On the ski slopes without a smartphone? Unthinkable for so many people today. Sharing snapshots of that final ski run, or of lunch at the mountain lodge have become as much a part of a skiing holiday as après-ski. It is therefore no surprise that tourists and ski resorts increasingly rely on wireless Internet via Wi-Fi even at the mountainside.
But how exactly does the connection to the World Wide Web work at such cold and windy altitudes? Hardly anybody bothers about how the Internet gets up there—they simply take the network for granted.
One thing is for sure: Specialized technology is a must. And it takes good planning to provide stable Wi-Fi that works even under the most adverse conditions to provide genuine added value to both users as well as operators.
Extreme hardware for extreme conditions
Wi-Fi has become an indispensable part of our lives. Whether at home, in the office, or at the hotel—the increasingly chic access points (AP) and routers in their design-style plastic casing are omnipresent.
Considering the adverse conditions in the great outdoors, though, it soon becomes clear that the network devices up there need to be constructed according to different criteria. In such places where equipment is exposed to wind and weather, access points require robust protective casing ensuring smooth operation of the Wi-Fi.
The devices have to withstand extreme temperature differences, and they must be protected against rain, ice and dust. Compliance with the international EN standards of the IP 6x-series ensure this. Even specially produced materials such as Goretex membranes are made use of in such installations.
Equipped accordingly, LANCOM Outdoor Access Points are able to withstand temperatures ranging from ‑30°C to +70°Celsius (-22° – +158° F). Such rigorous differences are particularly prevalent in alpine altitudes, for example on glaciers. Here, temperatures measured can very quickly fluctuate between double-digit degrees below zero at night and double-digit above during the day.
However, there is more to consider than just the network components and their outdoor capabilities. Mountings, cable guides and other structures also have to withstand the harsh conditions and need to be chosen carefully to stand up to the climatic and geographical conditions. A truly vital piece of equipment is the surge arrestor. it keeps the equipment alive when struck by lightning or in case of non-visible electric discharges – the cost of solving the failure of the outdoor equipment being often much higher than the cost of the equipment itself.
Similarly, indispensable is a broadband Internet access—for example via a DSL line or fiber optic connection—to take the Wi-Fi traffic to and from the Internet. Where no connection is available, the next best thing is to bridge the distance to the nearest Internet node by means of a wireless LAN point-to-point link. This involves the wireless transmission of the Internet signal by means of special directional antennas over a line-of-sight connection, which can span up to several kilometers.
Planning for adverse circumstances
Apart from the hardware, another major challenge of alpine installations is the network planning. Geographical conditions in the mountains are extreme and test the abilities ofboth humans and technology alike. In addition to the adverse weather conditions, the long distances and the enormous differences in altitude, there are natural obstacles such as rocks, trees or other barriers. The terrain is rough and slopes are steep.
Vegetation and rocky ground, for example can hinder the installation work. A good strategy is to mount Wi-Fi components on existing cableway masts. This minimizes the search for suitable sites in ski resorts and makes the installation considerably easier.
Especially in the winter another factor affecting the radio signal of Wi-Fi devices in the mountains is the varying thickness of the snow cover. This can cause the reflection characteristics of the slopes to vary strongly. Readjustments may be necessary since the installation of Wi-Fi components usually takes place outside of the winter season when there is little or no snow at all.
In areas that are particularly difficult to access, planners rely on latest technology when it comes to new installations. Where allowed, quadrocopters equipped with special sensors and measuring instruments are used to provide live images and measurements. This enables technicians to very quickly determine the local ground conditions and accordingly decide which components are best suited for the Wi-Fi installation.
Where larger areas require Wi-Fi coverage, a good option is to deploy a network supported by multiple Wi-Fi access points in what is known as a wireless distribution system (WDS). If the signal strength at one of the more remote nodes is not strong enough, an additional intermediate AP can be installed to act as a repeater and increase the range.
Wireless benefits for vacationers
Of course, the ski lovers are not aware of any of this. The only thing they care about is whether or not Wi-Fi is available at the resort, and at what price. Meanwhile though, tourists increasingly expect to have complimentary Wi-Fi access. And this holds true not only for hotels or guest houses, but equally so for lodges at high altitude, as well as the mountain and valley cableway stations.
To keep up with the high demand, hotels and ski resorts are increasingly cooperating, for example to provide free Wi-Fi on ski buses. Technically, this is addressed with LTE/4G routers installed on the buses.
Guests benefit in many ways. They can surf the net for free and send holiday memories to their loved ones at home. Communication via “Wi-Fi calling” or the use of social networks for exchanging information and memories is widespread and highly appreciated. Particularly practical: The user’s own smartphone is used for network access, and in many places they don’t even need a special app.
Ski resorts and hotels are increasingly using Wi-Fi to offer helpful information and guides to the area. These offerings typically range from simple maps for vacationers to attractive offers regarding their hotels, the ski resort, the region, or partner companies. What remains to be fully implemented is a seamless Wi-Fi experience all the way from the hotel to the gondola.
Opportunities for Wi-Fi operators
The proliferation of Wi-Fi benefits not only guests, but operators as well. In addition to guest Wi-Fi, all kinds of other systems are provided over the wireless network, spanning communications and entertainment, even including emergency systems.
Another fascinating aspect is the analysis of visitor streams by means of sensors and location-based services. The observation of these streams over a period of time allows ski-lift operators to adapt their personnel planning and the timing of the gondolas to cater for the numbers of visitors.
Through special campaigns displayed via apps or websites directly on their smartphones, visitors can be actively called to action outside of peak times. This avoids bottlenecks at peak periods, makes the best possible use of resources such as personnel, and cuts down on customer waiting times. At the end of the day this actually increases revenues.
The Wi-Fi network can also be used for customer loyalty campaigns or individualized advertising. In exchange for free network access, guests are often willing to submit their contact data and preferences, and consent to receiving promotional offers. This information can in turn be used by operators for personalized advertising.
All in all, Wi-Fi in the mountains not only offers convenience and added value for guests, but also provides concrete revenue-enhancing opportunities for the ski resorts. A genuine win-win situation for everybody involved.
 To start-up the access point a temperature of at least -30°C is needed; once active it can handle even lower temperatures, due to internal heating