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Technology: Delivering high-speed internet economically in hotels

09 September 2005

Power line technology, which uses the electricity network to deliver high-speed internet access, is being hailed in some circles as a viable alternative to ADSL, Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Take-up among consumers and businesses is already far advanced in some markets - such as the USA and Germany - where forward-thinking utility companies are enabling consumers and businesses to access the Internet and services such as videoconferencing simply by plugging into the mains.

Organisations such as the HomePlug Alliance and the PowerLine Communications (PLC) Forum are promoting the power line method, and the technology is gaining backers in some unexpected places. Even President George Bush is on record as saying: "We need to use our power lines better. One great opportunity is to spread Broadband throughout America via our power lines."

Some rewiring A key selling point of power line technology is its "plug and play" nature. Because it piggybacks the existing electricity network, there is no need to install new cables - although some rewiring may be required in older properties before installation. Humble power outlets are transformed into high-speed data networks, with no need for individual installations in the guest rooms.

The idea itself is not so new, nor indeed foreign. Power line technology was pioneered in the UK in the 1990s, when Nor.Web, a joint venture between UK utility company Norweb and telecoms provider Nortel, launched a major trial of digital power-line technology in Manchester. However, the trials were suspended after a few rounds of testing and it was left to other countries to pick up the baton.

Historically there have been several barriers to the adoption of the technology, not least safety concerns because of the use of electricity cables and interference of the power line signals by users of the low-frequency radio spectrum, such as CB operators. Detractors have also pointed out that electricity cables were not designed to carry data traffic, resulting in bandwidth problems, with more users equating to poorer-quality throughput, especially when bandwidth-hungry services such as video streaming are involved.

Pricing and reliability have also been problems, as has the absence of regulations and standards for using power lines in the UK. But with the UK regulator, Ofcom, looking more favourably on the technology, and other countries, including Germany, having well-established regulations for it in place, it seems the technology is finally coming of age.

One company that is targeting the UK hotel market is Cibersuite UK, which last month launched a service called Broadband over the Electricity Network (BoEN). The system, designed two years ago for the Puente Romano Hotel in Marbella, Spain, has already been adopted by the Bridge House Hotel, near Birmingham (see opposite). The hotel sets the tariffs; the management software enables the hotel to monitor usage and ensure bandwidth is distributed fairly among users. Installation typically costs about 800 and takes between one and three days. First Line support and installation is handled by a third party, Speedwave.

Jon Widdick, sales director of Cibersuite UK, says the BoEN system can provide a 54Mbps connection, although most hotels will experience 2-4Mbps, as this will be the speed of the connection delivered into the hotel by their telecoms provider. That said, plans to increase the maximum speeds from 54Mbps to 200Mbps will enable hotels to deliver high-speed services internally - for example, channelling video-on-demand services into guestrooms using content held on a server within the hotel.

In addition to the BoEN system, Cibersuite UK will install a wireless network, based on antennas hardwired into the emergency lighting in the corridors. Both systems use "tunnelling", which provides a reasonably secure way of sending data intended for a private network over a public network such as the Internet, with more secure protection provided by Triple DES encryption and the option of creating virtual private network (VPN) for groups of users.

Cibersuite UK is also looking at introducing a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service to enable guests to use the system for voice calls. In the meantime, Widdick says, guests can use free communications services such as Skype. This discourages guests from using the hotel telephones, of course, but as Widdick says "Most hotels lost that revenue to mobile phones a long time ago".roll-out

Another power line provider is Telkonet, whose customers include Choice Hotels and Canada's Sandman Hotels, which has rolled out the system across its 31-strong portfolio.

Telkonet's iWire system uses a gateway product and a series of couplers - the number needed depends on the layout of the building - to turn the building's existing wiring network into an internet-enabled network backbone. Each room then needs an iBridge product, which connects the PC to the network via whichever of the room's electrical sockets it is plugged into. Telkonet claims the system is scalable to hundreds of users and most hotel installations take just one day.

So what of the future? Tim Gower of IT analysis firm Datamonitor believes that, in the long term, broadband over power line (BPL) will probably remain a niche technology, in part because of issues such as interference problems and the lack of standards, and the widespread and affordable nature of alternatives such as ADSL and cable.

"I don't believe it will become a mass-market technology," Gower concludes. "But if it's delivered cost effectively, and the utility companies get behind it, and if WiFi is included as the access technology, then maybe this is something that can take off in select verticals like the hotel industry."

The Bridge House Hotel

Having spent 12 months looking for a replacement for his outdated analogue system, Paul Hopwood, proprietor of the Bridge House Hotel in the village of Acocks Green, near Birmingham, installed a power line system from Cibersuite (UK) at the beginning of this month.

For Hopwood the system offered a number of key benefits.

Installation was quick, there was no disruption to the business and there were no up-front costs or tie-ins.

Instead, the hotel pays Cibersuite a 40% share of the £7.50 it charges for 24-hour internet access.

Users connect their computer to the most convienient electricity socket, using the supplied BoEN modem and cable, before entering a password issued to them on a printout at the hotel's reception desk. In Hopwood's case he also got the firm to install a Wi-Fi network, supported by antennas postitioned next to the emergency lighting outlets in the hotel corridors.

Guests with wireless-enabled PCs can buy a password direct from Cibersuite's website, with the company payment to the hotel in due course.

"A big plus is you don't have to re-cable the whole hotel, and in most of the bedrooms the power sockets are in the right position for people to use for accessing the internet." Hopwood says. "You're looking at a day-and-a-half to install it in a 51-bedroom hotel, with no disruption and the option for people to start using it straight away."

The only problem Hopwood sees with Cibersuite's proposition is it may have come a bit late, as a lot of hotels are now offering internet for free.

It's early days but Hopwood, whi is getting "pretty good" signal strength on the wireless system and consistent internet speeds of 2Mbps over the power line network, expects usage of the system to ramp up when business traffic picks up after the summer.

"July and August is a difficult time for us," he says. "Where we'll really benefit is when the conferences are on at the NEC, from September onwards."

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