Marriott checks out dual-mode phones

The technology might circumvent cell carriers reluctant to upgrade indoor hotel spaces

ORLANDO -- Arnaldo Impelizieri started his career 20 years ago as a cook at a Marriott hotel, but now he's baking Wi-Fi and cellular recipes for hotel guests.

Impelizieri, director of hotel technology at the Grande Lakes resort here, is surveying vendors in search of dual-mode phones that would offer cellular and Wi-Fi service in one device that both employees and hotel guests could use, he said. Impelizieri explained his plans for dual-mode phones during a tour of the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels that make up the Grande Lakes resort, which has more than 1,500 rooms. The Ritz is the host of the Computerworld Mobile & Wireless World conference this week.

"An event organizer could check in and use the phone on the hotel Wi-Fi and then use it off-site over cellular while running errands," he said.

But the dual-mode phone vision is still somewhat abstract, Impelizieri admitted, and he and other IT managers in the hotel organization need to sell the concept to Morgan Stanley, which owns the Grand Lakes. Marriott International Inc. owns the Ritz chain and operates both Grande Lakes hotels for Morgan Stanley, he said.

Meanwhile, at Marriott International headquarters in Washington, IT staffers are concocting new ways to use wireless technologies, including dual-mode phones, to improve the guest experience, said Neil Schubert, vice president of IT strategy for the hotelier in a keynote address at the Mobile & Wireless World conference.

Already, all 3,000 Marriott hotels provide Wi-Fi access for guests, Schubert said. At the Grande Lakes resort, a recent upgrade of the four-year-old resort included the addition of more than 185 Wi-Fi access points to provide good reception in hotel rooms and common meeting areas, he explained.

An unusual feature in the upgrade is that nearly 500 cone-shaped antennas from Mobile Access Networks Inc. in Vienna, Va., have been added in both hotels at the Grande Lakes to carry both cellular and Wi-Fi signals back to the access points and to cellular hardware in wiring closets on every floor, Schubert said.

"We're painfully adding wireless building by building, because we want to make sure that your mobile devices work when you're in our properties," Schubert said.

Addressing conference attendees, Schubert said that after Grande Lakes opened in 2003, there was a staff meeting where "nobody's BlackBerry worked and no cell phones worked, and our CIO said simply to fix it."

The yearlong Wi-Fi and cellular upgrade cost about $2.2 million, and the project was mostly completed last December, Impelizieri said. It was coordinated by Acela Technologies Inc. The Frederick, Md.-based IT services provider won the business after successfully doing an upgrade for a Ritz hotel in Washington, Impelizieri added.

One unusual characteristic of the upgrade is that Acela worked with four major cellular carriers to get their cooperation to improve their cellular signals inside guest rooms and large meeting spaces. Often, hotels don't bother to upgrade and will often work with only one carrier, both men said.

Because of the upgrade, Schubert said the carriers are benefiting from added cellular minute revenue. He said he hopes carriers will cooperate with the Marriott chain and other hotel operators on sharing costs for future indoor cellular upgrades.

Still, the Grande Lakes projects has been worth the cost, he said, if only because it resulted in improved customer experience, Schubert said. "Coverage is very strong on both cellular and Wi-Fi, I believe you'll find," he added. "This meeting would not be here again if we had not fixed the wireless."

Because cellular providers are reluctant to pay for improving indoor signals, dual-mode phones might be beneficial because a hotel could depend entirely on a Wi-Fi network to support guests, Schubert said. A guest could make a voice-over-Wi-Fi call from inside the hotel, and for calls outside the hotel, a voice over Wi-Fi call could be switched to a traditional land line phone network, Schubert said.

Impelizieri said it might be hard for a single hotel to support hundreds of guests who are arriving and departing every day and who all have different styles of dual-mode phones with different operating systems. However, Schubert said there eventually will come a day when travelers arriving at a hotel will expect to use the dual-mode phone that they use at home.

Already, Marriott expects Wi-Fi and cellular phones to lead to the end of analog phones in hotel guest rooms.

"We do anticipate that eventually we won't provide analog phones in the rooms, even though we now have three phones in each guest room," Schubert noted. "Nobody is using them except to order room service or call somebody else in the hotel or to order a wake-up call. And I never thought anybody ever used that phone in the bathroom."

To demonstrate his point, Schubert asked how many conference attendees had used their hotel room phones over two days, and only 1% indicated they had done so.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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