In today’s fast-paced world, business travelers need to stay in constant communication with the office. Even when on vacation, people want to access the Internet, as well as their professional and personal e-mails. It may be satisfactory now for them to plug their laptop computers into their hotel room’s phone jack, but a 33,000- or even 56,000-kilobit-per-second connection isn’t going to keep them satisfied much longer.

Bill Moore, president of L.K. Comstock & Co. Inc., White Plains, N.Y., estimates that the market for retrofitting hotels for local area networks (LANs) to provide guests with Internet and e-mail access is somewhere in the $50 million to $100 million range. “Travelers are currently struggling to find hotels that offer this access. Hotels are going to have to retrofit their facilities to accommodate their guests’ needs,” he said.

Larger, urban hotel chains with older facilities are retrofitting for LANs. “They have to protect their customer base and ensure that guests don’t defect to new hotels that are constructed with Internet access,” Moore said.

Eventually, however, it won’t just be the larger, higher-end hotels that retrofit their facilities to cater to traveler demands for modern communications systems. “Midsize and smaller hotel chains will eventually also have to provide high-speed Internet access for their guests to remain competitive,” said Steve Radnor, project manager for Mahon Communications Co., Braintree, Mass.

Although this market represents an excellent opportunity for electrical contractors, many hotels have not yet made the necessary infrastructure investments, according to Larry Grove, senior project manager for Chicago’s Black Box Network Services. “Part of the reason that older hotels haven’t invested yet in the inevitable upgrades is that it will require a great deal of work and the cash outlay currently outweighs the potential return for them,” he said.

An option for hotels that can’t do much recabling, for whatever reason, is to install business centers for guests to access the Internet. “This type of installation is still an excellent opportunity for electrical contractors while they wait for hotels to eventually realize that they will need to cable individual rooms for Internet access because that is what their customers’ want,” Moore added.

One hotel that has realized the advantages of LAN retrofitting is the Hyatt Regency Chicago, the chain’s largest property, which just recently completed an upgrade that provides Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) high-speed Internet access to all 2,019 rooms. Greg Saunders, the hotel’s managing director, said guests began using the complimentary service as soon as each room was connected. During the first week of the installation, the hotel recorded more than 600 guestroom usages.

System options

There are really two connection issues for hotels, according to Moore. “Hotels need to install an Ethernet LAN for guests to connect to the Internet as well as a wide area network (WAN) connection in the form of a T1 or ISDN line for the hotel to connect to the outside world,” he said.

Radnor believes hotels will choose mainly copper to run from the backbone to the individual rooms, with the backbone consisting of a combination of copper and fiber. “The advantage of copper is its durability and its ability to provide high-speed connections. The disadvantage, however, of running fiber to the rooms is fiber’s lack of ruggedness and the unfamiliarity most travelers have with the equipment needed to use fiber connections,” he said.

According to Grove, hotels would be best served to upgrade to Category 5e and Level 7 cables to ensure Internet access and to deter future retrofit needs. “Today’s 100-megabit systems provide high-speed transmission and sufficient data-reliability with these cables,” he said.

Hotels must also decide what levels of access and service they wish to provide to guests and how to go about it. For instance, DSL lines, according to Radnor, have distance limitations and only operate within a certain radius of the service provider’s location. ISDN lines are an established and familiar technology, and are faster than phone lines, but they would probably be incompatible with the hotel’s PBX system and would require a separate, direct line for each connection. Cable modems are fast, with speeds exceeding 10 Mbps a second in some cases, but their availability depends entirely on the local service provider’s level of service. In addition, multiple-access attempts by guests could severely slow down system performance.

That leaves wireless systems as an option. Not really, according to Radnor, mainly because the security problem in wireless systems has not yet been solved. “Also, there is a lot of brick and steel in these older buildings,” he said, “which limits the distance and speed in which a wireless system could operate.”

Grove is somewhat more positive about the attributes of wireless systems in a hotel LAN system, particularly if the hotel offers a business center for its travelers, rather than Internet access in each individual room. “Installing a wireless system that could be used in every room would entail installing an access point in each room, which would be almost as expensive as a completely wired system,” he said.

What an electrical contractor needs

Once hotels realize the advantages of retrofitting and the added value that Internet access would bring to their clientele, electrical contractors with the expertise will be able to take advantage of this unique market opportunity. “Electrical contractors that want to enter this market need to have an understanding of how the technology works, technicians trained in installing LAN cabling, and the engineering ability to help the hotel design a system that will fit their needs,” said Grove.

Robert Fordahl, project manager for Lindheim Integrated Technologies, Oakland, Calif., thinks electrical contractors must also be able to develop pricing structures that are competitive with other companies. “Voice and data projects are completely different than traditional electrical systems in terms of pricing and budgeting,” he said.

There are other differences besides pricing between these low-voltage projects and traditional electrical contracting, according to Moore. “Telecommunication work has more nonlinear circuitry, and the smart devices that encompass a facility’s voice/data/video or Internet system are more technologically complicated,” he said.

Radnor added that the contractor that wishes to succeed in this market should establish a specific department dedicated to telecom work. “Operating a separate department with trained technicians demonstrates to customers the contractor’s determination to understand the technology and to fulfill their needs,” he said.

Although it has been observed by some that most hotel retrofit projects are not currently being performed by large, traditional electrical contractors, Moore believes that when industry training programs are finally applied to their fullest potential, a large cadre of qualified technicians will be available to gain substantial increases in the hotel retrofit market. EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.