Wi-Fi in the Pacific Islands

By Adam Stone

November 06, 2002

The 50th State, Hawaii, may be on its way to becoming an unwired state as it embraces 802.11 networks for the hospitality industry, research facilities, and in tourism.

When the managers of Oahu's Turtle Bay Resort decided to renovate their 880-acre property, they drew up an aggressive agenda. Their plans included construction of 42 luxury beach cottages, upgrades to the golf course -- and a major 802.11 rollout. Now guests do not have to go back to their rooms to access the Internet and check their e-mail using their laptops, PDA devises and handheld computers. "We believe it is the way of the future," said Joe Yadvish, director of information technology at Turtle Bay Resort, in a press release announcing the new wireless network.

The Turtle Bay rollout of an 802.11 network is one of several recent wireless implementations in Hawaii. With wireless technology gaining acceptance in the hospitality industry everywhere, mainland IT analysts say Hawaii may be a natural place for 802.11 to be put into use. Some island-based networking consultants meanwhile are making 802.11 an ever-more-prominent piece of their service offerings. "The market is still somewhat latent here, but the space is changing very quickly. With every quarter that goes by, we get more inquiries," said Mike Browning, president and chief operating officer of Pacific DirectConnect , the Hawaiian firm that put into place the wireless network at Turtle Bay Resort.

The many small islands that make up Hawaii present a significant growth opportunity for the 802.11 market, he said.

Take for instance Coconut Island, where a $75 million marine biology research facility was supposed to draw top-notch researchers. "But they had a hard time attracting folks to come in and study there, because they could not give them Internet access," said Browning, whose firm remedied the problem by building a Wi-Fi link out to the island.

Visiting scientists may need Internet access, analysts say, but it will be Hawaii's hospitality industry that gives the biggest push to 802.11-based technology.

Hospitality, arts and entertainment jobs account for nearly 20 percent of the employment base in Honolulu, according to the Enterprise Honolulu economic develop agency. In San Jose, CA, that figure is less than 8 percent, and even in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. hospitality makes up less than 12 percent of the jobs.

With so much riding on the tourist industry, Hawaiian hotels are eager to embrace new technologies when they see a significant demand.

"What is driving [802.11 adoption] is competition with the mainland, where these things have already started," said Les Spielman, a principle with Hospitality Automation Consultants in Valley Village, Calif. "Hawaii may be a family destination, but it also is a place were conventions want to go, and the properties don't want to lose that business to mainland hotels."

The issue of competition is especially acute, insofar as many of the hotels in Hawaii are older structures that would be far too expensive to re-wire for high-speed Internet.

"You are talking about a mammoth job. It is very disruptive to run cable, and very expensive," said Nick Scavone, a hospitality technology consultant with Accuvia Consulting in Gaithersburg, MD. Such properties "may be living in the shadow of a newer hotel, and they need to offer high-speed access in order to remain competitive. Wireless may offer them a chance to do that."

Hawaii's mid-Pacific geography also plays a role in boosting Wi-Fi there.

"Hawaii does a fair amount of Asian business with Japanese clients, and these are very tech-savvy people," said Scavone. "They like gadgets, they have a lot of gadgets, and they are used to wireless."

It makes sense, therefore, that 802.11 is expanding beyond the hotels as others in the hospitality trade seek to service these visitors. The Honolulu Coffee Co. cafe, for instance, began recently to offer free wireless Internet access to its patrons via a Wi-Fi network.

Wi-Fi has not yet reached epic proportions in the Hawaiian islands, but momentum is building, and vendors like Browning are looking to position themselves at the crest of that wave.

"Intel and all these manufacturers are integrating [wireless] chips, and soon we are going to see a time when it is in every laptop. Then the world is going to change very quickly," he said. "Part of our strategy is to be there when that happens."

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