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It’s all about location, location, location

Nov 18, 20027 mins
Cellular NetworksUnified Communications

Royal Sonesta Hotel finds key to full wireless deployment is Newbury’s location-based technology.

BOSTON – John Fairfield had hit a wall. The senior systems manager at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., wanted to deploy an 802.11b wireless network in both towers of the 400-room facility, but he knew no single application could justify the $40,000-plus cost. When he learned of Newbury Networks, Fairfield knew he’d not only found his killer application, but more than a half-dozen of them.

The Boston start-up has developed what it calls location-enabled networks (LEN), technology that runs on top of an 802.11b network. LENs adds the ability to push information relevant to a device user, based on his location. As such, LENs knows the location of device and user.

Say you’re a business traveler waiting for a flight at Boston’s Logan Airport Gate 70. You flip open your notebook, PDA or any 802.11b-enabled device, and LENs automatically connects you to the wireless network and pinpoints your location. It then informs you that your flight is 20 minutes late, that the following restaurants are within two gates, and that this gate’s wireless access is sponsored by CNN, which is providing free access to its Web site. Moreover, on this concourse wireless LAN access is available from T-Mobile, iPass and Wayport, so if you’re a subscriber to any of these, log on now. If not, you can subscribe to your choice for $9.95. Pick up your stuff and move down to Gate 32, and LENs will provide relevant information for that area.

Newbury’s CEO Michael Maggio says the company figured out how to define wireless zones within a building, then built an application server that allows the provisioning of content, information and network access based on the device-user’s identity and location, though he won’t elaborate. The key piece of the system is the LocaleServer, which has the ability to gather data from multiple access points and feed it into an algorithm. The server can then determine or predict the location of client devices within about ten feet or less.

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LocaleServer works with any 802.11b-enabled device. Newbury recommends Hewlett-Packard/Compaq iPaqs because they use the PocketPC operating system and have lots of memory and processing power.

Application windfall

Because Newbury’s technology was still in beta testing when Fairfield learned of it, he and hotel Vice President and General Manager John Murtha brainstormed ways to test it out on a noncritical system. Because the hotel boasts more than 60 works of fine art in its lobby and second floor public space, Newbury and Fairfield’s team worked to build an art tour application that went live in June.

Visitors are given Compaq iPaqs, and as they pause before each work of art, the locale server feeds the device an image of the work via a Web browser, as well as a text description and background of the artist.

Installation took longer than expected, Murtha says. “The system didn’t run smoothly until September. We faced challenges in training it to know where it was vis á vis a particular piece of art.”

“Our building was to blame for much of it. We have lots of shapes and open spaces. But now the system runs pretty slick,” he says.

For the Royal Sonesta, the gallery application is just the tip of the iceberg. Because one of the two towers is outfitted with wireless, Fairfield is developing applications to increase the efficiency of the hotel’s systems and customer service, to showcase the system’s capabilities and get funding to deploy wireless in the second tower.

For instance, Fairfield and Newbury are building a trouble-ticket tracking system that uses Blue Ocean Software’s Track-It software. With it, the chief engineer can pull up a diagram of the building that shows the location of all the workers. He can then dispatch a particular plumber, electrician or maid in the closest proximity. The closest porter can be called on the spot to set up a podium in a conference room, increasing customer service.

Similarly, by tying the LENs into the hotel’s property management system, if a guest complains about noise in a particular room, security personnel will know who’s staying in the room before they answer the call, without having to call the desk.

In a clever move, Fairfield also is wiring the access points on each floor into a battery backup that’s wired into the hotel’s emergency power system. If the power goes down, the devices will function on the locale server for up to two hours.

Because the current iPaqs include voice capability, Fairfield also plans to use them as two-way communication devices, replacing the more costly walkie-talkie and pagers the hotel currently uses. Workers can either communicate via e-mail (the device beeps on receiving a message) or voice. Today, if a maid supervisor needs to send a staffer to a given room, she must call out to all the maids on the floor via walkie-talkie, the maids to answer the call to dispatch who’s closest. With this system, she can locate the maid nearest the problem and contact her directly, on cross-communications chatter.

When the iPaqs eventually add a video camera, Fairfield envisions his security team using them to document incidents – for taking pictures of damage done to a room, for instance, and to record witness statements on the spot.

Another advantage is increased wireless network security. Should anyone try to break into the network by sending a bogus media access control address to the server, the server will report the location of the offender to security headquarters. If that person tries to access the network from a car across the street, the network won’t even attempt to make the connection.

Yet another benefit to the hotel is the ability to ensure corporate visitors pay the corporate rate for conference room wireless access, and regular guests pay the less-expensive rate for access in public areas.

“Today, a guest can walk into the lobby, pay $10 for a connection, go into the meeting room and use the connection to conduct a meeting, avoiding paying the $100 fee for function-room access,” Fairfield says. “With locale server we know where they are.”

Although Murtha appreciates the internal efficiencies gained by the system, company executives still need to be convinced to finance the full wireless LAN deployment.

Competitive advantage could do the trick. “If a group of 100 guests is looking at my hotel or a competitor, if I can get the business because of this technology, I just paid for [the second tower wireless LAN deployment] four times,” he says.

Life through the LENsA few examples of potential applications using Newbury Networks’ location based technology
Corporate security Firms can provide wireless access to guests only in certain locations; monitor and block attempts to access the network by location and pinpoint the location of anyone trying to break into the wireless LAN.
Exhibits Museums and galleries can offer art tours in which visitors are pushed photos and text about the various works as they approach them.
Education Teachers can disable Web access as students enter a classroom, make available only the Web sites relevant to the class, and push homework and class materials to students’ wireless devices.
Big-box retail Used in conjunction with wireless LAN enabled barcode scanners, LEN can give sales reps access to up to date inventory, give managers the location of sales associates, and push relevant info about products to them.
Healthcare Hospitals can bolster security by allowing access to patient records only to certain people when they are within certain zones such as the emergency room or patient’s room. By putting an 802.11b tag on a piece of medical equipment, the hospital can monitor its location.