Wi-Fi Demands Push Limits for Park Owners

July 21, 2011
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This story appeared in the July issue of Woodall’s Campground Management.

A decade ago, it was a big deal when somebody showed up at a campground or RV park with a laptop, and parks that offered them wireless Internet or Wi-Fi service were seen as cutting edge, even revolutionary.

It’s a different story today.

Laptops are nearly as common as cellphones and Wi-Fi service is no longer considered a luxury, but rather a necessity.

Indeed, while RVers in the early days needed Wi-Fi service to monitor their e-mail or check their stock performance or keep in touch with their bosses or employees, today’s RVers are using Wi-Fi for an even greater variety of applications.

Every day, in fact, 40% to 50% of Internet users are visiting websites like Google Earth and Facebook. Social media behemoths like Facebook didn’t even exist a decade ago.

Now add to that the increasing use of the Internet for entertainment purposes, whether it’s watching streaming video on Netflix or YouTube or participating in interactive, Internet-based video games, such as World of Warcraft, and one gets a sense of how the Internet and the need for Wi-Fi access increasingly dominates our lives.

Meanwhile, the number of devices that campers use to connect to the Internet – for work or for pleasure – is greatly expanding. “Guests are coming in with smart phones, gaming devices and tablet computers as well as the traditional laptop,” said Jim Ganley, managing partner of CheckBox Systems LLC in Portland, Maine.

Not surprisingly, the dramatically increased demand for Wi-Fi service is pushing the limits of many parks’ Wi-Fi capabilities. A large percentage have older Wi-Fi systems that need to be replaced or upgraded to keep up with demand. Other parks have good equipment, but need more bandwidth to accommodate their guests’ Internet consumption needs.

“We’ve had a lot of parks that are running into a bandwidth crunch,” Ganley said.

“The smart phones and iPads are becoming a major issue,” adds Jim Ames, co-founder, president and CEO of Napa, Calif.-based Airwave Adventurers Inc. “One of the biggest things I’m seeing is that there is more and more of a demand for an increase in bandwidth and the technology is not there to support it.”

As a result, he said, park operators are increasingly looking at ways to upgrade Wi-Fi systems that can no longer handle the Internet consumption demands of today’s RVers.

“Wi-Fi service has utility-like service expectations so being connected is an important and emotional issue for guests,” says Eric Stumberg, president and CEO of Austin, Texas-based TengoInternet, who notes that RVers often will not stay at parks that cannot deliver reliable Wi-Fi service.

“I’m still getting customers coming in that are replacing the original equipment put in by the local network guy,” Ames said. “They realize they need to spend money to get commercial equipment.”

But park operators do not only need vendors who can install reliable Wi-Fi hardware, they also need local Wi-Fi service providers who can provide increasing volumes of Internet data. “Everything depends on what the Internet connection is,” Ames said. “The hardware isn’t the only issue. It’s the pipeline coming into the park.”

Many parks also need companies to manage these systems, not only to ensure the proper functioning of these systems, but to make sure that guests are not engaging in illegal activities using the park’s Wi-Fi network. “We’ve had several parks that are getting notices from the music and movie industries that say, ‘You have somebody at your location that is illegally downloading information from the Internet.’”

The park operator is liable for illegal data downloads, unless the park owner can provide the address of the computer that illegally downloaded the data.

Wi-Fi service providers range from companies offering self-installed hardware, to those offering total solutions, including network system management and guest services.

TengoInternet, for example, provides everything from network design and installation, to staff and guest support, to network monitoring and management. “We design solutions based on the unique needs of each facility,” Stumberg said. “Most park operators want Tengo to manage their network and guests so they don’t have to.”

The Austin based company, back-to-back winner of the ARVC Supplier of The Year Award, provides a turn-key solution. “Park operators have been willing to pay for a reliable network, the right guest experience and a knowledgeable company to deal with changing network, Internet and guest expectations,” Stumberg said, adding their most popular service provides parks with 24/7 system and guest support.

“Park operators will need to accommodate the ways people connect to and use the Internet – it’s not getting any easier,” Stumberg said.

CheckBox Systems, for its part, sells Wi-Fi hardware that parks can operate on their own or with company support, depending on their needs. “At the bottom end,” Ganley said, “we have systems for $299 for a club house or small park. But the more typical system is about $1,500 and includes the hardware, an HC2 controller unit and typically about three access points that would cover say a 15-acre park with 100 sites.” CheckBox offers a one-year warranty and product support with its systems, while ongoing park and customer support is available for a fee after the first year.

Airwave Adventurers does system designs and sells Wi-Fi equipment. Park operators can choose from multiple options, whether they want to install and run it themselves, to having it fully installed, and/or having a managed 24/7system with an extended warranty. The average system costs $2,000 to $3,000, while installation ranges from $600 to $1,000. Woodall’s Campground Management subscribers are also eligible for a 20% discount, Ames said.

Regardless of which system park operators select, the Wi-Fi needs of today’s RVers are likely to further increase, Stumberg said. “AT&T had a 5,000% increase in mobile data traffic between 2007 and 2009, and video is expected to drive 69% of traffic by 2014,” Stumberg said. Cisco, he added, expects the volume of data sent over Wi-Fi to exceed data sent over wired networks by 2015.

Wakefield Research and the Wi-Fi Alliance also produced a study that found that 65% of those surveyed said they would seek Wi-Fi capability in every tech item they bought this year. “People are going to continue to connect to the Internet in different ways,” Stumberg said.

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