Settling into a hotel room with all the technical trappings of your home is high on the wish list of a growing legion of travelers. The hospitality industry has received the message that travelers expect HDTV, high-speed Internet and other services, or they’ll go elsewhere.
Yet with those expectations comes a set of technical, logistical and business issues.
"Hotels must put HD sets in their rooms," said Bruce Leichtman, lead analyst for researchfirm LRG. "Travelers expect video and communications at a certain level. Emerging technologies are allowing more of these services, including expanded channel lineups. But it’s not a home experience."
It’s not yet home, but the race is on to make it so. Operators are aware of the revenue potential in this sector. Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications already have checked into the hotel space, with other top MSOs ramping up their hospitality market deployments.
"We have a very large hotel footprint," said Glen Hardin, chief architect of video systems for Time Warner Cable. "It’s a different landscape for the services we can offer, so there are technology challenges, like encryption and decryption. But there are solutions with Pro:Idiom for encryption and cable cards in hotel basements that can encrypt and decrypt."
Pro:Idiom could be a key to unlocking the potential of in-room services. "We’re running it in the lab and want to be sure its compatible with multi-architectures. Multiple TWC divisions are ready to drop it in," Hardin said.
Administered by Zenith and embedded in licensed TV sets, Pro:Idiom places certain constraints in terms of video conversion. But many operators have deployed it at some level. Some network equipment providers, such as ATX, Drake and Vecima, also are working with the technology. (For more on Pro:Idiom, see sidebar.)
"We can double the channel count for HDTV in all rooms with the technology we’re introducing, and (are) working with Pro:Idiom," said Richard Blenkinsop, senior vice president of business development for Vecima.
"There is Pro:Idiom momentum with all MSOs," Hardin said. "The question is implementation, issues with EAS (emergency alert system) and supporting the delivery side and expanding the channel map."
Big vs. small
Here’s some anecdotal evidence: Some hotels that once featured on-demand now lead with HDTV services instead.
That apparent turn in video delivery may reflect the prevalence of HD, and the relative difficulty of setting up an on-demand back office. In any case, operators are coping with the preference for HD.
"The technology challenges increase as demand for HD goes up," said John Fountain, director of network technology for Cox Business of Las Vegas. "We need the right transport and capacity in place and more pieces in the room."
But what’s the biggest challenge? "Developing a reasonable business model in smaller hotels," Fountain said. "There’s no real good answer today."
Cox of Las Vegas is, of course, is an anomaly of sorts. The operator services the city’s huge convention and hotel industry, including the massive City Center complex, which boasts an array of in-room video and data services, integrated lighting, stereos, heating and cooling controls. The list goes on.
"Only the major hotels are being serviced efficiently," Fountain said. "There are integration, reliability, servicing and maintenance challenges. But cable is catching up with the use of Pro:Idiom to deliver encrypted HD programming, and more of it," Fountain said.
For one smaller operator, which nonetheless runs a large system in Miami Beach, complexity enters with interactivity. Atlantic Broadband CTO Al Kuolas said his options include running a basic lineup; running a basic lineup and partnering with Lodgenet for VOD; or providing both VOD and basic himself.
Because the Atlantic’s billing system (CSG in this case) does not interface with any hotel billing systems, Kuolas said he would need to partner with a third party provider, such as Miracle TV, to take the purchase information from his servers and double post them into both CSG and the hotels’ systems.
"We have not done this yet, but are actively in discussions to assess the costs, effort and timetables," Kuolas said.
Better operations and business support systems (OSS/BSS) — and Kuolas referred to a CableLabs working group that is engaged in the matter — could help the industry catch up. Another enabler is tru2way, which could have a significant impact on future cable/hospitality partnerships.
"Tru2way could totally change what happens in hotel rooms," Hardin said. "Cable operators all have different platforms, and the hotel chains want the same look and feel in every room. That’s why tru2way would work best."
In addition to tru2way, Cablelabs recently addressed the growing need for HDMI by adding it to its Open Cable requirement with the intention of reducing the need for a second remote in each hotel room.
With a million hotel rooms and 300,000 with HD, and a free-to-guest model, Lodgenet is squarely in the hotel mix. It’s not standing still in its effort to advance its hotel technologies.
"Clearly, technology is creating opportunities for hospitality, with 500,000 rooms a year adding HD, the launching of our own IP platform last year and IP-over-coax trending up, which we believe we can deploy next quarter," said Scott Young, president of hospitality for Lodgenet Interactive Corp.
Again, the customer is right. "Hotel guests are now used to sophisticated entertainment and communications systems, so clearly we need to expand our hotel guest facilities," Young said.
One notable expansion for Lodgenet was an agreement last year with Apple. "Technically, we’ll support Apple Mac," Young said. "Apple will be the in-room client and will offer full Web browsing, concierge-like services and visual imagery of Apple."
Given current prices of set-top boxes, Young believes VOD remains the most cost effective way to deliver HD to hotels. "We think our headend-based system in hotels is more efficient than a set-top box in every room," he said.
In the basement?
There are arguments for and against headends in hotel basements, said Venkat Krishnan, SeaChange International senior director of worldwide strategic market solutions. Last October, Seachange announced a Residential-Based Hospitality TV System (RBHS) designed to eliminate hotel premise equipment, with no Pro:Idiom conversion needed.
"The model that requires gear in the hotel basement doesn’t have push for VOD. The technology has not been able to do HD VOD cost-effectively because of in-basement equipment. So HD free-to-guest is the trend," Krishnan said.
Another trend, he noted, is towards technology that will enable pay-per-day packages of programming, such as kid’s packages. "It’s huge in the casino market, but requires strong core technologies like IPTV to package it. The question now is how do you get residential VOD to hotel rooms. That’s the Holy Grail."
Home away from home — that’s the idea. "We envision the hotel market to be in parity with residential," Hardin said.
-Craig Kuhl contributes to Communications Technology.
Protecting the HD Hotel
Pro:Idiom is a digital content protection system tailored for the hospitability industry. It allows a central decoder in a hotel to decrypt video from a headend or satellite feed and re-encode it for secure delivery in each room.
It eliminates the need to use set-top boxes with special TV sets from LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sharp and Philips. Operators deploying Pro:Idiom include Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Charter, Brighthouse and RCN.
It is widely used in both hotel and hospital environments. Most TV sets sold to the hospitality industry now have Pro:Idiom because it eliminates the set-top and all of the headaches that go along with it. It is installed on about 1.5 million out of the 5.5 million total screens in the U.S. hospitality industry.
It is unique among content protection technologies in that it can be used in both bi-directional and one-way systems. Other hospitality content protection schemes require authentication and two-way handshaking, which makes them more expensive.
"It is a significant challenge for the guy that fixes door locks and beds to have to manage a two-way network," said Richard Lewis SVP of research and technology for Zenith, which administers and licenses the technology.
Content protection was not as big a concern when all of the content was analog. But as hotels move towards SD and now HD, digital rights management (DRM) is being required as part of the transition.
"Content providers told us that they did not want to transmit hi-def without protection," Lewis explained. "On the flip side the hotel management does not care whether it is 128 or 256-bit AES, they want to know if they can get high-def HBO or not." – George Lawton