Wireless Internet access has been an essential service at North American hotels and universities for several years. However, many institutions limit coverage to public areas such as lobbies and libraries for two reasons.
Stretching Wi-Fi into individual hotel suites or dorm rooms can be a physical and expensive challenge, with access points needing to be tucked into ceilings or halls. One result can be uneven coverage, so some institutions force guests or students to use wired Ethernet connections in rooms.
But a new category of in-wall access points is about to hit the market, promising better wireless coverage at an attractive price. Today Hewlett-Packard released its offering, the MSM317 Access Device. Designed to fit a standard wall junction box, it has four 10/100 jacks including a Power over Ethernet port for a VoIP phone, a pass-through port for a standard telephone linked to a PBX and an 802.11b/g access point.
“This is a converged device that combines the best of both the wired and wireless worlds,” said Corey Copping, product marketing manager for HP’s ProCurve Networking division. “It’s a switch we’ve sunken down into a wall-plate size that can go into an office room, a hotel room or a conference room.” Other possible uses are in multi-dwelling apartment or condominium buildings, he said.
Having multiple ports gives the ability to connecting many devices in a room to broadband, offering not only the possibility to monitor assets but also to increase customer revenue. For example, in a hotel room the television can be hooked to IPTV that not can give a huge number of channels to guests but also the opportunity to add paid interactive services. Similarly, the mini-bar can be plugged into a port and from there to the hotel’s server for monitoring food that’s taken out.
MSM317’s connect to and are controlled by a ProCurve MSM700-series controller, which is responsible for security, roaming and quality of service policies. Management software automatically discovers the units.
Initially there are two controllers available: the US$7,999 MSM765, which plugs into HP ProCurve 5400 and 8200 series switches, while the US$6,999 MSM760 is a standalone appliance. Other controllers are coming, each of which handle a different number of the wall switches. For example, the MSM760 can control up to 200 units. Copping said future controllers will scale up to 800 of the MSM317s.
HP claims big savings by using the in-wall approach. “With a typical access point solution you have to run cables up walls and into ceilings and then installing the AP so you have good coverage across a small room,” Copping said. “Because the MSM317 plugs into a wall, you just take your Ethernet line, plug it into the back and you’re ready to go.” Although each MSM317 costs CDN$439, plus the controllers, Copping said there are “huge” savings on installation and configuration alone.
Interestingly, HP decided the MSM317 didn’t need the fastest Wi-Fi technology, 802.11n, to keep the cost of the unit down. “In a typical deployment, a small [meeting] room of six to eight people meeting for an hour, typically 20Mbps is good enough,” said Copping. “If you’re on your own [in a hotel or dorm room], obviously the megabits per second would increase.”
ProCurve is not the first to offer a two-way in-wall IP device for commercial use. HD Communications of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., has been selling the HD24813 in-wall outlet, which includes a single port and WiF b/g connectivity, since 2007. In March it added the HD2700, which has a PoE port.
More manufactures are about to release similar units, said Tim Zimmerman, principal analyst for networking services and infrastructure at Gartner. He’s had confidential briefings and can’t name names. However, in an interview he said that with its pass-through port HP’s MSM317 has the most functions of the units he’s seen.
In-wall solutions are “very clean” answers to certain problems, he said, which is why he expects a lot of growth in segments like education. Students not only are more comfortable that others with wireless, he said, they expect it where ever they go. In-room wireless is better than wide-area Wi-Fi access points in hotels, he added, where coverage can be poor if you have a room furthest from the AP.
“This type of solution definitely makes a cleaner implementation, while not sacrificing any of the wired functionality for data.” He also agreed with HP that 802.11g speeds will be fast enough if only a handful of people are using an access point.