A five-star hotel room high above New York's Central Park sounds like a nice place to spend the night, but if your iPhone doesn't work, it may seem like little more than a gilded cage.
That was the frustration felt by many guests at the Mandarin Oriental New York before the facility installed its new Wi-Fi infrastructure. The hotel, housed in upper floors of the 750-foot (229-meter) Time Warner Center and opened in 2003, is too high for cellular data service and until late last year had an outdated and inadequate network of access points.
Guests have always been able to get wired and wireless Internet access in their rooms, which start at about US$700 per night, but when the mobile revolution hit, suddenly many more wanted to cut the cord. The wireless network couldn't serve them all.
"As soon as that iPhone came out, it was very apparent that we had a major issue, and it just got worse from there," said David Heckaman, vice president of technology, North America, at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. "As soon as the iPad came out, it was ... more or less a disaster."
Mandarin had been getting by on one or two Wi-Fi access points per floor, using the IEEE 802.11b technology that was current when the hotel opened. A DAS (distributed antenna system) extended the coverage down hallways, but there wasn't enough capacity to serve more than a dozen users per floor, Heckaman said. The advent of the smartphone meant more Wi-Fi devices in more rooms, more often.
Apple AirPorts, in a pinch
The DAS, primarily a set of wires above the ceiling of each hallway, carried cellular signals from all the major carriers as well as the Wi-Fi. But that system still only offers 3G coverage, and guests wanted the additional speed of Wi-Fi. In a package offering along with wired broadband, Wi-Fi costs US$15 per day, with discounts for longer stays. To accommodate guests who asked for better wireless throughput, the hotel sometimes attached Apple AirPort Express portable routers to the wired Internet connection in the room, Heckaman said.
As iPhones proliferated and iPads hit the market, the Mandarin looked for a way to permanently boost wireless capacity. But its networking challenges didn't end there. There were limitations on the services that could be provided over the data lines provided to each room. The hotel had adopted VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phones from the beginning, and in a typical room, three lines were dedicated to phones. The Mandarin also provides high-definition TV and video on demand over the IP network, which took up another line each.
Any upgrade involving new wires, including a better DAS, would be expensive and disruptive. So the Mandarin found a way to make better use of the wires already there. The solution used the same principle as the AirPort Express, but went much further.
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