ability to serve Wi-Fi clients even one WAP is down.
Intelligent Traffic Management - Ordinary network implementation would treat network traffic all the same without prioritization. Similar to the Voice over IP (VoIP) solution, the network requires the implementation of Quality of Service (QoS) in order to give VoIP traffic higher priority than other network traffic. This is because a voice call is real-time in nature and sensitive to network delay or latency. A network packet is delayed by 100ms when downloading a web page with images, but would not be obvious or impact the guest experience. However if a voice packet is delayed by 100ms, it would result in audio distortion and poor guest experience. The same applies to all the personal assistants like Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana. One thing in common is the need for real-time responsive internet connectivity back to the provider cloud. Wi-Fi and local network bandwidth would not cause the network delay but typical bottlenecks lie on the Internet pipe from the hotel to the ISP. Implementing an intelligent network traffic manager to do prioritization and optimization based on a Layer-7 traffic pattern and smart signature would guarantee top quality network connectivity for the defined mission critical applications.
Network Security - Some IoT devices have limited CPU and RAM due to the size, e.g.: smart light bulbs, and support only open Wi-Fi standard and anyone listening to the Wi-Fi network can get the passkey to pair it. Another example is some IP CCTV cameras only use hardcoded admin username and passwords which cannot be changed after provisioning. Due to these design factors, some IoT devices have low/no security protection. It is important to implement extra security to secure the local network and Wi-Fi network to prevent unauthorized access. Additional Wi-Fi security can be implemented by VLAN separation or client isolation to reduce the associated security risk. And at the perimeter protection to implement a firewall to prevent external unauthorized access from the public Internet.
IoT-Ready Wi-Fi - The latest WAP standard available for general deployment is still 802.11ac Wave 2 which has major improvement on bandwidth throughput and multiple clients support over 802.11n. However, it does not have much with regards to supporting the last-mile for IoT devices. Some Wi-Fi manufacturers already include an USB port in the 802.11ac product range to enable USB BLE dongle to connect to the WAP to provide BLE as the last-mile for the IoT network. This is merely a bandage solution to support some IoT applications while waiting for the newer IoT-specific Wi-Fi standards to be made available, namely 802.11ax.
802.11ax is much faster, thanks to the wider frequency band it supports. With using 160MHz band with 4x4 MIMO, it is possible to have top speeds of 10Gbps, at least ten times faster than 802.11ac Wave 1.
802.11ac is also less congested, thanks to Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (ODMFA) which allows the frequency channel from better utilization especially in a noisy environment. This feature is adopted from the success of LTE implementation.
Not only is it much faster and less congested but the introduction of a new feature called Target Wake Time (TWT), enables the WAP to instruct the Wi-Fi clients to sleep and at a scheduled time to wake up. This significantly improves the client battery drainage and making 802.11ax ideal for IoT implementation particularly for battery operated clients.
Even though enterprise-grade 802.11ax WAP is not yet available on the market, it is worth investing in a Wi-Fi infrastructure vendor that does the 802.11ax roadmap product so the Wi-Fi controller and the existing WAPs can be running in hybrid mixed mode with the new and old WAPs instead of ripping out the entire Wi-Fi infrastructure.
Wi-Fi has become the necessity of our everyday life and hotel guests expect a better than home experience, combined with the explosion of IoT devices changes the dynamic of next generation Wi-Fi design. Assessing the design factors including coverage, redundancy, traffic management, network security, and future proof capability is necessary to protect the investment on Wi-Fi infrastructure.
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