Prestigious hotel resort complexes need to deliver 21st Century wireless service. Neutral host provider ClearSky Technologies employed a novel technique to raise service levels for all guests and employees, regardless of which host network operator they subscribe to. Clearwater resort General Manager Paul Andrews shared his perspective on the project and what it means for his guests, employees and business.
A venerable institution
Originally built in 1959 in the Clearwater Beach area of Western Florida, this extensive hotel resort has been expanded and refurbished substantially over the years to host a wide range of clientele. Their customer mix includes everything from business meetings, family holidays, beach holidays to snowbirds and weddings. Stay duration ranges from 1 night to over 3 months, averaging 5.5 days. Paul describes the resort as a “Cruise ship on land”.
It’s certainly successful with an average occupancy rate of over 80%. The complex includes two separate six storey buildings (one with the original iron framework), beachfront, sound stage, restaurants, bars and accommodation.
How has cellular usage evolved?
I’ve witnessed a gradual change. We noticed as the years have gone by that now everybody is now using a cellphone, and also using it constantly. We had noticed that some attending business meetings would leave the room to make a call – it wasn’t only for privacy or etiquette reasons but more often because calls would drop or fail. Our own staff couldn’t use their phones in some parts of the resort at all.
This wasn’t specific to any single network operator. We saw it more with Verizon and AT&T perhaps because those tend to have more business customers. While we do have a free to use Wi-Fi throughout the resort, this just isn’t the same as regular cellphone service.
We hold concerts on a large outdoor stage almost every night. Nowadays many guests take videos of the band or of the dancing and want to share those with their friends. However, there was a canyon effect with neighbour buildings which restricted service in the outdoor beach area.
In the past this had led to some social media comments which compared unfavourably with the positive experience of the rest of our facilities.
Who did you approach to resolve the problem?
We have a cellular company contract for our managers cellphones with one network provider. About three years ago, we asked for help and they supplied us with a booster which had no effect, so we sent it back.
Even if this had worked, it would only have addressed the problem for those on that network. We have other staff using different providers and our guests use all of the national networks.
Rather than dealing with each of the network operators directly, we worked with ClearSky as our single point of contact to install their FORTÉ multi-operator small cell system. They liaised with all the operators behind the scenes on our behalf.
How quickly was the system installed?
It was around six weeks from start to finish. They first explained the whole process to me, then made a thorough site inspection to identify all of the locations with poor service. Wiring installation took about three weeks, spanning two buildings, six floors involving restaurants, bars and outside areas. This was done during the daytime with little inconvenience and no disruption to our normal business. Service commissioning was rapid and I’ve been very impressed with project execution.
ClearSky used their NetView 360 tool to analyse the site coverage and quickly identify the number and placement of each small cell. Only around 100,000 sq feet of the total 150,000 sq feet area needed to be enhanced. iBwave’s in-building design tool was used to document and share a 3D plan with all network operators and the installation team. Each operator had a slightly different design to accommodate their existing coverage, level of usage, spectrum choice and their own design preferences. This meant that the small cells were spread out and rarely needed to be co-located for multiple operators. The equipment was a mix of 3G to fill coverage holes and widespread use of LTE technology.
Separate SpiderCloud E-RANs were installed for each of Verizon and AT&T, both with dual carrier LTE. T-Mobile was supported by Nokia Flexizone equipment, while Sprint was served via Commscope’s S1000 Enterprise Femtocells. Sprint had adequate voice coverage using 3G.
We already had fibre to the property for our landline phone and Wi-Fi services so that just needed a straightforward capacity upgrade. Many hotels of our size have upgraded from 100Mbps to 200Mbps in the past year, so this isn’t unusual.
How do you measure its success?
Three specific points come to mind
- All our employees can communicate using their cellphones, even in the difficult areas around the food/beverage storage (with many electrically noisy refrigeration coolers) and on the second floor.
- Guests in the meeting rooms no longer have to step outside to use their cellphones
- Social media comments from guests about poor cellular service have subsided
I’ve also noticed that almost all our employees now rely on their own cellphones to keep in touch throughout the resort. We do have a private paging system and walky-talky wireless which is now only rarely used.
With good in-building cellular service, the use of our free resort Wi-Fi has reduced from around 200-300 concurrent users down to around 100 at peak times. I think this is also partly driven by the move to large or unlimited data plans for many smartphone users who then just choose the easiest option. There’s little financial incentive to use Wi-Fi except for our international guests.
Any problems so far?
We continue to deal with ClearSky as our first point of support. To date, we’ve only made one support call which quickly reset a node to full service. They’ve not yet needed to visit onsite but would do so when required.
I have no doubt that cellphone technology will continue to evolve and there will be some minor upgrades in due course, but I’m confident that the solution we have should meet our needs for some years to come.
Good in-building cellular service has become an essential part of the hospitality package today. Any hotel without it will be seriously disadvantaged unless they are marketing a “cellular detox” package.