GDPR, CCTV and EventsIs this yet another GDPR article? Yes, but before you click on past, this article is a bit more specific, focussing on Event Organisers and a few important aspects relating to them.

If you have somehow managed to miss the basics here is a quick recap (otherwise skip the next two paragraphs). GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, comes into force on May 28th 2018 and is as dull as the name suggests but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. GDPR is, in effect, a beefier version of the Data Protection Act and there are some significant aspects which have changed.

First off, the fines if you are found to be breaching the regulations could be huge – up to 4% of annual worldwide turnover (up to €20 million). Secondly, the onus with GDPR is focussed much more on how and why, with supporting documentation – no more simply ticking a box to say you comply. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, with GDPR there is much more appetite to enforce, along with more resources to audit.

Nearly all of the material currently circulating is focussed around the more obvious areas of customer, supplier and employee data; everything from email addresses to bank accounts and the harvesting of information from websites, social media and direct mail campaigns. This is all valid and needs to be considered seriously, however, for events there are some additional areas which could too easily be overlooked.

CCTV

CCTV is not necessarily something that initially comes to mind when it comes to GDPR but it is very much part of it. The holding and releasing of CCTV footage is already well controlled but the new regulations go much further requiring information on camera placement, field of view and reasoning for coverage needed, coupled with proof of deployment and signage. This is a significant uplift for events compared to the current approach and will need to be factored into planning and deployment from the start.

It is also important to note that ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition), drone and body-worn cameras will all need to be assessed too.

In practical terms, we are now expecting all temporary CCTV installations at events to undergo an audit during the build phase documenting the camera locations and reasoning for those locations. Field of view into public areas external to the event is especially important.

Agreement on how long footage is held for, the release process and who can receive the footage will also need to be under much tighter control.

Public Internet Access

Many events allow public access to the internet on an event Wi-Fi network after a ‘splash page’ which may capture details such as an email address to be used after the event to send marketing information. In the future this information is more controlled and must use explicit ‘opt-in’ clauses before the email address can be used.

Even the logging of an IP address (the identifier used when a device connects to the network) coupled with the user information is governed by GDPR, however, this information is required to be stored under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (aka the Snoopers’ Charter) so the way it is stored and who has access to it is very important.

For events which offer public internet access the method of access and what information is captured and stored will need to be reviewed, with likely changes to the Terms & Conditions and opt-in statements.

Supplier & Volunteer Registration Systems

Employee and customer data is called out in nearly all GDPR overviews but it is important to remember that GDPR covers all data including anything recorded for suppliers and volunteers. Any system (paper or electronic) which stores personal information must be assessed including aspects such as what information is stored, where it is stored, how it is stored, how it is used, how the owner can remove it and who has access.

Visitor/Attendee Information

Any personally identifiable information gathered on attendees, such as an email address falls under the same regulations – this could be via initial ticket purchase, attendee registration or at the event itself. Particular attention must be paid to any direct marketing as the attendee must explicitly opt in to any future communications and have means to update or remove their information.

Many of these areas are likely to require a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), this is a new tool and process which must be used when new technology is used or when there is high risk to individuals.

The new regulations also broaden the scope of ‘personal information’ to cover just about everything from a name, email or social information through to genetic, economic and cultural information. The holding of this information has to be shown to have positive, clear consent from the individual using ‘plain English’ type agreements.

An individual must be given the ability to view and update information, and importantly has the right ‘to be forgotten’, which means complete removal from all systems.

These changes may initially look very onerous, however, a lot can be covered by a sensible review and improvements to existing processes. The important thing is not to ignore it – the changes are coming and a lack of preparation will not be a defence if you are found to be in breach.

For events we work on we will be working closely with organisers to assist and make sure all aspects are covered, providing templates and guidance wherever possible. If you would like to discuss any aspect of GDPR impact on your event then please contact us and we will be happy to help.

With a snap general election called and the current political landscape in flux I wouldn’t be prepared to make any predictions on the outcome but it is safe to say that come election day town halls, sports halls and conference centres across the country will be buzzing with activity. A stream of reporters, candidates and supporters will be desperately trying to send and receive information through every media channel available.

The demand for good connectivity at election counts and associated events has mushroomed over the last ten years. We were first involved in a general election in 2010, providing services for the first televised leader debates, events which demonstrated the power and reach of Twitter in politics for the first time. Since then things have moved on with 140-character messages supplemented by live video services in the form of Periscope and Facebook Live.

Come June 8th social media channels will be pumping vast amounts of data around the UK and beyond, the difference this time is that with such short notice it will be all too easy for venues to get caught out and provide frustratingly inadequate connectivity.

For anyone tasked with running an event, be it a count, press and media centre, or political party gathering it is critical to act now and ensure you have the right communications infrastructure in place. For anything above the smallest of gatherings relying on data connections from normal mobile phone operators is a risky strategy as they are not designed to deal with the surge in demand and load at a media-centric event.

Some venues may well have an element of existing Wi-Fi infrastructure but does it have the capacity in terms of ability to support an increased number of users? Does it have the internet backhaul to support the high data volumes and video streams which today’s press and media demand? These aspects can be assessed quickly and used to drive requirements which may include additional Wi-Fi capacity and associated internet access.

Other ‘pop-up’ locations may have no existing service and require a full temporary provision. The trickiest part of this is normally the internet backhaul, which with short notice may have to be provided by satellite (not as expensive as people tend to think) or a wireless link from another location.

It is sometimes possible to provision additional ADSL and FTTC (BT Infinity) internet services at quite short notice depending on the location but these services need to be booked as soon as possible. Fibre optic services take at least three months so new services are not feasible in this scenario, however, existing services may be capable of a ‘burst’, temporarily increasing speed for a short period.

With campaigning well under way smaller pop-up gatherings often also require some additional support which may be in the form of specialised 3G/4G bonding units which can provide localised Wi-Fi coverage whilst on the road in the campaign bus.

For larger events, especially those with a big broadcast media presence, there are additional challenges in the form of interference disrupting Wi-Fi due to people bringing their own Mi-Fi devices or other broadcasting equipment. These events need centralised spectrum management, or preferably a single central provider, to ensure everyone co-exists harmoniously when it comes to connectivity.

Even with the connectivity there are other factors – security being a key one. Understanding how to control and manage a network is essential to avoid any embarrassing information leaks. Additional phones may be required which can be deployed quickly using VoIP telephony rather than traditional copper lines. It may also be important to have some printing capability available.

In the modern social media driven political landscape, ensuring the connectivity & IT works flawlessly is just as important as the tables, chairs, tea, coffee, campaign bus and printed propaganda.

Payment Terminal

Technology is entwined with much of our day to day lives, with no better example than the growth of smartphone adoption, a device now seen as a must-have. Payment and banking is almost unrecognisable from ten years ago with online banking, mobile apps, ‘chip and pin’, contact-less payments and online payments.

At events, however, many attendees often find trying to make a simple credit/debit card payment can be a frustrating and unreliable experience. For ourselves as technology providers ‘credit card machines’ or PDQs as they are known, come top of the list of complaints from event organisers, traders and exhibitors.

These problems not only cause frustration for attendees but also present a serious issue in terms of financial return for traders and exhibitors, and their desire to be present at events. It is well documented that the ability to take contactless and chip & pin payments at events increases takings, reduces risks from large cash volumes and can improve flow and trackability.

So why is it such a problem? Much of the issue comes down to poor communication and misinformation on top of what is already a relatively complex environment. Card payments and the machines which can take payments are highly regulated by the banking industry meaning they tend to lag behind other technology, however, this can be overcome and a properly thought through approach can deliver large scale reliable payment systems.

Bad Terminology

A lot of the confusion around PDQ machines comes from the design and terminology used. Although the machines all look the same there are differences in the way they work. Nearly all PDQs use the design of a cradle/base station with a separate handheld unit. The handheld part connects to the base station using Bluetooth. This is where the confusion starts as people often describe these units as ‘wireless’ because of the Bluetooth, however, their actual method of connectivity to the bank may be one of four different types:

  • Telephone Line (PSTN – Public Switched Telephone Network) – This is the oldest and, until a few years ago, the most common type of device, it requires a physical telephone line between the PDQ modem and the bank. It’s slow, difficult and very costly to use at event sites because of the need for a dedicated physical phone line, however, once it is working it is reliable.
  • Mobile PDQ (GPRS/GSM) – Currently the most common form of PDQ, it uses a SIM card to connect to a mobile network to use GSM or GPRS to connect back to the bank. Originally seen as the go anywhere device, in the right situation they are excellent, however, they have limitations, the most obvious being they require a working mobile network to operate. At busy event sites the mobile networks rapidly become saturated and this means the devices cannot connect reliably. As they use older GPRS/GSM technology they are also very slow – it doesn’t make any difference if you try and use the device in a 4G area – it can only work using GPRS/GSM. As they use the mobile operator networks they may also incur data charges.
  • Wi-Fi PDQ – Increasingly common, this version connects to a Wi-Fi network to get its connectivity to the bank. On the surface this sounds like a great solution but there some challenges, firstly it needs a good, reliable Wi-Fi network. The second issue is that many Wi-Fi PDQs still operate on the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi spectrum which on event sites is heavily congested and suffers lots of interference making the devices unreliable. This is not helped by the relative weak Wi-Fi components in a PDQ compared to a laptop for example. It is essential to check that any Wi-Fi PDQ is capable of operating in the less congested 5GHz spectrum.
  • Wired IP PDQ – Often maligned because people think it doesn’t have a ‘wireless’ handset, but they are actually the same as all the others and have a wireless handset but it uses a physical wire (cat5) from the base station to connect to a network. In this case the network is a computer network using TCPIP and the transactions are routed in encrypted form across the internet. If a suitable network is available on an event site then this type of device is the most reliable and fastest, and there are no call charges.

All of these units look very similar and in fact can be built to operate in any of the four modes, however, because banks ‘certify’ units they generally only approve one type of connectivity in a particular device. This is slowly starting to change but the vast majority of PDQs in the market today can only operate on one type of connectivity and this is not user configurable.

On top of these aspects there is also the difference between ‘chip & pin’ and ‘contactless’. Older PDQs typically can only take ‘chip & pin’ cards whereas newer devices should also be enabled for contactless transactions.

Myth or Fact

Alongside confusion around the various types of PDQs there is a lot of conflicting and often inaccurate information circulated about different aspects of PDQs. Let’s start with some of the more common ones.

I have a good signal strength so why doesn’t it work?

The reporting of signal strength on devices does nothing but create frustration. Firstly because it is highly inaccurate and crude, and secondly because it means very little – a ‘good’ signal indicator does not mean that the network will work!

The issue is that signal strength does not mean there is capacity on the network, it is frequently the case at event sites that a mobile phone will show full signal strength due to a temporary mobile mast being installed but there is not enough capacity in terms of data to service the devices so the network does not work. A useful analogy is comparing networks to a very busy motorway. You can get on, but you won’t necessarily go anywhere. The same can be true on a poorly designed Wi-Fi network, or a well-designed Wi-Fi network which doesn’t have enough internet capacity.

In fact you can have a low signal strength and still get very good data throughput on a well-designed network. Modern systems also use a technique known as ‘beam-forming’ where a device is not prioritised until it is actually transmitting data which means it may show a low signal strength which increases when it is doing something.

On the flip side your device may show a good signal strength but the quality of the signal may be poor, this could be due to interference, poor design or sometimes even weather & environmental conditions!

Wi-Fi networks are less secure than mobile networks

There are two parts to this, firstly all PDQs encrypt their data no matter what type of connection they use, they have to so that they meet banking standards (PCI-DSS) and protect against fraud. The second aspect is that a well-designed Wi-Fi network is as secure, if not more secure, than a mobile network. A good Wi-Fi network will use authentication, strong encryption and client isolation to protect devices, it should also be the case that all PDQs are connected to a separate ‘virtual network’ to isolate them away from any other devices.

You have to keep logging into the Wi-Fi network

Wi-Fi networks can be configured in many ways but for payment systems there should be no need to keep having to log in. This problem tends to be seen when people are trying to use a payment system on a ‘Public Wi-Fi network’ which will often have a login hijack/splash page and a time limit.

A multi-network M2M GPRS/GSM SIM is guaranteed to work

Sadly this is not true, although a PDQ with a SIM card which can roam between mobile networks and use GPRS or GSM may offer better connectivity, there is no guarantee. Some event sites have little or no coverage from any mobile operator and even where there is coverage, capacity is generally the limiting factor.

Mobile signal boosters will solve my problem

Mobile signal boosters, or more correctly signal repeaters, are used professionally by mobile operators in some circumstances, for example inside large buildings, to create coverage where signal strength is very weak due to their construction (perhaps there is a lot of glass of metal which can reduce signals from outside). In the UK the purchase and use of them by anyone outside of a mobile operator is illegal (they can cause more problems with interference). For temporary event sites they provide little benefit anyway as it is typically a capacity issue which is the root cause of problems.

A Personal hotspot (Mi-Fi) will solve my problem

Personal hotspots or Mi-Fi devices work by connecting to a mobile network to get connectivity and then broadcasting a local Wi-Fi network for devices to connect to. Unfortunately, at event sites where the mobile networks are already overloaded these devices offer little benefit, and even if they can get connected to a mobile network the Wi-Fi aspect struggles against all the other wireless devices. On top of that these devices cause additional interference for any existing on-site network making the whole situation even worse.

The Next Generation & the Way Forward…

The current disrupters in the payment world are the mobile apps with devices such as PayPal Here and iZettle. Although they avoid the traditional PDQ they still require good connectivity, either from the mobile networks or a Wi-Fi network, and hence the root problem still exists.

Increasingly exhibitors are also using online systems to extend their offerings at events via tablets and laptops which also require connectivity. An even better connection is required for these devices as they are often transferring large amounts of data, placing more demands on the network. Even virtual reality is starting to appear on exhibitors stands so there is no doubt that the demand for good connectivity will continue to increase year on year.

What the history of technology teaches us is that demand always runs ahead of capacity. This is especially true when it comes to networks. For mobile operators to deliver the level of capacity required at a large event is costly and complex, and in some cases just not possible due to limits on available wireless spectrum.

4G is a step forward but still comes nowhere close to meeting the need in high demand areas such as events, and that situation will worsen as more people move to 4G and the demand for capacity increases. Already the talk is of 5G but that is many years away.

For events, realistically, the position for the foreseeable future is a mixed one. For small events in a location well serviced by mobile networks with limited requirements then 3G/4G can be a viable option, albeit with risks. No mobile network is guaranteed and performance will always drop as the volume of users increases as it is a shared medium. There are no hard and fast rules around this as there are many factors but in simple terms the more attendees present the lower the performance!

For any sizeable event the best approach is a dedicated event network serviced with appropriate connectivity providing both Wi-Fi and wired connections. This solution facilitates usage for Wired IP-based PDQs, Wi-Fi PDQs, iZettle and other new payment devices, as well as supporting requirements for tablets, laptops and other mobile devices, each managed by appropriate network controls.

With the right design this approach provides the best flexibility and reliability to service the ever-expanding list of payment options. What is particularly important is that an event network is under the control of the event organiser (generally via a specialist contractor) and not a mobile operator, as this removes a number of external risks. For those without existing compatible PDQs the option of rental of a wired or Wi-Fi PDQ can be offered at the time of booking.

The key in all of this is planning and communication, payment processing has to be tightly controlled from a security point of view so it is important that enough time is available to process requests, especially where temporary PDQs are being set-up as they often require around 10 working days.

Virtual reality has been around for many, many years. From early home console attempts which could be bolted onto a Super Nintendo (anyone remember the
VictorMaxx?), to those massive virtual reality units which appeared for a while in arcades. Until recently however the desire was a long way ahead of the technology. Possibly we are now seeing a point where technology has caught up enough to make virtual reality the next big thing.

With the UK release of thVirtual Reality Evente Oculus Rift, a project which has been exciting the technology community for some time, many argue that home virtual reality has finally arrived. Cheaper projects like Google Cardboard demonstrate that even those who do not want to splash out mega bucks can get themselves a piece of the action. Alongside full virtual reality there has also been an explosion in competitively priced 360 degree cameras bringing a much broader accessibility to a more immersive video experience.

This is, of course, is only ‘virtual’ step one. To many, true virtual reality is a completely immersive experience you can walk, move and interact with. Liken it to the famous Holodeck of the Star Trek series. What we do have now though is a major step up from the past and a critical mass to iron out those remaining issues.

All this is very nice, but what does that matter for events?

Today’s technology could, and undoubtedly will over time, have an impact on what we understand as an event experience today.

What if you can sell a virtual ticket for your event to those with a disability which would normally impede their ability to attend? The experience might not quite be the same for a music event, nor can it ever really replace the handshake of a networking meeting, but facilitating access to events beyond the physical capacity is an exciting prospect for both the event organiser and attendee.

Or how would sponsors feel if they could replicate the excitement of a big product launch or latest artist after the event as part of their premium content? For training events there are many possibilities, enabling interactive and immersive sessions particularly suited to things like incident management and response, and also making virtual/remote training a more inclusive experience.

Needless to say, at this stage, the possibilities are exciting, things could go, virtually, anywhere (sorry!).

Laptops on deskIt may sound obvious but defining a clear specification for technical services means you’ll get what your event needs, when you want it at the right price.

Defining a clear specification in turn sets clear expectations. Without it assumptions will be made which can cause difficulties once works start. From the organiser perspective without documented specifications it can be challenging to tie a supplier down if they fail to deliver. It also ensures that pricing can be compared ‘apples to apples’ otherwise each supplier will make different assumptions leading to very different responses.

Customers often fear talking to suppliers prior to asking for formal quotes, yet using a supplier’s knowledge and experience can be a useful way to clarify what the actual requirements are.

A breadth of a scope or requirements document will vary based on the size of project but there are a few key areas which come up on nearly all projects:

  • Total Internet Capacity – Calculate how many concurrent people will need to use the internet at the same time. This may be lower than the total number of users who will be connected to the Wi-Fi at some point during an event. For example, if users are downloading an app, will they most likely do it when they first arrive? Are all the users going to be streaming? Is more of the usage just email/social media/browsing which typically has a lower concurrency.
  • Wireless (Wi-fi) coverage – Site plans make this much easier especially when coupled with an overlay of which areas need coverage helps with getting what you need. Events taking place within venues can usually supply dimensions of the space.
  • Engineer support – If the technology systems are a critical part of the event an engineer on site will mean help is on hand if anything goes wrong, or if plans change. Detailing the hours required removes any assumptions as to when support is expected on-site.
  • Build schedules – Everyone in the events industry knows that things change, but a concise plan of when things are happening, which is documented, can really help for quotes.
  • Integration – It is often the case that Wi-Fi and internet access will be used for multiple services from different suppliers and it really helps for this to be specified at quote stage to enable the technical supplier to understand what integration may be required – for example mobile apps, social media experiences, payment systems, streaming, etc.
  • Other services – There are also other areas which may help the event run smoothly. That could be desk phones (really helps when you need a reliable, secure, phone with a number than can be published prior to the event) printers, CCTV system (areas which need to be covered)

We help lots of customers design their specification before taking it to the market to ensure they are sourcing either as part of a brief phone call or a formal tender development engagement. A clear list of requirements helps the customer enforce what they asked for, and the supplier understand what they are providing. A little time invested in getting the specification correct reduces the risk of confusion and issues later on.

Festival

In part one of this series we looked at the physical network, part two covered the logical network and now in the third and final part we reach the edge network. Everything that has gone before is purely to enable the users and devices which connect to the network to deliver a service. For this blog we’ll take a journey through the different user groups and look at how the network services their requirements and the way technology is changing events.

Event Production

Making everything tick along from the first day of build until the last day of derig is a team of dedicated production staff working no matter whatever the weather. It is perhaps obvious that they all need internet access but the breadth of requirements increases year on year. Email and web browsing is only a part of the demand with applications such as cloud based collaboration tools sharing CAD designs and site layouts, along with event management applications dealing with staff, volunteers, traders, suppliers and contractors all being part of the wider consumption of bandwidth.

Just about everything to do with the delivery of an event these days is done in a connected way and as such reliable connectivity is as important as power and water.

Across the site, indoors and outdoors are carefully positioned high capacity Wi-Fi access points delivering 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless connectivity to all the key areas such as site production, technical production, stewarding, security, gates and box offices. Different Wi-Fi networks service different users – from encrypted and authenticated production networks to open public networks – each managed with specific speeds and priorities. To deliver a good experience to the high density of users’ careful wireless spectrum management is essential, in some cases using directional antennas to focus the Wi-Fi signal in specific directions (rather like using a torch to focus light in a specific area). With so many wireless systems used on event sites interference can be a real challenge so wireless scanners are used to look for potential problems with active management and control used to make sure there are no ‘rogues’.

Not everything is wireless though, many devices, such as VoIP phones and some users require a wired connection as suggested by Ucaas Review since so many cabins have to be wired to from network switches. Some sites may have over 200 VoIP (Voice over IP) phones providing lines for aspects such as enquiries, complaints, box offices, emergency services as well as a reliable communications network where there is no mobile service or the service struggles once attendees arrive. Temporary cabins play host to array of IT equipment such as printers, plotters and file servers all of which need to be connected.

As equipment evolves more and more devices are becoming network enabled, for example power is a big part of the site production with an array of generators across the site. The criticality is such that a modern generator can be hooked into the network like any other device to be monitored and managed remotely. On big sites even the 2-way radios may be relayed between transmitters across the IP network. Technical production teams also use the network to test the sound levels & EQ from different places.

Event Control

Once an event is running it is event control that becomes the hub of all activity. Alongside laptops, iPads and phones, large screens display live CCTV image from around the site – anywhere from two to over a hundred cameras may be sending in high definition video streams with operators controlling the PTZ (Pan/Tilt/Zoom) functionality as they deal with incidents. A modern PTZ camera provides an incredible level of detail with a high optical zoom, image stabilisation, motion detection and tracking, picture enhancement and low light/infra-red capability. CCTV may be thought of as intrusive but at events its role is very broad playing as much a part in monitoring crowd flows, traffic management and locating lost children as it is in assisting with crime prevention.

Mast & Cameras

These cameras may be 30m up but they can deliver incredibly detailed images across a wide area

Full-HD and 4K Ultra HD cameras can deliver video streams upwards of 10Mbps, with 360 degree panoramic cameras reaching 25Mbps depending on frame rate and quality, this creates many terabytes of data which has to be archived ready to be used as evidence if needed, requiring high capacity servers to both record and stream the content to viewers. One event this year created over 12TB of data – the equivalent of 2,615 DVDs!

As everything is digital, playback is immediate allowing incidents to be quickly identified and footage or photos to be distributed in minutes. Content is not only displayed in a main control room but is also available on mobile devices both on the site and at additional remote locations.

Special cameras provide additional features such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) for use at vehicle entrances or people counting capability to assist with crowd management. Body cameras are becoming more common and now drone cameras are starting to play a part.

At the gates staff are busy scanning tickets or wristbands, checking for validity and duplication in real-time across the network back to central servers. The entrance data feeds to event control so they can see how many people have entered so far and where queues may be building. Charts show whether flow is increasing or decreasing so that staff can be allocated as needed.

For music events especially, noise monitoring is important and this often requires real-time noise levels to be reported across the network from monitors placed outside the perimeter of the event. Other monitors are increasingly important, ranging from wind-speed to water levels in ‘bladders’ used for storing water on site. The advent of cheap GPS trackers is also facilitating better monitoring of large plant and key staff.

External information is also important for event control with live information required on weather, transport, news and increasingly social media. Sources such as Twitter and Facebook are scanned for relevant posts – anything from complaints about toilets to potential trouble spots.

Bars, Catering, Traders & Exhibitors

For those at an event selling anything from beer to hammocks, electronic payment systems have been one of the biggest growth areas. From more traditional EPOS (Electronic Point of Sales) systems through to chip & pin/contactless PDQs, Apple Pay, iZettle and other non-cash based solutions. These systems are particularly critical in nature transacting many hundreds of thousands of pounds during an event with some sites deploying hundreds of terminals.

High volume sales such as bars also require stock management systems linking both onsite and offsite distribution to ensure stocks are maintained at an appropriate level. A recent development is traders operating more of a virtual stand with limited stock on site, instead the customer browses online on a tablet to order and have the product delivered to home after the event.

Sponsors

Most events have an element of sponsorship with each brand wanting to lead the pack in terms of innovation and creativity. Invariably these ‘activations’ involve technology in some form – from basic internet access to more involved interaction using technology such as RFID, GPS, augmented reality and virtual reality.

There are often multiple agencies and suppliers involved with a short window in which to deploy and test just as the rest of the event is reaching its peak of build activity. To be exciting the sponsor wants it to be ‘leading edge’ (or ‘bleeding edge’ as it is sometimes known!), which typically means on the fly testing and fixing.

Media & Broadcast

Media Centre

Busy media centres create demanding technical environments

From a gaggle of photographers wanting to upload their photos to a mobile broadcast centre, the reliance on technology is huge at a big event. Live streaming is increasingly important, both across the site and also out to content distribution networks. These often require special arrangements with guaranteed bandwidth and QoS (Quality of Service) controls to ensure the video or audio stream is not interrupted. It is not unusual to get requests for upwards of 200Mbps for an individual broadcaster.

More and more broadcasters are moving to IP solutions (away from dedicated broadcast circuits) requiring higher capacity and redundancy to ensure the highest availability. These demands increasingly require fibre to the truck or cabin with dedicated fibre runs back to a core hub.

Alongside content distribution, good quality, high density Wi-Fi is essential in a crowded media centre with the emphasis on fast upload speeds. Encoders and decoders are used to distribute video streams around a site creating IPTV networks for both real-time viewing and VoD (Video-on-Demand) applications. The next growth area is 360 degree cameras used to provide a more immersive experience both onsite and for remote watchers.

Attendees

Then after all this there may be public Wi-Fi. For wide-scale public Wi-Fi (as opposed to a small hotspot) it is typical over the duration of an event for at least 50% of the attendees to use the network at some point – the usage being higher when event specific features are promoted such as smartphone apps and event sponsor activities.

The step-up from normal production services to a large scale public Wi-Fi deployment is significant – a typical production network would be unlikely to see more than 1,000 simultaneous users, but a big public network can see that rise beyond 10,000, requiring higher density and complex network design, as well as significantly greater backhaul connectivity with public usage pulling many terabytes of data over a few days.

With a significant number of users, a large amount of data can be collected anonymously and displayed using an approach known as heat mapping to show where the highest density of users are and how users move around an event site. This information is very useful for planning and event management.

crowd

Public Wi-Fi has to deal with thousands of simultaneous connections

Break It Down

As the final band is doing their encore, or the show announces it is time to close the team switch to follow the carefully designed break down plan. What can take weeks to build is removed within a couple of days, loaded into lorries, shipped back to the warehouse to be reconfigured and sent out to next event. Sometimes tight scheduling means equipment goes straight from one country or job to the next. But not everything is removed at once, a subset of services remains for the organisers whilst they clear the site until the last cabin is lifted onto a lorry and we remove the last Wi-Fi access point and phone.

The change over the last five years has been rapid and shows no sign of slowing down as demand increases and services evolve. Services such as personal live streaming, augmented reality, location tracking and other interactive features are all continuing to push demands further.

So yes we provide the Wi-Fi at events but when you see an Etherlive event network on your phone spare a thought as to what goes on behind the scenes.

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In the first Behind the Wi-Fi blog we looked at some of the physical aspects of building out a large scale temporary network, this time we look at how it all comes together as a ‘logical network’ or more simply how all of the networking components work together. With some event networks servicing 10,000+ simultaneous users and consuming anywhere between 100Mbps to 1Gbps of internet connectivity, chaos would ensue unless it was carefully designed and implemented.

Although networks are thought of as being one big entity in reality they are broken down into many ‘virtual networks’ which operate independently and are isolated from each other. This approach is very important from a management, security, reliability and performance point of view. For example, you would not want public users being able to access a network that is being used for payment transactions.

All of our events are rated based on a complexity score and this helps define how the network is designed. Larger and more complex events are designed using a fully routed topology rather than a simple flat design. This approach provides the best performance and resilience operating a bit like the electricity ‘grid’ network where a number of nodes are connected together in a resilient manner to provide a multipath backbone and then the customer services are connected to the nodes. This approach means that each node is provided with a level of isolation and protection which is not possible on a simpler flat network.

This isolation is important as a network grows due to the way when devices connect they are designed to send out ‘broadcasts’ to everyone on the network. With a large number of devices these broadcasts can become overwhelming on a flat network but on a routed network the broadcasts can be filtered out at the appropriate node. Faulty or incorrectly configured equipment can sometimes cause ‘network storms’ where huge amounts of network traffic is created in milliseconds reducing performance for all users, a routed topology offers much more protection against this isolating any problems to a small subsection of the network.

Every site has different network requirements so there may be anywhere between 5 and 50 virtual networks known as VLANS to ensure all the appropriate users and network traffic are kept separate. Traffic shaping rules are applied to these different networks to prioritise the most important networks, along with filtering and logging as required.

At the heart of this is what we call the ‘core’, the set of components which control the key aspects of the network such as the internet access, filtering, firewall, authentication, routing, wireless management, remote access and monitoring.

With several different connections to the internet, traffic is distributed across the different connections – this may be by load balancing, bonding, or policy routing. This is a complex area as different types of network traffic may only be suitable for certain types of connection. For example, voice traffic and encrypted VPNs do not work well over a satellite link due to the high latency (delay) of satellite.

The core routers also contain a firewall, this is the protection between the external internet and the internal network. Protecting against intrusion and hacking is sadly a very important factor with all internet connected systems subject to a constant stream of attacks from remote hackers in places such as China and Russia.

Additional firewalls also exist to control traffic across the internal networks. By default, everything is blocked between networks but for some services limited access may be required across VLANS so specific rules are added – an approach known as pin-holing. Filtering can be used to block particular websites or protocols (such as bit torrent and peer to peer networking); this may be done to protect users from undesirable content or to ensure the performance of the network is maintained.

mediacentre

Prioritisation of voice traffic from phones is important to ensure call quality, especially in a media centre

Rate shaping and queuing are additional important controls to manage bandwidth to specific groups and users ensuring everyone gets the speeds they asked for. This is especially important for real-time services such as voice calls and video streaming. Traffic is managed at a user and network level using dynamic allowances so that all available bandwidth is utilised in the most effective manner without impacting any critical services. Users or networks may be given a guaranteed amount of bandwidth but this may be exceeded in a ‘burst’ mode provided there is spare capacity on the incoming internet links.

The core also houses the PBX, the onsite telephone exchange which manages all the phones and calls with big sites having as many as 200 phones and generating thousands of calls. All the features of a typical office telephone system are implemented with ring groups, voicemail, call forwarding, IVR, etc. As all of the phones are Voice Over IP (VoIP) they are connected via standard network cabling so can easily be moved between locations. Additional numbers and handsets can also be added very quickly.

The vast majority of users these days are connected via the Wi-Fi network which requires careful management and design. The detail behind this would run to several pages so for the purposes of this blog we will keep things relatively simple and look at a few key aspects.

Frequency/Standard – Wi-Fi currently operates at two frequencies, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. As discussed in previous blogs there are many issues around 2.4 GHz so all primary access we provide is focussed on 5 GHz with only public access and some other legacy devices connected via 2.4 GHz. All of the Wi-Fi access points we use are at least 802.11n capable with the majority now 802.11ac enabled to provide the highest speeds and capacity.

Wireless Network Names – When you look for a wireless network on a device you see a list of available networks, these identifiers are known as SSIDs and control the connection method to the network. Different SSIDs will be used for different audiences, with some SSIDs hidden such that you can only try to connect to it if you know the name. Wireless access points can broadcast multiple SSIDs at the same time but there are limits and best practice as to how many should be used. Some SSIDs may be available across the entire network whereas others may be limited to specific areas.

Encryption & Authentication – These two areas are sometimes confused but relate to two very different aspects. Encryption deals with the way the information which is sent wirelessly is scrambled to avoid any unauthorised access. It is similar to using a website starting with ‘https’ but in this case all information between the device and the wireless access point is encrypted. There are several standards for doing this and we use WPA2 which is the current leader. Not all networks are encrypted and, as is the case with most public Wi-Fi hotspots, public access is generally unencrypted.

Authentication deals with whether a user is allowed to use a particular network and ranges from ‘open access’ where a user just clicks on an accept button for the terms and conditions through classic username/password credentials and onto RADIUS or certificate based systems which offer the highest levels of protection. One common approach is the use of a pre-shared key or pass-phrase as part of the WPA standard, knowing the pass-phrase is in effect an authentication challenge. The pass-phrase is also the seed for the encryption and the longer the pass-phrase the harder it is for a hacker to crack the encryption. The pass-phrase approach is simple to manage but has inherent weakness in that it is easily compromised by sharing between users with no control.

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Large scale Wi-Fi is a particularly complex area with many different requirements and challenges

On top of this various other services are employed to protect and manage the Wi-Fi. Client isolation for example stops a user on the network from seeing any network traffic from another user, whereas band steering & load balancing seamlessly move users between frequencies and wireless access points to ensure each user gets the best experience.

The rise of the smartphone has had a major impact on Wi-Fi networks at events due to the way they behave. If a smartphone has its Wi-Fi turned on, then it constantly hunts and probes for Wi-Fi networks so even in this ‘un-associated’ state it still creates an element of load on the network. Mechanisms have to be employed to drop the devices from the network unless they are truly connected (‘associated’) and active (accessing a web page for example). Even connected devices are typically dropped fairly quickly once they cease to be active so that other users can connect. This all happens very fast and transparently to the user with the device reconnecting automatically when it needs to.

This array of logical controls processes millions of pieces of information every second routing them like letters to the correct address, discarding damaged or undesirable ones and acknowledging when they have been received. Each of the components have to work in harmony with sites having anywhere up to around 30 routers, 200 network switches and 200 Wi-Fi access points. To manage this standard configurations and builds are used which have been pre-tested as this reduces the risk of introducing a problem via a new firmware or configuration change.

Next time in the final part of this series we will look at how this all comes together to deliver the end services for the users and the impact it all has on the event.

 

photo credit: Binary code via photopin (license)

fibre

“You guys do Wi-Fi at events right?” typically is the way most people remember us, the irony that the invisible part of our service is in reality the most visible. Unless you know what you are looking for at a large event site you are unlikely to notice the extensive array of technology quietly beating away like a heart.

From walking up to the entrance and having your ticket scanned, watching screens and digital signage, using a smartphone app or buying something on your credit card before you leave, today’s event experience is woven with technology touchpoints. Watching a live stream remotely or scrolling through social media content also rely on an infrastructure which supports attendees, the production team, artists, stewards, security, traders & exhibitors, broadcasters, sponsors and just about everyone else involved.

During a big event the humble cables and components which enable all of this may deal with over 25 billion individual electronic packets of data – all of which have to be delivered to the correct location in milliseconds.

In the first of three blogs looking behind the scenes we take a look at how the core network infrastructure is put together.

Let’s Get Physical

When an event organiser starts the build for an event, often several weeks before live, one of the first things they need is connectivity to the internet. Our team arrives at the same time as the cabins and power to deliver what we call First Day Services – a mix of internet connectivity, Wi-Fi and VoIP telephony for the production team.

Connectivity may be provided by traditional copper services such as ADSL or via satellite but more typically is now via optical fibre or a wireless point to point link as the demands on internet access capacity are ever increasing. Even 100Mbps optic fibre connections are rapidly being surpassed with a need for 1Gbps fibre circuits.

Distribution Board

PSTN, ISDN, ADSL and fibre all are commonplace on a big site

Wireless point-to-point links relay connectivity from a nearby datacentre or other point of presence, however, this introduces additional complexity with the need for tall, stable masts at each end of the link to create the ‘line of sight’ required for a point to point link. To avoid interference and improve speeds the latest generations of links now utilise frequencies as high as 24GHz and 60GHz to provide speeds over 1Gbps. Even with the reliability of fibre and modern wireless links it is still key to have a redundant link too so a second connection is used in parallel to provide a backup.

From there on the network infrastructure is built out alongside the rest of the event infrastructure working closely with the event build schedule. Planning is critical with many sites requiring a network infrastructure as complex as a large company head office, which must be delivered in a matter of days over a large area.

The backbone on many sites is an extensive optical fibre network covering several kilometres and running between the key locations to provide the gigabit and above speeds expected. On some sites a proportion of the fibre is installed permanently – buried into the ground and presented in special cabinets – but in most cases it is loose laid, soft dug, flown, ducted, and ramped around the site. Pulling armoured or CST (corrugated steel tube) fibre over hundreds of metres at a time through bushes, trees, ditches and over structures is no easy task!

Optical fibre cable can run over much longer lengths than copper cable whilst maintaining high speeds, however, it is harder to work with requiring, for example, an exotically named ‘fusion splicer’ to join fibre cores together. On one current event which uses a mix of 8, 16 and 24 core fibre there are over 1,200 terminations and splices on the 5.5km of fibre. With the network now a critical element redundancy is important so the fibre is deployed in ‘rings’ so that all locations are serviced from two independent pieces of fibre – a tactic known as ‘diverse routing’ – so that if one piece of fibre becomes damaged the network continues to operate at full speed.

Each secure fibre break-out point, known as a Point of Presence (POP), is furnished with routing and switching hardware within a special weatherproof and temperature controlled cabinet to connect up the copper cabling which is used to provide the services at the end point such as VoIP phones, Wi-Fi Access points, PDQs and CCTV cameras.

Each cabinet is fed power from the nearest generator on a 16-amp feed and contains a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to clean up any power spikes and ensure that if the power fails not only does everything keep running on battery but also an alert is generated so that the power can be restored before the battery runs out.

Although wireless technology is used on sites there is still a lot of traditional copper cabling using CAT5 as this means power can be delivered along the same cable to the end device. Another aspect is speed, with most wireless devices limited to around 450Mbps and shared between multiple users the actual speed is too low for demanding services, whereas CAT5 will happily run at 1Gbps to each user.

For critical reliability wireless also has risks from interference so where possible it is kept to non-critical services but there are always times when it is the only option so dedicated ‘Point-to-Point’ links are used – these are similar to normal Wi-Fi but use special antennas and protocols to improve performance and reliability.

Cheery picker

A head for heights is important for some installs!

Another significant technology on site is VDSL (Very High Bit-Rate DSL), similar in nature to ADSL used at home but run in a closed environment and at much higher speeds. It is the same technology as is used for the BT Infinity service enabling high speed connections over a copper cable up to around 800m in length (as opposed to 100m for Ethernet).

All of these approaches are used to build out the network to each location which requires a network service be it a payment terminal (PDQ) on a stand to a CCTV camera perched high up on a stage. Although there is a detailed site plan, event sites are always subject to changes so our teams have to think on their feet as the site evolves during the build period. Running cables to the top of structures and marquees can be particularly difficult requiring the use of cherry pickers to get the required height.

After the event all of the fibre is coiled back up and sent back to our warehouse for re-use and storage. The copper cable is also gathered up but is not suitable for re-use so instead it is all recycled.

The deployment of the core network is a heavy lift in terms of physical effort but the next step is just as demanding – the logical network is how everything is configured to work together using many ‘virtual networks’ and routing protocols. In part 2 we will take a look at the logical network and the magic behind it.

 

Photo Credit: Fibre Optic via photopin (license)