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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 21, 2001

Hotels surf wireless Internet

By John Duchemin
Advertiser Staff Writer

Major hotels in Hawai'i have started to offer wireless high-speed Internet access to guests, a service that could let business travelers get online from the poolside, the lobby, the meeting room or the beach bar.

John Tapper, vice president of marketing and sales for Pacific DirectConnect, watches CEO Mike Browning use the wireless Web service they set up at the Halekulani.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The 456-room Halekulani turned on a propertywide wireless Internet system this month, in time to offer the service to delegates to the Asian Development Bank meeting in Honolulu. Hilton Hawaiian Village turned on a similar service in January, in time for the Pacific Telecommunications Council annual meeting held there. Other hotels, including the Marriott 'Ihilani Resort and Spa and the W Honolulu, are looking at offering wireless services.

Industry experts say wireless Internet access could become an essential part of hotels' offerings to business travelers, who are demanding more high-technology services from their lodging.

"More and more people are expecting to have this type of service, so not to have it available would be a disservice to our guests," said Robert Oda, senior vice president for Halekulani Corp.

Technology-savvy corporate travelers are becoming more important to the Hawai'i hospitality industry. More than 780,000 business travelers came to Hawai'i in the year ended March 2001 — up 18 percent from the year ended June 1998, according to state data.

By contrast, the number of leisure travelers actually declined 0.6 percent to 5.6 million over the same period.

Also, the line between business and leisure travel has blurred, experts say. Vacationers more and more often bring work, said Tom Bell, general manager for W Honolulu, a 48-room hotel near Kapi'olani Park.

"Even when people take vacations, they're still tied in to their jobs, and it's usually through their laptop and their e-mail," Bell said.

These trends have made hotels improve their infrastructure to keep pace with the modern workplace. For instance, W Honolulu, which markets itself as a high-end lodging for corporate travelers, offers complimentary high-speed Internet access and Web TV in each of its rooms. At the 'Ihilani, a guest gets a bedside two-line speaker phone, voice mail, a work desk and Internet access.

Wireless Internet access goes a step beyond these offerings. At the Halekulani, a network of discrete antennas covers the hotel grounds. The hotel issues special wireless modem cards to guests. Plugged into laptops, these transmit signals to the antennas, which connect to the island's fiber-optic cable network, and from there to the World Wide Web. The wireless system supports T-1 transmission rates: 1.5 megabytes per second, about 50 times faster than typical modems.

Such systems have been envisioned for years, but only recently has the cost dropped to a level that makes sense for cost-conscious hotel owners, said Mike Browning, founder of Pacific DirectConnect, the Internet services firm that installed wireless systems for both the Hilton and the Halekulani. Wireless modem cards now cost about $150 each, Browning said.

The cost also has dropped to outfit a building with wireless equipment. Halekulani's wireless system, consisting of a few discrete antennas, cost about 10 to 15 percent of the price of rewiring the hotel for conventional cable-borne Internet access, Oda said.

Wireless Internet access is a fledgling industry. Protocols and equipment standards are just now being figured out, and infrastructure is limited. It's also still perceived, and priced, as a high-end service — not something for the average joe to need, Browning said. This may limit wireless' appeal for less-expensive hotels, he said.

Many hotels, particularly in Waikiki, also face infrastructure challenges. Wireless works best for line-of-sight transmissions, but is less effective in bulky buildings. The Royal Hawaiian, for instance, would have to install antennas in practically every room because the walls are too thick, Browning said.

Many hotels may wait to install wireless systems until the service becomes more prevalent.

"At this point, there may not be a high-enough demand for wireless access," said W Honolulu's Bell, whose hotel chain does offer wireless in some of its Mainland hotels.

Still, enough customers are asking for wire-free Web access that many hotels will consider offering the service, said John Homer, general manager for the 'Ihilani. 'Ihilani's wireless plans are "in the development stage," he said.

"This would appear to be a great advantage to many of the business groups that are coming in, so we're led to believe that it would be a great customer service," Homer said.