During my time at a large trade show recently I heard some WiFi nightmare stories. Primarily overcharging was the main gripe, but slow speeds and the WiFi not working throughout a whole venue also attracted complaints. WiFi is really important for a smooth attendee experience. For me, travelling from the UK to USA and not wanting to pay over the odds for expensive mobile data packages, a reliable and free WiFi service is really important. This has implications for events planners in terms of attendee expectations. Whether it’s WiFi in a hotel conference space or at an unusual venue where WiFi has had to be installed as a one-off, there is an expectation that the WiFi should be fast, reliable and free for attendees.
The problem is that not many event planners understand how WiFi works and how to make sure that they are getting value for money as well as a glitch-free service. In many instances the venues that supply WiFi – often through a third party – have no idea how it all works either. So when you are conducting a site visit you should consider the problems and the tips offered here.
There are many problems that cause WiFi to fail in any setting. You should discuss these with your vendor. Many people actually have more than one device, and many will want to connect multiple devices to a network. There will be differences, say for a Tech Conference as opposed to a Gala. Either way the amount of devices wanting to connect to the WiFi has implications for what is termed as ‘bandwidth’. Wireless networking was never built with 1,000 people in mind. Too many attendees using WiFi causes a slowdown in connecting to the Internet and downloading (for example event app information) or uploading (for example tweets and posts) data. The bandwidth will also be affected by the type of Internet line coming into a venue.
Then there are router problems. Each type of wireless router has different bandwidth capabilities, and connections are tempered by the speed of the Internet connection coming into a venue. Some venues have really good Internet connectivity whereas others don’t. You may be using a venue that only has hard-wired Internet access points on the walls so you may have to a completely add a wireless network with multiple WiFi access points to ensure adequate coverage. This is very different to your average home WiFi network. Think of it like putting speakers everywhere so people’s devices can all ‘hear’ the WiFi clearly.
Many of these problems can be overcome. For events where you have less than a few hundred devices (100-200 people), it’s far easier to solve problems. However, asking the right questions when discussing WiFi with your supplier or the venue on your site visit are key to making sure that any connectivity and speed problems are avoided. You will also be able to ask the supplier how they work out pricing.
On your site visit, the first thing you need to check is what kind of Internet line is coming into the venue. The amount of bandwidth available to the entire site is important. If you can’t get adequate answers to these questions before the event begins, you have to assume that they’ll be running a single, consumer router connected to a DSL line (copper wire telephone line connectivity). That’s a problem for the attendee experience as this will severely restrict connectivity and speeds. Digital Subscriber Lines run up to 8 Mbps (megabits per second). DSL can be asynchronous – delivering more downstream bandwidth than upstream – which for domestic lines is fine as most of the time you’re downloading more than uploading. This can cause problems if attendees are making multiple requests – for example, an attendee with a phone, a tablet and a laptop all auto checking emails and social media – as there will not be enough upstream bandwidth to service all the requests by all attendees. Alternatively a venue may be connected via ‘cable’ – a fibre optic or coaxial cable – that allows much higher bandwidths up to 100Mbps. However this is also restricted in terms of connectivity and speeds when you are going to be hosting hundreds of attendees or attendees are video streaming on applications such as Periscope. You should be looking for venues with more sophisticated connectivity.
Some venues have very high ceilings, which make it more difficult to deliver a good signal. There may be pillars or dividing walls in a space that blocks the radio frequency signal; so it’s important that there is a line of sight between access points and the attendees, so that coverage is comprehensive. WiFi signals are badly affected by re-inforced concrete walls and floors and any metallic sheet clad walls too.You should be asking your vendor if they can mount WiFi access points around the venue at 1 metre to 2 metres above head height and avoid physical obstacles. If you can’t attach access points to the fabric of the building then they can be mounted on tripods. You also need to identify areas of high attendee footfall and multiple device usage – say at a tech conference – and make sure that the vendor is deploying enterprise grade WiFi access hardware. The WiFi vendor names you should be looking for are Cisco, Xirrus, Ruckus and Aruba.
Virtual Local Area Networks are the networks your vendor will create for you. Or this may already be in place in many venues. There’s the attendee network and then other networks. For large events, make sure that you as the organizer have a reliable network that is standalone. Another VLAN you may want to create is one that deals with transactions that are taking place. For example tickets, merchandising and food outlet transactions need a specific network so that selling on site is seamless. At a trade or consumer exhibition you may also ask the vendor to install separate VLAN’s for exhibitors, speakers and service providers. For small events this may not be necessary but ask the vendor if one VLAN is going to cope with the traffic you are expecting. Finally, if you are going to be live streaming you may want to add another VLAN and use a hardwired Internet connection to make sure you get the best quality output. A good quality stream needs 10Mbps.
The Traffic Calculation
Typically you would need at least 10Mbps (Megabytes per second) per 100 users unless you are expecting a great deal of video traffic (inbound or outbound). Apple updates can hamper connectivity so ask the vendor to block access or request that your attendees do not upgrade their iOS or their device applications whilst at your event. You should also try and encourage attendees to download any applications – such as audience response systems, an event app or other downloads you are providing – before they arrive at the event.
Your WiFi network should scale up to support multiple devices per person, especially if it’s a tech heavy event. The critical factor is concurrent connections. Out of 500 attendees only half may be simultaneously connected. You know your attendees best so it’s up to you to calculate – guesstimate if you like. For example, if you are expecting 200 attendees make an assumption on how many devices they may want to connect to the WiFi. A good guestimate is 1.5 devices per person but if you are organising a conference for the tech sector – where everyone will probably want to connect with a phone, tablet and laptop – then plan for at least 2.5 devices per person.
There will be rental charges for the equipment and an engineer rate by the day or hour. Ask how long the job will take, the range (distance reach) of the access points, and how many concurrent users each point will support and what support they need from you as the organizers to make everything run smoothly. Once you know the equipment your vendor is going to use make sure you get a break down item by item in the vendor’s estimate.
Hopefully the WiFi charge is incorporated into the venue hire charge or day delegate rate. But remember that’s only a bonus if the connectivity is going to be good enough for your needs. In many instances WiFi may be free – but free doesn’t mean reliable. You should make sure that the connectivity and speed are adequate for multiple devices. You may have to add to the current system. One way of checking this is to ask venues to share contact details of another event organizer who has used their in house system. If you are being charged separately for WiFi, then what are you being charged for? As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t be paying more than $5-10 per head over a one day period. The charge should reduce on the second and third days as the set up costs are spread. However the location and prestige of a venue also needs to be taken into consideration. WiFi in a Las Vegas 5 Star hotel will differ from a hotel venue in Albuquerque.
Providing attendees with a good quality WiFi is not an option – it’s an expectation! That means you have to understand how it works. If you have some knowledge on the workings of WiFi you are less likely to be bombarded by crazy pricing and meaningless detail by suppliers. A vendor that baffles you with lots of techy jargon and seems too busy to explain what they need to do – in full detail – is a bad choice. You need a vendor with event experience. For example, a vendor that has deployed office networks will not know anything about the requirements for events. It’s always best to get a referral. Having some understanding of WiFi is a good starting point to develop a sound knowledge of its provision. It’s not rocket science and is based on a set of principles and a process that is applicable to all your events.