Connectivity is king. For the experience of those attending, to those delivering the event and those watching from afar. In the last 10 years connectivity has migrated from a nice to have to a critical system for any event that wants to engage with its audience and deliver effectively.

Good connectivity presents itself in several ways. Unfortunately for the organiser it’s critical to have an understanding of these aspects, just as they have an understanding of their audience or how many tickets have been sold.

When considering connectivity, it helps to be clear with those who you want to consider and those who you don’t.

The Organiser – local networks and the associated internet connectivity are critical for an organising team to work. Bandwidth here can normally be quickly estimated since it’s a known quantity. Cloud systems such as Dropbox and Office 365 increase requirements but are manageable even on small internet services. Systems such as Skype or more advanced video conferencing which are more common now when working with international committees, can dramatically increase requirements.

The Sponsor – the majority of activations now require some kind of high-quality connectivity. Engaging the sponsor is one thing, showing them what is possible or what can be supported with the right connectivity is next. For overlay locations local cellular (4G) services may be sufficient but within high volume areas these will most likely struggle to deliver significant bandwidth. For many events connectivity in this space is an afterthought which is problematic and expensive. Proactive discussions with sponsors at the start of any engagement will help identify what’s required and the most effective method of delivery.

The Press – considering the media appetite for the internet can make or break an event. Print media need to move images, which can be managed, but those who require outside broadcast type services generally either look to the event to help or use their own broadcast vehicles. Broadcast vehicles can be expensive so generally the approach of delivering onsite bandwidth means that more content can be pushed.

The Partners – bars (cashless) ticketing etc. Anyone who works with the organisers to deliver their part of the event. Smart tenders can mean issues relating to connectivity becomes the partners problem but many times this will add significantly to cost because everyone is doing their own thing. In many cases a shared service is preferred, like power. Cashless services are critical to processing payments. Fast, secure, effective transactions are expected.

The Attendee – normally the final piece of the puzzle. Leading events are now looking to this group first, to encourage engagement and legacy, in which case services such as viewing replays, concession service to seats, emergency messaging, are all common. The network and internet required to carry attendees data can be significant, again, more lead time means more efficiencies. If attendees are not part of scope, then cellular carriers are the best route to providing a level of connectivity.

For any organiser the technical side of events continues to grow, and they must add this to their ‘toolkit’ of knowledge and experience. Just as with ticketing, marketing or venue selection, it’s critical that those in senior positions understand what is being done, what the possible risks are and what their strategy is.

WOMAD offers free public wi-fi to all attendeesThe topic of public or attendee Wi-Fi at events creates more churn and discussion than just about any other aspect in the technology arena. Organiser questions come thick and fast – Should we provide it? How should we charge for it? Will it work? Why does it cost so much? How many people will use it? The list goes on.

The approach to production, exhibitor and trader Wi-Fi is clear cut but for the public, opinion on approach, the need and value flip on a regular basis. This is not entirely surprising given the confusing and often incorrect messaging which swirls around the industry, accompanied by the fact that the topic is more complex than it initially looks.

If you are running an event in a location with little or no mobile coverage, then the desire to provide connectivity for attendees is well placed as there is an expectation in today’s world for ubiquitous connectivity and attendees will quickly rally round to complain if they are disconnected from the rest of the world.

Mobile 3G & 4G coverage at events is improving but outside of a select few the reality is the mobile networks are not designed to service the volume of users at large events which leads to sporadic or non-existent performance. Even if there is good mobile coverage the drive to provide a public Wi-Fi network may be down to different factors, not least by the fact that a dedicated network is in the control of the organiser providing opportunities to gather statistics, target advertising, monitor usage and offer interactive services.

How do I pay for it?

Monetising the provision is, however, a difficult area as directly charging for Wi-Fi access is not a good approach and sees very limited take-up. Users are offended by the idea that after paying to attend an event they are asked to pay extra for internet access which in their view is a utility and life-right, especially when in most scenarios Wi-Fi access is ‘free’. It may be accepted by an organiser that any provision is just an overhead cost, the value being in the good feedback and enhanced social media presence that such an offering provides but in most cases there is an expectation of some direct value or cost recovery.

The key point is not to focus on the Wi-Fi connection but to look beyond at what the connection delivers – that may be additional paid for content, sponsorship and advertising, attendee interaction, geo-fencing and location services, add on experiences which are sold through the network, payment systems or other value-add elements which may be more accepted as a paid-for offering.

What capacity do I need?

One of the hardest things about public Wi-Fi at events is predicting usage and capacity required. There are multiple vectors to this but historical data and experience provide a good starting point. The key aspect is the likely amount of concurrent users as this drives the high water mark for system capacity.

The first vector is the type of event, a music festival for example will typically see a lower concurrent usage percentage than a more business focused event such as an exhibition. This is driven by the immediacy of modern business working versus the more local experience of a festival, coupled with the need at a festival to conserve battery life such that Wi-Fi is turned off unless actually required. Interestingly though over the course of a multi-day festival a higher percentage of attendees will use the Wi-Fi at some point compared to a business focused exhibition. In our experience we would not expect concurrent usage at a festival to be more than 10-20%, whereas an exhibition may be closer to 30-40%.

The second vector is the duration of an event, crudely the shorter the event the higher the percentage of concurrent users. This dynamic is partly down to the battery life concern at multi-day events in contrast to the ‘in the moment’ social media nature of a short event that is likely to have a single focal point and may see concurrent usage rise above 50%

The last vector is the hardest to predict – the marketing and messaging from the event itself. A smartphone app, twitter walls, content, streaming, promotions and campaigns can all drive up usage significantly and need to be understood as part of the planning cycle. Public Wi-Fi providing a low key email and internet access service is very different to the launch of a new 150MB smartphone app with rich content that everyone needs to download in the first hour of an event!

Will it work? What will it cost?

This brings us to the technical aspect and the associated cost. The big factors are the coverage area, the user density and the internet backhaul required. High density Wi-Fi is a very different beast to normal Wi-Fi – it involves much more complex design with sector based antennas, high end Wi-Fi access points, very careful spectrum (radio) management and various networking approaches to ensure the system does not saturate and grind to a halt. In front of a crowded stage with 10,000 people it requires a lot of Wi-Fi magic to deliver an acceptable service.

Coverage area adds an additional non-linear cost increase, especially in a green-field environment, simply down to the practicalities of deployment and connecting the entire network together. A typical device such a smartphone will only work reasonably if it is within about 100m of a Wi-Fi access point so if you are trying to cover 200 acres that’s a lot of access points all of which need to be connected together and have a source of power.

Behind all of this there has to be suitable internet connectivity (backhaul), many deployments are let down by not having enough backhaul or by having the wrong type. Some methods of internet connectivity are just not suited to a public Wi-Fi deployment where there may be thousands of users all chatting away simultaneously.

This all may seem a little overwhelming but it shouldn’t be, a well-planned and thought through deployment can be very successful but it needs to be a larger discussion than just the practicalities of making it work, including those who lead areas such as marketing and sponsorship. The demands on connectivity at events will only continue to increase and the best way to service that need is a clear approach around public Wi-Fi which forms part of the overall event strategy rather than as a costly bolt on.

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.

Selecting a partner to provide networking services at your event is critical especially as more and more attendees rely on high quality connectivity to engage and interact. Our field teams regally work with in house IT teams to provide expertise and equipment. When agents and event organisers are surveying venues there are a few critical questions which should be asked:

1.    Does the in house IT team specialise in the events industry?
Being specialised will ensure their technicians are familiar with the events environment and the pressures that brings. It’s important that the IT partner appreciate how critical ensuring issues are dealt with quickly to keep the event moving.

2.    Does the in house IT team have the right equipment?
Equipment which is regally deployed in the field needs to be fit for purpose, from VOIP phones to WIFI PDQs everything needs to be configured in such a way it can be quickly deployed. Factoring in the British weather also adds an extra degree of excitement so using weatherproof hardware to deploy outdoor Wi-Fi Networks is of utmost importance. 

3.    Does the in house IT team have experience?
This expertise need to be specific to the type of event that’s being run.  Whether it’s a festival, exhibition or a conference it’s important the partner you choose has the experience of the events sector, as each environment raises it’s own challenges and every organiser has different expectations.  

To find out if we’re the right Event Technology company for you, get in touch