Destination Wi-Fi

By Amy Mayer

December 19, 2007

Wi-Fi at tourist locales isn't just for working vacations. Mesh solutions give visitors a modern way to enjoy Old World sites (but yes, you can also check your e-mail).

Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs provide the mixed blessing of allowing us to stay connected with our work lives while we're on vacation. We can liberate ourselves from the confines of the office, which is great, but the trade-off is, we’re not relieved of much of our responsibility—even on vacation. Increasingly, though, having that handheld along for a trip may actually expand your ability to enjoy your vacation and learn about the place you're visiting.

In several European tourism destinations, Wi-Fi mesh networks have been deployed either to bring a historic building more fully into the 21st century, to increase the information available directly to tourists, or both.

May the road rise up to meet you

At Kilkenny Castle, near the city of Kilkenny in the Republic of Ireland, visitors tour a 12th century castle, which experienced remodeling in the Victorian era. The sprawling building has three wings and in addition to the staff required to maintain the castle—which offers tea during tourist season and has conference facilities—the Office of Public Works has a presence as well. Despite all the modern services expected of them, employees in the castle dealt with dial-up e-mail access and no networking capabilities until the recent installation of a Motorola mesh network.

castle.jpg"Before the network was in place, file-sharing meant running across the castle yard with a piece of paper under their arm," says Paul Smith, an OPW employee and IT manager for the castle [left]. Smith says OPW spent about a year exploring how to upgrade the technology without damaging the building and/or the tourists' experience of it.

"We could not go pulling up 12th-century wallpaper to run cables," he says. What limited cabling existed was hopelessly out of date. But once they decided on a Wi-Fi mesh provider, he says installation took just four days. And the nodes and access points are nearly invisible to a visitor.

"The nodes that carry the data traffic from one side of the castle to the other are placed high on top of the castle towers and blend in to the grey of the stone so they would have to be pointed out to anyone looking for them," says Smith.

The creation of a Wi-Fi network has improved life for castle staff, Smith says, because they now have high-speed Internet, as well as access to networked printers and an off-site server. For visitors, the primary advantage—beyond, presumably, more efficient communication with the staff while booking a visit—is Wi-Fi Internet access throughout the conference center parts of the castle. One thing Kilkenny is not planning for, though, is self-guided tours.

"I think that providing wireless headsets for the tourists to go round the castle could diminish the experience of the tours," Smith says, "as the guides are very good and can also answer any questions that the tourists have."

Let them eat cake

At the Chateau de Versailles in France, handheld tours are one of the prominent new services offered thanks to a wireless mesh network. Raphael Lignier, Europe, Middle East, and Africa sales director for Firetide, says tours are translated into an array of languages, making them easily accessible to visitors from around the world. Using their own Wi-Fi-enabled handheld device, or renting one from the castle—which provides it with a new revenue source—tourists wander the grounds and learn about what they're seeing.

"So if they are close by the queen's residence, they get the information automatically about what happened at that residence," Lignier says. Right now the tours are primarily images and text, but Lignier says audio and video will be coming. The Firetide solution, with five nodes, primarily provides connectivity outdoors.

"The ultimate goal, of course, is that first of all they will cover the entire park, which is huge, and then they will provide connectivity inside the different buildings," says Lignier. As with Kilkenny, Versailles' APs [below] had to be subtle and unobtrusive.versailles.jpg

"Our nodes are totally hidden, so nobody could see [them]," Lignier says. That includes putting some in trees and even spray-painting an antenna so that the bit that protruded higher than the walls around the rooftop wouldn't diminish the view.

Lignier says the Versailles project will also provide additional security to the historic building. Constructed primarily of wood, the building is laced with fire sensors, he says. Eventually, the Wi-Fi network will track all the sensors to increase the speed with which any potential problems can be identified and resolved. Video surveillance cameras also are planned, which would be connected to the mesh for monitoring the extensive grounds.

Wall to wall

The 17th century walls that still stand in Derry, Northern Ireland, give the community its nickname the Walled City. Now, the Derry City Council has launched a "Walled City to Wireless City" effort that has brought the first city-wide Wi-Fi network to Northern Ireland. Using a Tropos mesh solution, the Wi-Fi network puts a digital tour in the hands of visitors.

"This is a series of audio-visual clips, which describe in words and pictures the history of Derry based on key locations," says Bo Nilsson, the Managing Director of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for Tropos. Either using their own Wi-Fi-enabled devices or renting one from the tourist information center, visitors can walk the city and listen to site-specific descriptions.

Although the town government supports the transformation of Derry into a fully modern, Wi-Fi-enabled city, officials still expressed concern about where the hardware would be installed and how it would look, Nilsson says.

"This was complicated by the street lighting being decorative and not available for mounting the wireless routers," says Nilsson.

But ultimately 17 routers and five APs found acceptable locations, and in addition to accessing the digital tour guides, visitors and residents alike can now use the Wi-Fi network at cafés, restaurants, and the Central Library.

Though PDA rentals promise some amount of revenue for the city (they're currently ₤4 or about $8 each), people with personal handheld devices can access the Internet and the digital tours for free.

Nilsson says cities across Europe are approaching Tropos for mesh solutions, though he says that interest is general rather than tourism-specific. Firetide, too, is working in some intriguing locales, including a fishing community in Iceland, though again not specifically for tourism purposes. Commercial interests, including business travelers, may initially have driven interest in Wi-Fi in some communities, but the ability of a mesh solution to blend into its surroundings, provide widespread coverage both indoors and out without laying cable, and to offer utility for both tourism and general applications makes it a solution likely to appeal to other tourist destinations.

Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.



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