Hotel brings broadband to 19,000 rooms

On Monday, Canada’s Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Inc. announced that all of its properties are being outfitted with high-speed Internet access for guests, provided on end-to-end network infrastructure supplied by Cisco Systems Inc.

From a conference salon of Toronto’s venerable Fairmont Royal York – where even the newly-installed Internet ports are coloured to match the dark wood paneling – Tim Aubrey, Fairmont’s vice-president of technology said that although some competing hotels have high-speed access in their trophy resorts, Fairmont is the first to wire every room of its chain.

“This is a huge push for us, and a powerful industry statement. We have put a significant investment in the technology area because it’s an area where we can compete – we’re small enough to (build) it, but large enough that it makes sense,” Aubrey said.

Fairmont, which also operates the Delta Hotels chain, The Plaza in New York City, and such former CP Hotels as the Banff Springs, Chateau Frontenac and Chateau Laurier, has now deployed a mix of wired and wireless access in all meeting rooms and public areas of their 37 hotels, said Aubrey. Additionally, about 30 per cent of its guest rooms currently have broadband connectivity, and by early 2002 that figure will be 100 per cent, he said.

According to Cisco Canada major account manager Kaulin Melnyk, Fairmont’s considerable requirements included secure connections for virtual private networks (VPNs), and 802.1x wireless, standards-based, always-on broadband; transparent access to any device; and a consistent user experience. These needs were met through Cisco’s Mobile Office solution, a combination of networking products, and industry partnerships, he said.

As well as wiring guest and conference rooms, Aubrey said Fairmont had used this two-year project as an opportunity to develop a “unified network structure over the whole chain, collapsing disparate networks into one high-speed backbone. We drive this network hard in the daytime for internal operations, and at nights we can turn around and let guests use it,” he said.

To address the very valid concerns about security, Aubrey said the system has been designed to include logical barriers and partitions between networks, and a separate segment for every guest. This, handily enough, also enables billing for the service, he added.

With respect to security of the wireless networks, Christian Bazinet, a Cisco solutions development manager, agreed that the 802.11B standard has a number of vulnerabilities. However, he said, Mobile Office employs 128-bit encryption and Cisco’s enhanced WEP which – to date – has never been cracked. To be extra safe, Bazinet recommended that guests who are accessing their sensitive office networks should use their VPNs so that they have the protection of their enterprise-class firewalls.

Aubrey also said that even with an upgrade cost of about US$600 per American room, and $400 to $500 per Canadian room – telecom rates and economies of scale make connectivity cheaper in Canada – the system will be paid for in two years at the current guest room usage rate of three to seven per cent, a figure that is very likely to increase, he added, especially since one-third of the Fairmont’s conference clients are now requesting broadband access.

The connectivity initiative carries on the Royal York’s long-time practice of bringing cutting edge innovation to Canada, said Francisco Gomez, a Fairmont regional vice-president and general manager of the Royal York, who noted that the tradition now stretches from high-speed elevators, to vacuum cleaners, to fast Ethernet.