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Industry Standard

Hotel rooms get wired

June 8, 1999
Web posted at: 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT)

by Matthew Yeoman

(IDG) -- Last November, when Starwood Hotels and Resorts launched the W New York, the flagship of its new W hotel group, it celebrated with a lavish cocktail party that attracted luminaries from Hollywood, the recording industry and the Internet world. As expected, the invitees gushed over Aveda toiletries in the sleek rooms and healthy-chic fare at the hotel's restaurant, Heartbeat, the latest creation of Manhattan wunderchef Drew Nieporent. But W's most innovative feature lay hidden coiled underneath the floorboards.

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W might as well stand for wired. The hotel's business centers and banquet halls have ISDN lines, which allow them to handle Web broadcasts and other new-media events. Moreover, every one of the hotel's 700 rooms has two phone lines, a cordless 900MHz phone and high-speed Net access through its television entertainment system.

Starwood is just one of a number of U.S. hotel chains betting they can gain a competitive advantage by providing more communication power for travelers. In the last six months, Marriott International (MAR), Hilton Hotels (HLT) and Wyndham International have also begun wiring their properties for fast Net access.

"The Internet is going to change everything," says consultant Larry Chervenak, of Chervenak, Keane & Co., a hotel technology consulting firm. He contends the hotel business is making significant progress toward making the Internet accessible on their properties.

"The most important thing when you travel on business is that you stay connected with your office," says Bradford Wilson, general manager of W New York. "It has been our goal to allow easy access to data ports in the room, letting people keep their laptops connected and putting in Web TV to let people have easy access to e-mail. You can really make your bedroom into an office here."

The leading player in interactive technology for hotel rooms is On Command, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that already provides movies on demand and electronic city guides to more than 920,000 guest rooms in over 3,200 hotels worldwide. Last year, On Command (ONCO) introduced its AtHotel TV and PC service, which offers hotel guests the option of surfing the Internet at speeds 50 times faster than conventional dial-up access, either through a TV set or by connecting to the hotel server and using its T1 line.

To date, AtHotel's TV service has been installed in 6,000 rooms, with AtHotel PC service in 2,300. More rooms are coming. The new W San Francisco, due to open this summer, will feature the TV system, and last month, the newly opened 417-room Wyndham Chicago began testing the PC system. On Command charges $9.95 a day to use either its TV or PC service. "The business traveler is the target for both products," says Cheryl Haines, On Command's VP of product management.

Bruce Rosenberg, VP of marketing distribution for Hilton Hotels, which has installed AtHotel TV in some of its properties, thinks those business travelers may actually use the service as much for entertainment as for business. "It's a leisure usage of the Web, for surfing and enjoyment," he says. "It's the next generation for hotel entertainment."

Haines envisions the serious business traveler turning to the PC service which links a guest-room data port to the hotel server using Iport software from San Diego-based Atcom-Info for work tasks, while surfing the Web and checking e-mail via the TV.

The future of Internet connectivity is being played out in hotel rooms. "A lot of the folks here [at On Command] have backgrounds in the cable-TV business," says Haines. "What started us down this path is the same thing that started cable-TV companies down the path the convergence of the TV and the laptop, and the Internet applications driving that convergence. You're going to want your television set to become both the entertainment device and the productivity device."

Given On Command's presence in the hotel interactive-entertainment market, the company promises to be a force in providing high-speed Net access to hotel guests. But Haines cautions that its AtHotel technology is still in the trial stage. "The market," he says, "is just beginning to emerge."

On Command will have some serious competition. Last month, two high-profile Hilton Hotels properties the Waldorf Astoria in New York and the Beverly Hills Hilton started offering CAIS Internet's OverVoice system in every room. With OverVoice, any traveler with an Ethernet-equipped modem can access the Internet at speeds up to 10 Mbps while talking on the same phone line. OverVoice splits the line into different signals for voice and data. As with the Iport software, the line connects to the hotel server for broadband access. OverVoice costs $9.95 a day; Hilton hopes to expand the service into 40 to 50 properties by the end of the year. That's not as daunting as it may sound, because OverVoice requires no rewiring of the hotel phone system.

"We are targeting the new-media traveler," says Hilton's Rosenberg. At the moment, he says, Hilton is "ahead of the market people don't expect high-speed Internet access from their guest room."

An even more ambitious Internet innovation is being tested at the Beverly Hills Hilton. The hotel is offering wireless high-speed Internet access via MobileStar, a Texas company that also has agreements with Crowne Plaza Hotels (the parent of Holiday Inn), ITT Sheraton and American Airlines. By the end of the year, MobileStar hopes to have 250 hotels wired with its remote-access servers. The servers have a range of about 300 feet, enabling subscribers to access the Net from major communal areas, such as the lobby or meeting rooms. Users have to pony up about $400 for the necessary plug-in card and then have software configured on their laptop. After the initial costs, the service runs about $50 a month and unlike cellular modems, usage is based on the amount of data transferred, rather than airtime.

Rosenberg sees MobileStar as a wireless alternative for road warriors. "CAIS is more applicable to the casual traveler," he says. "We're going to let MobileStar drive the heavy-duty traveler into the hotel."

For Hilton, going wireless isn't just about giving guests faster Net access. "Once I have a wireless network in the hotel," Rosenberg explains, "then I can hang other components on it, like remote check-in or having waiters and waitresses walk around with handheld units to take orders." Whether the hotel has plans for Net-enabled ice machines, Rosenberg wouldn't say.

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