While every customer is an important customer, it’s hard to imagine a more platinum-level customer than a guest at the Wynn or Bellagio hotels in Las Vegas. Customers in these lap-of-luxury environs expect the best, and the last thing hotel owners want is any sort of glitch to interrupt the stay of freewheeling guests.

All of which leads us, in a roundabout way, to a look behind the scenes of one of the primary service providers to these hotel and gaming establishments. Cox‘s Hospitality Network (HN) has been around since 1985, but Cox took control of it when it purchased Prime Cable in 1998. Over the past two years, the Hospitality Network and other commercial services have been rolled into Cox Business Services (CBS), with the Hospitality Network becoming a brand under CBS.

"We have 16 of the 25 largest hotels in the world, and we’re pretty proud of that," said John Fountain, vice president, technology, of CBS in Las Vegas. "We provide several video systems and data systems to the hotels." A menu of video, data services for hotels CBS/HN serves up video and data services based on what a hotel wants to provide its guests and on its infrastructure. While newer hotels such as the Wynn can take advantage of IP infrastructure with Ethernet feeds to the rooms, others are provisioned in more traditional ways.

"We do analog over coax, digital over coax, which is QAM-based, and we do IP over Ethernet," Fountain said of the video services. "It depends on the infrastructure that a hotel has, but the majority of them don’t have Ethernet running to all of the rooms.

"We basically run each hotel as a separate headend, so out of the 125,000-plus rooms, there’s a headend in each hotel that is custom built for that hotel. So we might have analog storage/analog delivery, or digital storage/digital delivery, depending on what the customer is asking for. There are a large variety of video networks that we put in each one."

Depending on the hotels’ needs, vendors for video include nStream, SeaChange, On Command and KoolConnect. In the hotels where HN is using IP, it’s able to deliver 100 Mbps to each TV set in MPEG-2. The HD and digital streams are QAM-based.

"We only have a handful of hotels in IP," Fountain said. "Most of them are delivered either analog NTSC over coax, or they’re delivered by QAMs."

On the data side, HN can deliver high-speed Internet over coax on DOCSIS 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0 modems. In some cases, it uses copper twisted-pair DSL as well as Ethernet with CAT-5 and CAT-6.

While HN uses some Atrica gear for its Ethernet services, Fountain said the hotels and headends primarily use Cisco SONET gear with point-to-point links between the hotels and the networks.

"One of the advantages we have in Las Vegas, because we’re the local provider, is that we can bring a 100 Mbps pipe to a hotel," Fountain said. "At the very edge of these hotels, there’s a very large amount of transport available for the rooms. For example, if you’re in one of our hotels with Ethernet, like the Bellagio or Wynn, you’ll find that you get 10 to 20 Mbps out of your room. You just can’t find that in most hotels." Integrated billing In most hotels and casinos where HN provides high-speed data, it also offers wireless overlays with Wi-Fi, making the Vegas Strip area one of the largest, if not the largest, areas in the world in Wi-Fi density because of the hotel deployments. Fountain estimated that HN provides wireless overlays for 50,000 to 60,000 rooms.

"We can integrate that (Wi-Fi) into the billing systems for the hardwire," Fountain said. "In fact, one of the things we did that was kind of novel is when we first put wireless in, you could literally go to your TV to purchase a code and then use it to connect your laptop without having to use your credit card and then have it get billed to your room. It was a pretty novel solution because you hadn’t seen that in wireless before. You used to have to use a credit card or get a code from the front desk."

HN has also integrated the billing for the video and data systems.

"If you’re hardwired, we can tell where you are and put it (the billing) on your portfolio pretty easily," Fountain said.

Hotel minibars can also sit on HN’s coaxial plant. Guest room minibars are outfitted with sensors that have the ability to detect when items are removed. If an item is removed for more than 30 seconds, a signal travels across network via the PMS (property management system) and registers on the guest folio as a purchased item. In other words, when a guest purchases an item, the hotel can track it using the connectivity that CBS provides to the hotel. Internet video HN is currently trialing a solution at several hotels that allows customers to download movies via an Internet portal through a subscription, but the take rate hasn’t been through the roof so far.

"It’s an interesting technology that’s fun, but so far there are not a lot of buyers," Fountain said. "Folks tend to want use their TVs to view something. If they’re moving around, they tend to move it (content) themselves, whether it’s a DVD, or an iPOD video, but we’re trialing it." – Mike Robuck

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