No Wi-Fi HereAnother week, another big event, another twitter stream full of complaints about Wi-Fi. Rightly or wrongly Wi-Fi is touted above food, toilets, queuing, decoration and just about everything else as being critical to an event. It’s been the same for several years now with seemingly little progress, how can that be the case?

The first response is typically to blame the technology and there are certainly plenty of cases where poor designs and implementations are part of the problem. Building an effective, reliable and performing wired and wireless network is complex but not impossible. These days the main issues tend to lie elsewhere.

The first issue is cost. Delivering a true high capacity, high density network requires significant investment with a large chunk of the cost down to the internet bandwidth required. The price of low quality consumer bandwidth like ADSL and FTTC may be at an all time low but high capacity business quality fibre circuits are still very expensive, especially for short term use. The usage patterns of the attendees have also changed over the last few years with current demand as much about upload as download which, coupled with richer content, all continue to drive demand for more bandwidth.

You can provide the best Wi-Fi on the planet but if it isn’t backed up by the appropriate internet bandwidth then users will have a poor experience. There is no magic here, if you want 10,000 users to have a good experience you need multiple high capacity business grade links, yet most organisers see the cost of this bandwidth as top of the list for cutting, well above other items which ironically users complain far less about. 

The second problem is particularly significant in the exhibition and conference areas – rogue Wi-Fi. The Achilles heal of Wi-Fi is its unlicensed nature, which on one hand has allowed Wi-Fi to become pervasive across the globe rapidly but on the other hand is slowly killing it. Wi-Fi currently operates at two relatively narrow frequency bands – 2.4GHz and 5GHz. These two bands are divided into a number of channels which are shared by all Wi-Fi (and some other) devices. The problem is there are not enough channels available, especially at 2.4GHz so in a high density environment managing the channels which are available is critical to success. That in itself is hard enough but now add in all the exhibitors who have brought in their own Wi-Fi access points, then all the Mi-Fi devices and to top it off all the Bluetooth noise (which also operates at 2.4GHz) and you end up with a large conference hall with thousands of devices all shouting at each other to the point no one can be heard because it is just a mass of interference.

The idea that all of these devices can share the wireless spectrum effectively is simply not true in a dense environment. To make matters worse it’s a vicious circle – the more often an attendee or exhibitor has a bad experience the more likely they are to bring their own device next time further adding to the problem. Even worse is that every new Mi-Fi device has a little more power and those with their own Wi-Fi think more power and more access points will make things better raising the interference and noise further.

Those who work in this area have known for some time that 2.4GHz as a client access frequency at an event was a lost cause and the only hope was to move people to 5GHz as laptops, tablets and smartphones increasingly supported it. The extra channel capacity at 5GHz, no Bluetooth interference and fewer 5GHz Mi-Fi devices made for ‘cleaner’ air, unfortunately that is rapidly changing and soon 5GHz will be as crowded as 2.4GHz.

There are only a couple of solutions to this problem, the first is long term and probably unlikely. Wi-Fi needs more spectrum and there are various discussions and proposals for increasing the spectrum available but it also needs to be managed – separating consumer type devices away from lightly licensed professional frequencies so that each has its own space. This will not happen quickly and would take many years to trickle down through devices but it could be the long term nirvana to truly offer a reliable Wi-Fi service.

The second solution is not really technical at all, it just requires event organisers to listen to and take seriously what event IT companies have been saying for years – the Wi-Fi spectrum at events must be managed. In the broadcast arena spectrum management has been taken seriously for years and it works very well. If we want event Wi-Fi to work then the same approach must be used. That means taking a hard line when an exhibitor wants to use their own device – it has to be pre-approved with specific parameters or rejected, and the agreement has to be enforced. No more rogue Wi-Fi it ruins experience for everyone.

This is easy to say, it requires trust that an official provider is going to deliver a good service and I appreciate it is hard to enforce requiring support from all levels but it can be done (we have examples) and the difference it makes is considerable and everyone gets a working service. It doesn’t fix everything but unless something is done across the industry to support this approach then paying money out for Wi-Fi is pointless and frustrates users more than if there was no Wi-Fi at all.

Etherlive is working with several customers who are preparing their venues and various production organisations to support the UK General Election happening on May 7th 2015. Many of the event teams are working on similar aspects and issues; here are our top tips

Audit Venues (first and early!) – Many venues are level setting customers’ expectations on how many concurrent wireless connections they can support and what internet access is available but site visits to confirm this data is critical. The earlier the site visit the more opportunity both the venue and the production team have time to address any issues; for example arranging more capacity on the core internet access temporarily or increasing Wi-Fi density & capacity in certain areas.

Consider Demand – In 2010 when the poles closed the first generation iPad had just been launched with many people still considering it a fad. Now most people, and certainly press, carry multiple devices which need high speed connectivity – their phone, tablet, laptop and potentially even watch! Twitter users (around 70,000 then) were sending around 50 million tweets per day, now it’s ten times that. Facebook, just becoming main stream in 2010, now includes video streaming and people routinely use Skype and FaceTime for their calls whilst cloud based data services such as Dropbox, Office 365 and Google Docs are commonplace.

Delivering event wifi to the debates

Delivering event Wi-Fi to the debates

Consider Security – A little discussed element of Wi-Fi is how there are many ways of deploying it with (or without) security & encryption. Recent press on the Sony hack and others should mean that organisers check what level of security is being provided. At worse this should at least be a number of individual networks for organisers, candidates, media and attendees. The preference should be for authentication and encryption with suitable logging and monitoring.

Have a Backup Plan – Consider what happens if the internet connection breaks. Is there a second connection that can be used if required? Could desperate users be taken to a different area at least to upload their photos and emails?

Engage Attendees – Similar to the needs of the media, organisers and those attending events will be keen to remain connected to social media and their own commitments. Providing news feeds, twitter walls and video screens relaying up the minute information all help to create a buzz and promote interaction.

Regardless if you are supporting the election through hosting an event at your venue, or responsible for organising one, successful technology delivery will be a key factor.

Etherlive are continuously identifying ways in which we can improve the services which organisers can offer their customers, exhibitors and staff. Many of these people may be travelling for extended periods, have damaged or incompatible IT hardware or be travelling ‘light’ with just a smartphone or tablet device. Our work hub package has proved to be very popular, especially in the conference and exhibition sectors where a fully equipped and secure environment to work and print from is often requested.

A work hub ready for delegates

A work hub ready for delegates

A typical work hub provides;

  • Secure printing & copying
  • Fax
  • Device charging facilities
  • Full ‘desktop’ PC access
  • Desk telephones with low national & international call rates and a pin charging system
  • Skype booth with webcam and microphone
  • Wired & wireless internet access
  • Engineer onsite support

The Etherlive Work Hub creates a flexible, secure, dedicated work area which gives attendees the opportunity to keep on top of business without interfering with the event itself. Work hubs also work well for media and flexible organiser spaces.

By supplying a work hub you will be providing things that your delegates need and offering a service above and beyond expectations.
Please speak to our team now for more information about work hubs.

(l-r) WOMAD Festival Director Chris Smith discusses mobile coverage with O2’s Richard Owens, Etherlive’s Chris Green and Paul Pike from IVS

It’s been such a busy November that it’s only now that I have a had a chance to reflect on the Autumn Gathering. The day was split into two sessions with the morning focused on corporate events and conferences, and the afternoon structured around outdoor events and festivals. Below are some very brief notes covering a few of the topics discussed.

Connectivity & IT Support in Hotels & Venues

For conferences and product launches the IT needs are now typically a lot more than ‘a bit of Wi-Fi’. Quality Wi-Fi with appropriate capacity, dedicated streaming bandwidth, hook-ups for varying accreditation type systems and on-site technical support to deal with VPNs, bandwidth management and media support are all key aspects.

A concern raised by several attendees was the often inconsistent quality of connectivity in venues and their knowledge of how it works. This is an area we have been partnering with several venues on to deliver enhanced connectivity and the level of technical support that a conference or launch now needs. We have several case studies showing the cost of installing higher bandwidth and more robust infrastructure is rapidly recouped through increased revenue, this is particularly important for London venues hosting events in 2012. We are actively working with several groups to drive a better approach to conference & venue Wi-Fi, it is a more complex area though than it may look requiring extensive knowledge of how to deliver high density environments with the right equipment.

Information Security

Data security was a hot topic for corporate conferences, especially when people realised how insecure the often used short, simple passphrase approach is on Wi-Fi networks. The good news is that it’s an easy one to fix with a more complex passphrase or ideally a system which uses individual user names and passwords and enhanced encryption. Avoiding the use of the event or company name as the SSID/network name (or hiding it altogether) was also discussed as a way of avoiding unwanted attention.

It should now be the norm that networks are segregated into organiser, attendee, etc. and approaches such as client isolation are used to avoid unintentional sharing of information between connected users. A simple plain English guide to aspects such as the use of Https (secure websites), VPNs, encryption & authentication, solving typical problems with email when on a different network etc, was deemed a useful addition to the organisers toolkit and something that we are looking at producing.

Social Media

Social media split the room in two – those running internal conferences who were often frustrated that their IT department refused to sanction use of social media and those running product launches who used social media to the max. Lots was covered in this area, some of the key points were:

  • Social media like any channel requires a strategy
  • It takes time (1 hour per day was muted by several), you get out what you put in
  • Needs structure and tools (hash tags, TweetReach, Yazmo Live, Socialoomph, Thinkwall and hootsuite all came up)
  • Use live twitter feeds to ask questions to panel members and break down any barriers. Control and nurture back channels.
  • Schedule general content releases prior to the event so you can concentrate on the here and now tweets and comms during the live period. Have a calendar of teasers to pull people into the event.
  • Use of video is coming to the forefront and a general agreement that even low cost footage taken on a smart phone can achieve good results if it manages to capture a moment or a different angle.
  • It requires a working infrastructure at the event to be successful!

Smartphone Apps

This session started with a discussion on the hype around apps and comments that this was coming to an end with people now having to really question why they need an app and understand what the purpose is, with agreement that often a poor app can be more damaging than no app at all!

From there the discussion moved into ‘native apps’ versus ‘web apps’, like with many things there is no straight forward answer but there are some key differentiators:

  • Native apps can be designed to work without connectivity, with web apps this is nearly impossible
  • Web apps can be made cross-platform more easily and cost effectively
  • Web apps are on the whole easier to maintain
  • Native apps are more feature rich and can utilise more smartphone functionality (and hence look more slick)

Alongside this there were common operational aspects:

  • If you promote an app then the infrastructure needs to be able to support it
  • Content needs to be managed before and during the event. And afterwards if you want to maintain usage.
  • If the app is provided by someone else it will still be associated with your event so the quality is important

Mobile Phone Service

We’ve all been at events and got frustrated that the mobile phone service has collapsed under the sheer weight of users so not surprisingly this was a hotly discussed topic. Richard Owens from O2 did a great job in sharing examples of the scale of the challenges and explaining what O2 have been doing to try and address the problem. One great example came from the Royal Wedding where they actively moved capacity along the route of the Royal carriage to deal with the spike in photo uploads. Learnings from this are now being incorporated into a more automated approach across the O2 network.

For permanent venues additional capacity is a realistic option via adding more base stations around the venue, again an area O2 have already worked with several venues on. For temporary event sites the challenge is more complex due to the cost and complexity of temporary cell towers, however, options such as Wi-Fi offload and femtocells are becoming more practical.

The underlying message was one of the need for a partnership approach between events and mobile operators to deal with the issue as many events felt the bad experience of attendees did reflect to some degree on the event, and if nothing else made it difficult for organisers to run the event effectively.

Festival Comms & Public Wi-Fi

The change in expectations for festival comms over the last few years has been huge such that VoIP, internet, CCTV and Wi-Fi are the norm. The questions have moved onto how to deliver higher capacity connectivity and integrate services across a large site delivering coordinated gate scanning, real-time noise monitoring and PDQ ‘chip and pin’.

Public Wi-Fi access attracted a wide range of comment ranging from ‘festivals should be technology free’ to ‘how to monetise Wi-Fi’. Every event is different and it follows that approaches to public Wi-Fi will vary but it’s worth noting that the underlying thread is not really about public internet usage (although it is popular and has it’s uses for aspects such as travel, weather and news), it’s about the channel which is created between the event and the attendee providing an opportunity to deliver an extended festival experience. This may take the form of information updates, promotion of different events on site, access to exclusive content and the opportunity to enable social communities on site. It also provides a platform to deliver new services such as cashless payment, interactive apps and sponsor promotions.

As always the Gathering gave us a great opportunity to engage in discussion with those in the industry to really see what’s of interest and what the pain points are. The Gathering is a great focus point and hopefully leads to ongoing discussions to ensure the technology available meets the needs of organisers, promoters, production teams, suppliers and attendees.

Few things in life are as cut and dry as Sinatra vs Gaga or Apple vs Microsoft. The recent industry activity campaigning for free Wi-Fi at venues is a good example of something which should be straight forward, but is in fact a little more complicated.

The ABPCO (Association of British Professional Conference Organisers) recently announced securing more than 100 signatures for its campaign to bring free Wi-Fi to major event venues across the UK. This is a great campaign and should help focus the minds of venues who overcharge for basic access to the internet. Whilst I support the movement I find myself sympathetic to the venues who now find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The hard place is the overwhelming demand for internet (of any type!). It’s exploding and will continue to do so; from smartphones, tablets and good old laptops, people need to be connected. What are they doing? Quickly replying to that email to keep momentum up in a project, sending photos and video to the office for those that can’t attend the event, using QR codes to look up data on stands, checking their mapping application to plan around the traffic…the list goes on and on and on.

I was enjoying meeting customers at Square Meal just the other week and found myself sitting on the benches outside clearing email, eating a baguette chatting with several others doing the same thing. We were hanging onto a weak 3G signal (hence sitting outside!) instead of paying for access inside. If you needed another data point, apart from thinking how many times today you probably already used the smartphone in your pocket, a few months ago we provided a 300 acre Wi-Fi hotspot over the WOMAD festival and this year internet usage by attendees increased in excess of 250%.

The glow of internet demand

The glow of internet demand, image courtesy of Google

The rock is the cost. Of course nothing is free and installing hundreds of access points across a large venue isn’t cheap, let alone the cost of having significant internet access behind the scenes. If you try to do it on the cheap it will only come back to bite you.

I can see both arguments. Why give something away for free when people will pay for it? Especially when installing a quality venue wide Wi-Fi solution isn’t cheap. Infrastructure requires proper management, not to mention the cost of providing considerable internet backhaul.

Unfortunately venues have few people to blame. Like several other industries they fail to realise new revenue opportunities from their infrastructure, instead opting to continue the ‘pay by hour, day or week’ just as they have done for many years. Customer understanding is also an issue – why at home is their broadband £12 per month and in a venue £10 per day? Whilst some of this is opportunistic pricing by the venue, there are real differences in infrastructure and cost to deliver a quality solution to a venue that works for all users. However this is probably the core of the issue – consistency. Sometimes you get good free Wi-Fi, sometimes you pay £10 and get poor Wi-Fi. This inconsistency leads to frustration, a lack of confidence and drives a feeling as to why anyone needs to pay for it at all.

To me the answer is likely to be a middle ground. Firstly conferences and venues should be investing in greater levels of visibility to what people are doing with their network – for example why can’t the customers be metered against a range of price plans? Risky for the event if it’s simple pay as you go as this could rack up extensive charges, but price points could be negotiated. Secondly it’s setting the right expectations for the network that is in place. By all means offer a free network which is limited to X speed for X time with advertising and then, if you want, pay for more significant access.

The second aspect is that we need to get to a point where venue Wi-Fi is certified or approved in some way so that potential users and organisers have some confidence and guarantee that they will get the service promised.

The final point I would make is that venues should take a leaf from Facebook’s business model (or Google’s). We use their services every day – but have you ever paid for it? Of course they advertise abundantly but actually the most valuable element for them is your data – this could very simply be collected at venues and sold back to the event or other parties. It’s a contentious area but it is happening just about everywhere else.

The discussion will continue for some time no doubt and it will be interesting to see how things develop over the next six months as venues compete to deliver additional services and as customers closely manage their budgets.

Steve Birnage and I were fortunate enough to talk at the HBAA (The Hotel Booking Agents Association) 13th Annual Forum this week on their theme of Future Vision. We based our workshop on the concept of a ‘technology venue’ using each of the various ‘floors’ to represent a technology and how, for example, any service offering (near the top of the building) needs a good foundation at the bottom.

We went on to discuss the many other floors which are all critical for eventually delivering a great customer experience. Attendees where really keen to engage and we got some great questions especially as many are focused on winning business for the 2012 Olympics, opportunities which will have high expectations for connectivity on site. A quick summary of the main points below;

The foundation – High speed, dedicated uncontended internet access is a must. Many venues still attempt to share one connection between rooms, bars and conferencing facilities but this won’t meet many conference organiser requirements these days. We have recently upgraded a London customer with significant bandwidth for their conferencing facilities entirely separate from them having great connectivity for their bedrooms.

Ground floor – A good, reliable wired network which is managed by a third party or venue with appropriate support can make deploying services and performing upgrades later on quite straightforward. Here we were using examples about running fibre between key points in the building (either at design or re-fit) to ensure high speed services can be delivered without causing massive headaches. We used the term ‘managed’ a lot within this section but really the key is to ensure services can be changed quickly remotely.

The Technology Venue

First floor – Reliable Wi-Fi networking. Separate to the internet or network on site it is critical to ensure a wireless network is deployed to deal with the appropriate requirements in mind. For example a conference room which seats 500 needs to have the wireless infrastructure to handle that. New technologies can really help here – like 802.11n mesh wireless networks which can be extended by just plugging in access points which automatically extend coverage however this is dangerous to do unless your environment will automatically minimise interference or you have an appreciation of what channels other access points are using.

Second floor – Make sure you have the support lined up since there is nothing worse than investing and not realising value. Not only should venues have technical support, be it in house or outsourced but also staff should be familiar with the functions and features so they can represent it to customers and prospects who may ask.

Third floor – The critical revenue generation floor – here venues should be thinking past charging for the internet access and looking at sponsored hijack pages, content driven micro sites, support for live streaming and perhaps a strategy about how to re-use customer content in terms of video (perhaps for those who could not attend).

Those key areas got some great interaction from the audience. Many of whom have made significant investment in technology but continue to look for opportunities to maximise return. It was also great to have discussions with several of the larger hotel brands who are committed to contracts and are keen to ensure contracts continue to keep a focus on innovation.

‘Good news travels fast, bad news travels faster’ has never been a truer saying in the social world of retweets and ‘likes’. I wasn’t at Mobile World Congress this week but I did follow the stream of tweets originating from there. Amongst those tweets were comments about poor Wi-Fi coverage, I have no idea whether the Wi-Fi was poor or not but with a few negative comments bouncing around the ether it can quickly lead to the perception that another large conference has not taken it’s audiences desire to use mobile technology seriously – particularly damaging  when it’s a mobile technology conference!

The chances are it was a few people having localised problems with their devices but its another example of the damage that can be inflicted very quickly when attendees feel they are experiencing a poor service. Both Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer have also experienced the pain of poor launch event Wi-Fi in the last year, with hundreds of press watching and commenting, and the result that the issues became a bigger headline than the product itself. So, what can you do to avoid the issues at your conference or launch?

1) Know your audience – What type of press is attending? What’s the demographic of the audience? You might think only tech events need technical services but many launches these days need high quality internet, for example London’s Fashion week had a huge amount of live blogging along with video streaming, posting of images and tweeting. Understanding these aspects is the starting point for working out what level of service is required.

2) Be realistic about capacity – Poor Wi-Fi will frustrate people more than no Wi-Fi, and good Wi-Fi with no sensible internet capacity is just as bad. Mobile data demand is growing exponentially but far too often the capacity required is under called. Budgets may be a challenge but often the problem is exasperated with last minute bookings which have a higher cost. Internet bandwidth is not something that should be an afterthought, it should be up towards the top of the requirements.

3) Work with social media – Working on the assumption that people who are tweeting and blogging will look after themselves is missing the opportunity to engage with a huge audience. People will tweet regardless so it is critical to get involved  to address comments. For example if someone tweets the Wi-Fi is bad, wouldn’t it be great to send a support engineer over to check everything is OK with their system? They are then far more likely to post a positive comment.

4) Offer a variety of options – Although Wi-Fi is great there will always be someone who has a problem getting connected, having somewhere for people to go and plug a cable in as a fall back creates a great impression. Couple that with support staff who understand the common issues around firewalls, VPNs, connection agents and drivers and the press will feel they are being catered for.

5) Partner with the venue – Don’t just accept that the venue provided Wi-Fi will work for you and your customers’ requirements, in the vast majority of cases this is not the case. Check they have dealt with a similar scale of event, understand how they intend to support users, question their capacity. High capacity Wi-Fi is a very different game to a typical casual usage Wi-Fi installation and many common wireless products are just not up to the job.

It may be a cliche that we ‘live in a connected world’ but we do, which is both powerful and dangerous, and most importantly is something that cannot be ignored if you want to maximise good exposure.