Sheraton hotel picks Meru for Wi-Fi

Sheraton in Springfield, Mass., solves old network problems with 61 new low-cost APs

In the hotel business, Wi-Fi reliability can be the difference between getting guests or not.

For the 350-room Sheraton Springfield in Massachusetts, an older Wi-Fi network was providing spotty coverage to guests, so the hotel recently upgraded to new technology from Meru Networks that has passed an initial walk-through with flying colors.

The Sheraton installed 61 new AP1000i access points in the past month and only yesterday finished a walk-through test that showed it has covered earlier gaps in coverage, Paul Picknelly, president of the Sheraton Springfield, told Computerworld. Picknelly used Kelser, the integrator on the project, which recommended Meru's gear.

"In the hospitality business, access to Wi-Fi is almost our No. 1 request, and guests make decisions on whether a hotel has adequate Wi-Fi service," Picknelly said. "We had noticed Wi-Fi issues with our guests not having the best connectivity, so we brought in Kelser."

The Meru network at the hotel cost about $50,000, including installation, for 61 access points and a Meru controller located in the hotel's data center, he said.

The cost was almost the same as what the hotel spent to upgrade its business center with new computers and printers, but having a solid Wi-Fi network lends more value to the business center, Picknelly said. The hotel charges some guests $9.95 a night for Wi-Fi, although many regular business users get it for free.

Business and conference guests use Wi-Fi for connecting to e-mail and VPNs, as well as video and other presentations. On the weekends, tourists download movies and run Skype video chats on their laptops as well.

Picknelly said Meru's new gear supports 802.11 a/b/g/n and is considered somewhat future-ready. "We wanted to make sure we had capabilities for new technologies, including video chat," he said. "You never know what's coming with networking, and the changes are coming monthly. I think video chat is going to be very popular in a year or two."

Picknelly personally uses an iPad and an iPhone 4 and has used both for business trips, with FaceTime video chat over Wi-Fi on the iPhone.

Sheraton was an early customer for the new Meru AP1000i access points, which start at $395 for a single radio version and will be generally available in December.

Meru officials said the company's controller-based architecture helps keep roaming laptop users over Wi-Fi persistently connected to the network, unlike many other Wi-Fi networks.

Meru sets up a virtual channel for each Wi-Fi user, and the controller moves the user from one access point to another more smoothly and reliably than if the user's client switched APs while roaming, explained Graham Melville, director of product management at Meru.

Until now, the Meru technology had been more costly, but the $395 starting cost brings the technology within the reach of more businesses, he said.

"Not everybody needs the high-end APs, and we were missing out on some of the market," Melville said.

Picknelly said the older network didn't manage connections well with the 20-year-old hotel's central atrium space and various corners in some rooms.

The walk-through test, however, looked at the signal in "every nook and cranny," he noted, "and we got excellent signal strength, so we're very pleased."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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