Teaching Old Phone Lines New Tricks

Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 1999 Current Issue
June 1999 Tech filesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:



Teaching Old Phone Lines New Tricks

A new solution to hotels' high-speed Internet woes

As conference attendees and planners enter the digital age, their appetite for bandwidth rises. One of the main questions facing the meetings industry is, how do we get high-speed Internet access in every nook and cranny of a hotel or convention property? A new technology is making the wiring of a meeting site a much easier and affordable process, and it does not require ripping up old wires or pulling down walls.

The technology is called OverVoice, from CAIS Internet of Washington, D.C., which recently signed a deal with Hilton Hotels Corp. By the end of this year, Hilton expects to have the technology in all of its hotels in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. In hotels with 400 or fewer guest rooms, the service will be available in half the rooms; in hotels with more than 400 rooms, OverVoice will be installed in 200 of the rooms. It will be installed in all meeting rooms. The service already is available at a number of Marriotts and several independent properties.

How does it work? The hotel or convention center inserts a technology layer at the point of their PBX or telephone switch. This OverVoice layer turns every telephone extension into a potential port on the network; in other words, the technology takes advantage of a facility's existing telephone wiring to create a local area network that provides high-speed Internet access to each computer connected to it.

The phone jack in the hotel room or meeting room is replaced with a new plate that includes a connection for the phone and one for the network cord. It requires a standard Ethernet plug and can be used with either a user's existing network card or a loaner PC card that can be slipped into the guest's laptop. OverVoice provides access to the Internet at speeds 50 to 300 times faster than a standard dial-up connection almost the level of a high-speed T-1 line and it extends to any place on a property where a normal telephone extension can be found.

I experienced this invention while staying at a hotel in the San Francisco area. At the end of the check-in process, the clerk asked me if I wanted to be able to access the Internet quickly from my room. When I breathlessly said yes, she handed me a packet with a PC card and cord. The wonderful surprise was that this particular hotel did not charge extra for the network access; it was using the service as a selling point. Other hotels in the OverVoice network may charge in-room fees of around $9.95 a day for the service, depending on the property.

I installed the card and software in less than three minutes and was connected to the Internet at speeds that rivaled the direct T-1 connection we have at our corporate headquarters. In the process, I discovered more good news: The telephone line was unaffected by the new connection, allowing me to make a phone call and surf the Web or check my e-mail at the same time.

The OverVoice technology can be used to turn every function room that has a telephone extension into a network point for a meeting's audiovisual requirements. Even convention centers and hotels that were built before the Internet age can equip any exhibit space or meeting room that can be reached by a traditional telephone line with high-speed access.

The property needs to begin by bringing Internet access to its hub at the switchboard. A local Internet service provider, telephone company or even cable-modem provider can bring a single high-speed connection into the building. This bandwidth is shared by all points within the facility that have OverVoice connections.

The access then can be sold to meeting planners as an item on the audiovisual price list. My company normally pays as much as $5,000 to bring a dedicated T-1 line to our meetings. When OverVoice is on the premises, this access can be rented for much less, perhaps in the range of $1,000 to $2,000 per meeting. Planners will love the ease of the connection, and it can be set up without weeks of interfacing and negotiating with telecommunications providers. In fact, the facility can turn it on and off as needed.

If a property does not have adequate Internet service, planners might want to recommend that OverVoice complete the meeting connection. Check out this innovation at www.overvoice.com.

Elliott Masie is president of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y. based MASIE Center (www.masie.com) an international think tank focused on learning and technology.

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