The Whys Of Wireless

Earlier this year, Forbes.com surveyed readers about where they wanted wireless Internet access in hotels. "In my room" garnered 34 percent of the vote, public spaces got two percent, and conference rooms one percent. But meeting planners will not be surprised to learn that the most popular choice was "all of the above"—demanded by 59 percent of respondents.

It's true that many planners aren't necessarily comfortable talking about technology. But a venue's wireless networking pros aren't necessarily comfortable talking to you, either. When trying to explain things, it's easy for them to fall back on jargon, leaving you in confused silence. So don't just nod (or nod off) when they throw out the techspeak—insist they use layman's terms, and ask questions! Here are some starting points for determining whether a property is up to snuff with its wireless capabilities.

Wireless Internet access is not always available: A 2004 survey of about 6,000 properties by the American Hotel & Lodging Association shows that while nearly half of upscale hotels offers high-speed wireless access in guest rooms, that figure drops to 42 percent in luxury hotels and 38 percent in midscale hotels with F&B. And when it comes to wireless access in meeting rooms, 67 percent of luxury and "upper upscale" hotels offer wireless access in meeting rooms, but just 34 percent of midscale hotels with F&B do.

Once you've determined that a venue has wireless Internet access, the next query should be, "What kind?" Questions to ask here revolve around speed, bandwidth, usability, reliability, and security, including:

• Is on-site technical support for high-speed connectivity issues provided?

• Behind the wireless pods, is there a T1 line (1.5 MB per second of continuous bandwidth), an even faster DS3, or only a DSL connection?

• How many T1 lines are available for demanding applications like file-sharing and video?

• Is bandwidth for guest and meeting rooms separate, or is it shared with the hotel's back-end operations? If one guest is a bandwidth hog, will other delegates find their access slowed, or will the system limit or log off the offender? Can the property measure bandwidth utilization and show it to you?

• Can the hotel guarantee a good signal in meeting rooms, in lounges, and by the pool, or will everyone be camped in the lobby because that's where the strongest signal is? "Don't be afraid to ask such pointed questions," says Jim Elliot, vice president of marketing at Salt Lake City-based STSN, the largest supplier of high-speed Internet services to hotels. The firm supports about 1,850 meetings a month.

• Does the property offer the flexibility to sell complete wireless packages to individual delegates, or enable delegates with existing wireless ISPs?

• Does the hotel have Web-based printing facilities for attendees? STSN competitor Wayport provides its venues with PrinterOn's Guest Printing Service, letting users print to the hotel's printers without installing printer drivers. STSN has a partnership for its hotels with PrintMe.

• Can the venue offer wired and wireless protection? Can you prevent guest-room-to-guest-room eavesdropping, and keep attendees from seeing one another's hard drive at wireless access points? Can the network prevent attacks from the outside and still allow the delegates to access their firm's virtual private network? The reality is that a lot of properties are "wide open," says Eliott, noting that recently, "A major property hosted a Microsoft conference that got 18,000 hack attempts in one day. They had to shut down the event."