Wireless minibars make debut in nation's capital

Wireless minibars make debut in nation's capital

Government officials and foreign dignitaries staying at Washington's historic Willard Hotel soon will be able to get something besides Toblerone Bars and Coca-Cola from the minibars in their rooms.

The Willard InterContinental in November became the first hotel to implement a wireless minibar system, using 802.11b data connections to monitor purchases. The hotel plans to offer in-room wireless Internet connections to guests through the minibars next.

'We currently have wired high-speed Internet in every room,' said executive assistant manager Paschal Forotti.

Wireless connections will free notebook and PDA users to roam about the room and through the halls. 'They will be able to walk through the whole hotel and stay connected,' he said.

The Willard on Pennsylvania Avenue has been a haven for Washington insiders since 1850. It has hosted every president since Zachary Taylor, and Abraham Lincoln lived there for a month. President Ulysses S. Grant reportedly coined the term lobbyist in the hotel's grand lobby.

The present structure was built in 1901 and is still a focus of government hospitality.

'We work a lot with the Secret Service, with Blair House and the White House,' Forotti said.

When it was time to replace the minibars in the hotel's 341 guest rooms, Bartech Systems International of Millersville, Md., offered the new wireless configuration for its e-fridge. The wireless system is the result of several years of technical evolution in minibars.

Typical minibars are 'a nightmare to manage,' Bartech president Daniel Cohen said. Standalone bars rely on the honor system and must be checked daily by employees.

Bartech's first step to automate the service used copper telephone lines to link minibars with hotel property management systems. But phone lines were not always available or convenient, especially in older hotels. The next step was coaxial cable to connect through the in-room television system used in many hotels.

'Then we had an interesting request from the InterContinental Hotels Group,' which is making Internet access available in all rooms throughout its five hotel chains. It also wanted to use IP connections for in-room TV, thermostats and minibars, Cohen said. So Bartech developed an Ethernet connection for its e-fridge.

Cohen said IP is the future of hotel room service connections, and wireless is the future of hotel IP. Replacing Ethernet cable with a wireless 802.11 connection was the logical next step. 'Most of the hotels have wireless in the lobby already,' Cohen said.

For historical structures such as the Willard, it enables automated management of minibars without adding hardwiring to the rooms.

'We did it within four days,' Forotti said. 'We had to add a couple of additional repeaters and access points, but everything went very well.'

The wireless link interfaces with the hotel's Opera property management software from Micros Systems Inc. of Columbia, Md. Each minibar has its own IP address, and infrared sensors detect when a product is removed. If it is not replaced within 30 seconds, the guest is billed. The software also tracks the shelf life of the products, monitors the temperature in the minibar, logs when the door is opened and closed, and can unlock the door when the guest checks in and lock it when he leaves.

Forotti said he hoped to be offering wireless Internet access through the system within a few months. 'We wanted a little time to see if the system supports the minibars well, before adding guests to it,' he said.

He hopes the new amenity will be attractive to government guests. 'It's important to keep up with government IT use,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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