As the outdoor events season quietens down a bit and focus moves to planning for 2011, I thought it would be useful to list out some of the trends we have seen during 2010 which can help with 2011 planning when it comes to IT and communications at event sites. Although focused on outdoor events most of the topics below apply equally to indoor events. So here we go:

  1. Plan and Book early – Connectivity providers have a few terms they love to use to push up costs – survey and expedite being two common ones. These costs mount rapidly and can generally be avoided by early engagement and planning. Last minute installations can end up being 2 or 3 times the cost of a normal installation. Other things to watch for include the ‘miscellaneous labour charges’, which often appear if a provider has to run cables around a site. This can be minimised by agreeing ‘demarcation’ at a suitable location and then cables being run by the event itself (we do this at most event sites and it can save £1,000s for larger deployments)
  2. PDQ / Payment Systems – In 2010 we have seen a significant rise in the number of events reporting problems with GPRS (mobile phone) PDQ machines – these are the credit/debit card machines used for merchandise, box offices, traders, etc. The problem stems from the fact that at events the mobile networks (Vodaphone, O2, Orange, etc) cannot handle the amount of data that users are trying to pull over the network, and with all the network congestion the PDQ machines cannot process transactions. The reason the problem is getting worse relates to the increase in smartphones using more data and also some reluctance by operators to put in temporary masts due to their high cost. However it is important to note that just because a temporary mast is installed is does not necessary mean that data services will be any better as most temporary masts are more for the benefit of voice calls. The alternative to GPRS PDQs are Wi-Fi PDQs – exactly the same machines but using a Wi-Fi network instead. Obviously this requires a Wi-Fi network to be in place but it means the network is fully controlled and transactions on the machines are much faster. There are options to rent Wi-Fi PDQs (we offer this service) but 2-3 weeks notice is required as the machines have to be configured with the relevant banking merchant id.
  3. VPN for Ticketing Systems – VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are a method for creating a secure connection between two locations such as an event site and a central database somewhere. They are often used by ticketing and stock systems which are increasingly being used from event sites. There are two things to watch for, firstly VPNs require good network connectivity, especially upload, which means basic broadband will not support it very well. The second area is that VPNs often require special firewall configuration, particularly if multiple VPNs are to be used.
  4. Wireless Spectrum Management – The use of wireless equipment on event sites continues to grow at a pace – general Wi-Fi, CCTV, ticket scanning, sound systems, audio and video links, etc. all make use of wireless solutions, many of which operate in the same frequency range. Harmony and reliable operation can only be achieved if everyone works together and early communication and coordination is key to ensure there is no interference.
  5. Smartphone Hunting – The rapid increase in smartphone devices with Wi-Fi creates new challenges for onsite networks, even when the event network is not intended for public access. The issue is that smartphones will continually ‘hunt’ for Wi-Fi networks and when they find one they try to connect. This creates a small load on the network whilst they negotiate a connection (which will eventually fail if the network is secure) and with enough devices trying to connect this load builds up to the point where it impacts real users. The solution involves using wireless equipment designed for larger loads coupled with proper network management as low end Wi-Fi routers are not designed to deal with large numbers of users.
  6. VoIP Phones – The use of VoIP phones at events is now commonplace and demand is growing as more people become frustrated with mobile networks at events. Use of VoIP is the best way to avoid having multiple BT lines and the only way to have a flexible solution allowing last minute deployment of additional phones.
  7. Smartphone Apps – More and more events are now commissioning their own apps for use at events but few events are considering the full picture which is critical for success. Most of these applications (certainly the more useful ones) require connectivity at the event to get updates. Typically the mobile networks struggle with demand at events and so the user gets a poor experience and rates the app badly. Many users also turn up at the event expecting to download the app which creates further (significant) demand. One way around this is to provide a locally controlled Wi-Fi network for use by the app. This can then also be used to deliver local content direct from the site.
  8. Public Wi-Fi Access – The increase in smartphones coupled with the massive expansion of publicly available Wi-Fi leads to more and more expectation that events will have Wi-Fi access. The costs of expanding an existing network being provided to site production, technical production, crew etc is not as high as people initially think and opens new avenues for sponsorship, advertising and rich content delivery.

As always, whether you a run a small event or a large event, we are always happy to provide advice, support and services to your event to ensure technology does not get in the way of delivering a great experience.

There’s plenty of press coverage of the recent, much anticipated, announcement of the approval of the Wi-Fi Direct standard. On the surface non-technical folks would be unlikely to give it a second thought but if you rely on Wi-Fi networks at events then Wi-Fi Direct could be a cause for concern. So what exactly is it and why the concern?

In simple terms think of Bluetooth but using a Wi-Fi standard i.e. device to device communication without the use of a ‘Wireless Access Point’. OK , but we have Bluetooth so why bother? Potentially better range, better performance and a single wireless standard across devices. Also factor in that Bluetooth has never really made it big in the US whereas Wi-Fi has.

But the more technical folks already know how to do ‘ad hoc’ wireless networks today using laptops and wireless adapters so what’s the difference? Not a lot, other than making it simpler and giving it a standard so that a wider range of devices can be certified. Sounds great, so I can connect my laptop directly to my wireless printer? Yes, and any other device that becomes ‘Wi-Fi Direct Certified’.

On one level Wi-Fi Direct is potentially a great addition to the connectivity tool-set, not a replacement for Bluetooth but a complimentary offering, a sort of next level up from a Personal Area Network (PAN), however there is a downside.

The downside is two fold, firstly imagine what happens when you put hundreds of users in a small space all firing up Wi-Fi Direct. Remember what used to happen in a room full of laptops with infrared connectivity and the constant ‘whoosh’ noise as they all kept finding one another and tried to establish a connection! Imagine that over a much wider area with all types of devices.

Today we are still seeing issues at events with the virus which creates an ad hoc network on an infected computer (using a very similar approach to Wi-Fi Direct) called ‘Free Public Wi-Fi’. Unsuspecting users connect to this and then become infected themselves. This virus has been around for some time but has recently gained more press coverage, thankfully it is easy to resolve but it is a nuisance at events where we often see dozens of infected computers.

The second issue is one of interference. The 2.4GHz frequency range that the majority of current Wi-Fi devices use is highly congested. Everything from microwave ovens to Bluetooth devices emit radiation around this frequency, all of which appears as interference to Wi-Fi devices and reduces performance. Now add in hundreds of Wi-Fi Direct networks all emitting in the same frequency range and chaos results. Recent large launches such as the iPhone 4 were hampered by interference caused by hundreds of MiFi devices; Wi-Fi Direct will add a whole new level of interference.

So how bleak is the situation? Hopefully the Wi-Fi Direct standard will address these concerns but details are hard to find at present. Also many of these aspects exist in one form or another today and hence already have to be managed at event sites but it does place increased pressure on the professional network. Two major factors which come into play and can assist are the use of the 5GHz frequency range for critical services where currently there is far less interference (although that is changing). The second factor is to use equipment designed for difficult environments, features such as interference rejection (using aspects such as beam-forming) and automatic channel management become highly important in maintaining a usable network.

The picture may become clearer as more details are made available around the Wi-Fi Direct standard but for any organiser planning on the use of Wi-Fi at an event, especially where there is likely to be a high density of users such as a media centre, it is critical they engage a professional team who have the right tools, equipment and experience to minimise the risk and deliver a quality network.

A number of the Etherlive team enjoyed another great year exhibiting at the Showman’s Show. The weather was bright and sunny but cold, no pouring rain at the end like last year! The Show was relatively busy throughout but did die off very quickly on Thursday afternoon. We demonstrated some of the new innovations we will be bringing to the market including a crew accreditation system, to which customer response has been fantastic. A number of further enhancements are in the pipeline based on feedback from this year’s pilots.

Also on display at the indoor stand were our flight case communication systems, designed to deploy a network quickly connecting to whatever Internet connectivity is needed (satellite, leased lines, ADSL. 3G). We also demonstrated our VoIP handsets and Wi-Fi PDQ machines which can be configured for any merchant. Outside at the chilly (but dry and sunny) end of Avenue G our Mobile Command Centre (MCC) acted as the centre for the outdoor stand, complete with 17m pneumatic mast and flag. The MCC is used for large events, providing connectivity, hosting, network management and a support base for several engineers. The MCC is often coupled with our communications tower light which is specially designed to support Wi-Fi, wired network access, CCTV and public address along with being a much more environmentally friendly tower light. The outdoor stand was shared with one of partners, Aceplant, who were demonstrating their range of plant equipment for use at events.

Our ‘Venue IT powered by Etherlive’ brand was also on display at the show. The Venue IT brand will be increasingly used for permanent installation such as Showgrounds and for customers looking for a partner with which to discuss straightforward event communications.

If you didn’t get a chance to see us at Showman’s then we will be at the Event Production Show on 2nd and 3rd February 2011 at Olympia, London or you can get in contact to setup a visit any time.

Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID as it is more commonly known, is not particularly new, having been around in various forms for a number of years. It suffered in the early days being seen as a technology looking for a problem to solve which, coupled with the high cost of deployment and issues around reliability, has seen it struggle to make an impact in the events industry.

Technology always takes a while to mature (I owned my first handheld smart device in about 1999 and it was hopeless by today’s standards!) As it matures the price comes down, the reliability and features improve and, most importantly, people have a chance to understand where it can used effectively.

RFID is in that position now. You do not think twice about using an Oyster card which is a great example of effective RFID use.  The  cost of RFID cards, stickers, wristbands etc has been falling fast and the reader technology is now widely available, positioning RFID nicely for an explosion in use.

Back to basics first though, what exactly is RFID? In simple terms it is a small ‘chip’ embedded into a card, sticker, wristband or other object which can transmit, receive and store small amounts of information when placed close to a special reader. It is this ability to store information on the chip which differentiates modern RFID with older systems such as those used in retail stores on high value items, and from where the term ‘smartcard’ comes. The second key feature of RFID is that the card or tag does not need to be inserted into a reader it can just be held close to a reader, making it ideal for rapid transactions.

Recently there have been a few announcements of exhibition venues, seen as a significant potential market for RFID,  moving towards an RFID based solution for tracking visitors and over time I think this will increase but it probably will not be a rapid transition as there are already fairly good systems in place using bar codes and scanners. The real opportunity lies in other areas such as festivals and big shows where RFID offers real promise of solving a number of challenges.

Take music festivals for example, the holy grail maybe for every attendee to have an RFID enabled wristband that is used for access to the event and as a means of cashless payment but that will take a few years yet to become mainstream. More immediately RFID can be used to assist in the management of crew and equipment. Crew catering is a pain for many organisers, a hassle to manage and often a black hole of cost. Using an RFID ‘smart card’ for each crew member pre-programmed with their meal allocations, coupled with an RFID reader at the catering location and now meals are processed quickly and efficiently. That’s only part of it though as now the organiser has real-time information as to how many meals are being consumed, what the forecast is for tomorrow, even what the peak times are. These data points seem trivial but actually provide cost saving information when you discover for example that on average the crew are only consuming 70% of the meals allocated (and paid for).

Expand the ‘catering card’ to be the ID card (as it already has information such as name and contractor company programmed onto it) and it could be used for checking in and out equipment such as radios, plant and cabin keys. Away go endless pieces of paper replaced by a real-time screen showing who has what. Go one step further and program qualifications into the system and then the cherry picker or manitou can only be checked out by a crew card which has the correct accreditation. The same system then extends to authorisation for restricted areas, providing the ability to ‘cancel’ a card centrally if it is lost.

So what’s holding back wide-scale use of RFID? Cost was a problem but now the price point is much more attractive. Reliable networks at events is often cited but these days the networks at events are expected to be like an office network and a correctly designed RFID system has built in tolerance (for example Oyster readers process most information locally and then send updates to the central system later). The biggest barrier is probably the concern over the change to processes that are required when any new system is implemented. The solution to this is not to use a ‘big bang’ approach but a 2-3 year strategy that will reap long term rewards. The lessons learnt along the way will ensure the holy grail of full attendee RFID is a much smoother affair.

This week see’s the 25th Showman’s Show at Newbury Showground, Etherlive will be exhibiting on two stands (one indoors in the warm and one outside) demonstrating some of the latest event technology solutions. Press release follows:

For further information contact:
Becky Martin-Jones / Mark Hook
www.ascentpr.co.uk
etherlive@ascentpr.co.uk
T. 01454 629 741 

Cashless payments and next generation wireless infrastructure hailed as priorities for 2011 event technology

October 2010 – Etherlive is hailing cashless payments and next generation wireless infrastructure as the key innovation priorities for the 2011 events season.

The event technology specialist, exhibiting at this year’s Showman’s Show[1], is exploring new opportunities to introduce cashless payment systems.  This follows a pilot scheme this summer at WOMAD, which replaced paper-based crew meal tickets with electronic cards.  In addition, Etherlive is currently planning trials of next generation wireless technology in advance of next year’s festival season.

Tom McInerney, event director at Etherlive explains, “We’ve had a busy 2010 season providing core communications technologies to some of the UK’s most prestigious events.  We are now dedicating some significant time to delivering continued value and innovation by trialling new technologies including our 4G offering.  Having a secure technology infrastructure with extended coverage means that event organisers have a sound foundation for new services like CCTV, off site sound monitoring and audience interaction.

“Working with festivals such as WOMAD has shown us how effective cashless payments can be and we’ll be looking at new ways to apply this technology. RFID technology is ready to be deployed in volume at festivals and the installation at WOMAD was a first.

“These are exciting times for the event sector – technology has so much potential to make a difference to user experience, and the bottom line of the event organisers.”

Etherlive will be exhibiting on stands 67 and 168 at Showman’s, which takes place on the 20-21st October at the Newbury showground.

About Etherlive

A successful event depends on great performances. From WOMAD and The Green Man Festival to the Southampton Boat Show and the Three Counties Show, Etherlive is the one that makes IT work. Etherlive sits behind the scenes delivering reliable Wi-Fi internet, telephony, laptops, PDQs and interactive messaging. Whether in a field or a building, Etherlive makes connectivity simple.

http://events.www.etherlive.co.uk

[1] Showmans, 20-21st October – http://www.showmans-directory.co.uk/theshow.asp

WOMAD

At WOMAD in 2010 over 3,500 attendees used the Wi-Fi network, a 300% increase on 2009

 

Providing Wi-Fi access to crew, traders, exhibitors and production teams at events is pretty much expected these days from the smallest to largest events, but providing access to attendees is only now becoming a hot topic.  

Even just a couple of years ago the technical challenges of providing large scale Wi-Fi were great enough to make it financially unviable. Couple that with the fact there was no demand as no one had Wi-Fi devices and it’s easy to see why the idea was in the backwaters. This, however, is all changing very quickly.  

Three years ago the number of Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones was around 3%, by the end of 2010 this is expected to be around 20%, and within another year or so it is expected to pass 30%. These figures represent all mobile phones, if you focus on certain groups such as  the 16-30 age group or the more affluent then the figure is much higher. Alongside this there has also been massive growth in other Wi-Fi enabled devices such as iPods, iPads, Nintendo DSs and Sony PSPs. Factor in the demographics of individuals who attend different types of events and you find that at many events over 50% of attendees could have a Wi-Fi enabled device at an event within a year or two.  

Wi-Fi enabled devices though are only part of the story. The other huge change is the growth in mobile Internet use. The smartphone growth driven by the likes of the iPhone and Blackberry is changing our use of the Internet at an incredible rate. In the US mobile data usage has already surpassed mobile voice traffic and the UK is expected to follow very shortly. More and more people now use the Internet primarily through a smartphone or ultra mobile device rather than a laptop or desktop computer and that trend is accelerating, with predictions of a 25x increase in mobile data volumes by 2012.  

The Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are well aware of this growth and it’s causing them great pain because their networks were not designed to deal with the volumes of data predicted and scaling the network infrastructure would be very costly. Evidence of these issues is commonplace at any larger event where the mobile networks struggle to deal with voice calls let alone data. Placing temporary mobile towers onsite can assist for voice calls but it barely scratches the surface when it comes to data. What’s changed more recently though is the approach, a couple of years ago the MNOs were scared of Wi-Fi as they thought it would impact their revenue streams and so resisted any move to integrate it as an alternative to 2.5G and 3G. That has now all changed, with MNOs positively encouraging people to use Wi-Fi whenever possible to reduce the data load on their networks.  

This leaves event organisers in an interesting situation as with more and more users and more and more event related applications and content, attendees are getting increasingly frustrated at the poor mobile service at events. If you look at the reviews of many of the festival and event applications the common theme is complaints about them not working at the event itself. Realistically the only way to improve the situation is to deploy public Wi-Fi as extending mobile capacity to the levels required is generally not feasible. Even next generation 4G is looking unlikely to resolve the high density issue and 4G is many years away from becoming mainstream.  

So should organisers deploy public Wi-Fi? Technically it is a lot more feasible than a few years ago and providing a good quality Internet connection to users will improve their online experience considerably which is especially important if you are promoting an iPhone or Android application for example. However, there is a much bigger play to this as mobile users are sharing information and commenting all the time through social media like Twitter, Facebook , Tumblr, email etc. By providing public Wi-Fi controlled by the event organiser this interactive element can be shaped and utilised, offering new opportunities for marketing, sponsorship and revenue streams. Rich content can be delivered directly to attendees, coupled with online purchasing and increasing the opportunity of developing a ‘sticky’ relationship. It even becomes a crowd management tool enabling organisers to send targeted messages to the attendees delivering everything from emergency messages to ‘secret’ rumours.  

In the large scale pilots we have run the data gathered backs these trends with significant usage and very positive feedback. At the festivals this usage has been widespread across the arenas and campsites throughout the day (and most of the night! ) and represented somewhere in the region of 80%+ of the enabled devices. It’s not all just about Twitter and Facebook (although they are at the top, accounting for three quarters of a million hits at WOMAD this year), there is the practical side too – news, bus, train, coach, weather, car share information etc. all of which help to spread the load of information dissemination. Couple that with event applications and premium content and the bundle becomes very attractive.  

There is no doubt the mobile revolution is well established and nowhere more so than at events, for event organisers there is an opportunity to grab this area and shape it to their benefit.

We are now in the final stages of planning for the Showman’s Show 2010 and looking forward with meeting new and existing customers around the marquees and stands. This year our indoor stand (in the warm, number 68 ) is right on the main row whilst our outdoor stand (171) is at the end of avenue G. Whatever the weather it would be great to see you there.  

If you haven’t had the chance to make your way over to the Newbury show ground before, The Showman’s Show is the trade show of choice for the events industry. An eclectic mix of everything from portable toilets, stages, marquees, lighting companies and of course event technology suppliers (us!)  

Etherlive at the Showman's Show

The Showman's Show - Etherlive will be at stands 68 & 171

A little taster of some of the things we will be exhibiting:  

Reliable Connectivity – We’ll continue to talk about our passion delivering temporary connectivity – wired and wireless for any size and shape of event, from media centres to entire festivals.  

An Overview of Connectivity Options – From a phone line and broadband to high capacity fixed line and satellite services. We have a range of options to meet all needs.  

Mobile Phone Data Offload – Fed up with smartphone apps not working at events? Find out what we have been doing to resolve this problem.  

RFID Solutions – After successful trials in 2010 we will be demonstrating our Smartcard system for crew catering (no more paper vouchers!) and other authorisation aspects.  

That’s just a few of the things we will be talking about, along with some old favourites like the Communications Tower Light, CCTV, VoIP, network management & monitoring, flight-case based network hubs and more. Drop in for a chat, a coffee or a bottle of the finest Etherlive water.  

The Showman’s Show, Newbury Showground is open 20th and 21st October 9:30am – 4pm.

For further information contact:
Becky Martin-Jones / Mark Hook
www.ascentpr.co.uk
etherlive@ascentpr.co.uk
T. 01454 629 741

Reliable Connectivity Makes Hot Air of Balloon Fiesta Safety Concerns

27 September 2010 – Etherlive has helped organisers of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, which attracts over 500,000 attendees, to successfully manage their onsite telecommunications and broadband services.

Richmond Event Management (REM), lead contractor for Europe’s largest Hot Air Balloon event, had concerns over the communications systems used on the site. If disrupted this could raise security issues, or threaten communications between organisers and those working on balloons flights, posing possible public safety risks.

Chris Green, managing director at Etherlive says, “With the Balloon Fiesta attracting more and more people each year, the organisers wanted to safeguard their necessary communications to ensure the safety, security and organisation of the event. 

“We were able to do this through the provision of wireless internet access and VOIP handsets to the core crew managing the fiesta. We also installed a back-up service in case of a power outage, and remote phone lines so organisers could relocate to the event and not miss vital calls or messages.”

Ben Hardy of REM, explains, “Dependable comms has become crucial to the success of a large outdoor event like the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. In the past we tried a variety of solutions, like fully installed phone lines, but these were expensive.

“We approached Etherlive, and its guarantee of a trustworthy system proved accurate, enabling us to fully control operations and ensure reliable communications between staff and those at flight control and our media centre. Etherlive’s approach was also more cost effective than in years previous”.

Chris Green summarises, “We’re pleased to have been able to help the organisers manage security and communication issues successfully for the events duration, and that our efforts aided to the smooth running of this year’s Bristol Balloon Fiesta”.

ENDS

About Etherlive
A successful event depends on great performances. From WOMAD and The Green Man Festival to the Southampton Boat Show and the Three Counties Show, Etherlive is the one that makes IT work. Etherlive sits behind the scenes delivering reliable Wi-Fi internet, telephony, CCTV, laptops, PDQs and interactive messaging. Whether in a field or a building, Etherlive makes connectivity simple.

https://etherlive.co.uk