When the Morgan Group started installing WiFi access points in the common areas of its club houses and pools four years ago, it was slightly ahead of its residents in providing the amenity.
“A lot of the laptops that were in play at that time didn't have WiFi cards to pick up the signal,” says David Hannan, senior vice president of property management for the Houston-based developer of luxury multifamily homes. “You either had to go out and buy one, or sometimes, your landlord would rent you one. Today, there's not a laptop made that doesn't have that card in it.”
For Hannan and the Morgan Group, that evolution in technology translates into a new challenge: bringing WiFi directly into residents' apartments. “The idea of coming home and getting on a desktop computer is rapidly going away,” Hannan says. “People are coming home with their laptops, and they want to sit on the couch and [get online]. We [as an industry] may still look at WiFi as some unique anomaly. But the reality is that it's becoming an everyday necessity.”
As WiFi becomes a bigger part of public life in general, with easy, wireless Internet access now common at coffee shops, airports, and hotels, multifamily operators say more residents are beginning to see it as a must-have at home as well. In common areas, it's already a given. “In New York, people just sort of expect it,” says David Picket, president of the Gotham Organization, which owns and operates more than 1,300 luxury apartments in New York City. And even if your residents aren't clamoring for WiFi in their units yet, “it won't be long before they do,” says Martha Carlin, executive vice president of operations at UDR, a Richmond, Va.-based REIT.
Yet, while multifamily companies start to explore the possibilities of providing WiFi access points directly inside apartments, universal, in-unit access still has its challenges. Those include costs, as well as the technical hurdles of making sure WiFi signals penetrate steel-reinforced walls, or in some cases, don't interfere with other devices such as cordless phones. Much of that may soon be changing, though, as multifamily WiFi technology becomes cheaper, more robust and easier to install.
HANDLING THE HURDLES Industry pros say installing and paying for WiFi infrastructure has become progressively easier the last few years. “Just like we've seen with the cost of data storage, the cost of WiFi—and the number of access points you need for a large building—are way down,” says Herb Hauser, president of New York-based Midtown Technologies, which specializes in technology deployment in residential, hotel, and resort settings.
Hauser pegs per-door costs for setting up in-unit WiFi between $20 and $40 per door; higher estimates approach $100 per door. That's not small change for operators with tens of thousands of units nationally, but observers say the cost can be offset, or eliminated, by entering into co-marketing agreements with service providers who are only too willing to outfit your buildings, if you tout their services to your residents.
Still, even if you have to pay for the capital expenditure of setting up a WiFi network, the alternative could prove to be even more costly. The reason, experts say, is because if you don't provide your residents with some sort of WiFi infrastructure in your community, they'll go out and get it themselves. Whether it's a Linksys wireless router they purchase at Best Buy or a D-Link unit they find on eBay, multifamily operators say residents will find a way to set up their own wireless access points inside their apartments. The problem, of course, is that the signals from these homespun networks don't stay inside their apartments; they often leak into the neighbors' as well.
“Imagine having 45 Linksys routers serving up 45 wireless networks, all named ‘Linksys,' in one building. How do you know if you're connected to yours or your neighbors?” says Richard Holtz, CEO of InfiniSys, a multifamily technology consultant based in Daytona Beach, Fla. “If you have that many people with different WiFi systems in one building, it's going to conflict. Unmanaged WiFi in high density doesn't work.”
Case in point: At one of InfiniSys' large university clients, students were unhappy with the speed they were getting from the university's community WiFi system. Their solution? To buy their own Internet access through the local cable provider, then broadcast it with store-bought wireless routers. With more than 4,000 beds on site, the problem quickly grew out of control. “Now, there are more than 800 rogue access points at the property, and nothing's working,” Holtz says.