Paging the Datavalet

By Gerry Blackwell

April 20, 2004

Travelnet's broadband service for the hospitality industry is growing, but the company doesn't press going all wireless on customers. Instead, it'll start an offshoot company to handle carrier-grade Wi-Fi.

Hotels have been using Wi-Fi to deliver high-speed Internet access services to guests for a few years, but despite some signal successes and a glut of Wi-Fi companies targeting the sector, the technology has failed to dominate the market.

Travelnet Technologies has been in the business as long as anybody and longer than most. Its Datavalet solution, a turnkey backend network and customer management system that supports both wired and wireless access, is in over 200 properties.

Travelnet has been at it since 1998 and doing wireless since 2001. Almost all the Datavalet properties have a Wi-Fi component.

Yet despite the company's past success with and stated commitment to Wi-Fi, vice president Philippe Labrosse is surprisingly cautious in his assessment of Wi-Fi's role in the industry going forward.

"It's difficult to say right now if [the hospitality industry] is moving more to wireless or not," Labrosse says. "One sure thing is that [guests] are asking for it."

"Wireless is clearly the future. The question is whether it's mature enough yet. I think it's certainly mature enough to meet some business travelers' expectations."

His talk of Wi-Fi is full of such seeming contradictions and ambiguities -- which is doubly surprising given the company's most recent announcements.

Last month, Travelnet made public its biggest wireless deal yet -- to put Wi-Fi-based Datavalet systems in 36 properties owned by Royal Host Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), a major owner of apartment hotels in Canada.

Telco Bell Canada actually won the deal. It licenses the Datavalet brand and technology from Travelnet, markets it in Canada and provides systems integration services to end customers. Travelnet markets the brand in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"This is one of the most interesting agreements we've had because it's all wireless," says Labrosse. "We've done wireless deployments in the past, we've done complete buildings with all wireless in the past. But this is the first one where a whole chain has made such a commitment to wireless for all of its properties."

Bell and Travelnet have already deployed the technology in seven of the Royal Host properties and will continue to roll it out to the others over the next six to nine months.

Travelnet also recently launched a new division, Ubilium, to market an application service provider (ASP) service for Wi-Fi service providers and operators of large-scale enterprise WLANs. The Ubilium solution is based on the back-end tools Travelnet originally developed for Datavalet.

Clearly, Travelnet itself is heavily committed to Wi-Fi, so why the question marks about the technology's future in the hospitality industry? It's true that most Datavalet properties have some Wi-Fi, Labrosse points out, but the technology is mostly used in public areas only. Fewer than 10 percent of its properties have Wi-Fi in guest rooms -- though the Royal Host deal will bump that number up.

Recent deals with other property owners do not involve using Wi-Fi, however. They're completely wired implementations.

Wi-Fi is also not heavily used, he says, although that too may be changing. Over the past six months, Travelnet has seen a 2 to 3 percent increase per month in overall use -- wired and wireless. In February, it logged over 50,000 unique users across all 200-plus Datavalet properties.

"And we still haven't reached a plateau yet," Labrosse says.

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