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New Series: How to deliver WiFi for 10,000 delegates, properly

I can’t stand going to events and conferences and finding the WiFi services are either faulty, slow or non-existent.  It’s a big problem for event organisers — and one that can no longer be sidestepped as being the venue’s fault.

Complain to the event organiser that, “The WiFi is rubbish,” or, “I can’t seem to get a connection?” and you’ll invariably get a response like this:

“Oh, yes, sorry,” the event manager will say, “I’ll have a word with the Hotel Manger.”

And that’s when you’re trying to PAY the service provider a stupid rate per hour for the privilege of using their connection.

The Hotels & Venues Don’t Get It

Unfortunately, all the Hotel Manager can do is place a call to their disinterested WiFi provider who won’t lift a finger for at least 24 hours.  Enough time to ensure every delegate is well and truly cheesed off by 10am.  That’s because the hotel contract is usually for rooms.  Their service provider is specialist at extracting $6.95 per hour or $14.95 for 24-hours from any paying guest half interested in decent internet.  And this arrangement works fine when 3 out of 500 guests decide to use it.  The rubbish DSL connection feels very fast when only 3 people are using it.

And at some point, the hotel room WiFi fleecing service was co-opted to the ‘public areas’.

False Advertising

And all of a sudden, hotels started putting statements like ‘guest WiFi available in all areas’ on their websites and brochures.  In many places I’ve been to they’ve obviously installed no extra equipment.  It’s often just the reception ‘public area’ WiFi leaking into the ballroom.

Event organisers will, I’m sure, routinely phone up and quiz the ‘meetings team’ hotel/venue people who all nod like chickens when asked if there’s WiFi.

The Ebola Virus

Unfortunately, WiFi in hotels and conference venues is generally the equivalent of the ebola virus.  Forgotten.  Not quite understood.  Irrelevant for most.  Until 500 delegates who’ve all paid $1,200 for a one-day event arrive with laptops, iPhones, iPads and other implements that all need WiFi connectivity.

Then you’ve got a problem.  Everyone’s got a very big problem.  And what’s worse, it can’t be fixed pronto.

You can’t use one NetGear router on a 10mb home broadband BT connection to serve 500 delegates. Especially when the average device WiFi requirement per 500 delegates in the mobile industry is around 2.4 connected devices per person. But goodness me, I’ve experienced at least 3 events offering this kind of service level this year.

I’m sick and tired of experiencing this kind of shoddy service.

Who’s Problem Is It?

I know it’s not the event manager’s problem per se.  The technology just isn’t understood that well.  Even the hotel or conference ‘meetings’ teams don’t seem to understand what kind of infrastructure is needed.  Worse, a lot of the conference venue folk I’ve met simply don’t think it’s a problem.

And to be fair, it’s definitely not a problem when the venue policy is to proudly declare that their entire complex is WiFi-enabled — and then make it clear that there is no possible, conceivable way you will be given their Access Key.  No. Way.

Because their system only works for 200 odd people.

And they’ve only got a 1 megabit internet connection that they’re sharing with their own office PCs.

At so many venues I’ve been to, the WiFi systems appear to be held together with string and powered by really tired hamsters.

The New Series

Here, then, is a Mobile Industry Review series aimed at tackling this issue.

If you’re an event organiser or if you work in the ‘meetings industry’, this series is specifically for you.  And if you’re a long suffering delegate, I present this series for your bookmarks — to forward to the chap or lady who will, no doubt, shortly try and explain why the WiFi isn’t working at [insert conference name].  Send them this link and a request for a refund of your ticket fee.

The MIR Event WiFi Charter

First, I present to you: The MIR Event WiFi Charter…

  1. Delegates should be given free WiFi, especially if they’re paying to attend the event
  2. Delegates should be able to download files at an average of 50k/sec throughput and Google should appear and deliver results in 2 seconds
  3. Delegates should be allowed to activate up to 3 WiFi devices
  4. There should be no registration required — this is always implemented as though it’s been conceived and programmed by an utter arse.  No forwarding weird rubbish.  No stupid proxy rubbish that doesn’t work on a mobile browser.  You should just be connected to the open internet.

WiFi Industry Experts Galore!

So, how do you go about delivering perfect WiFi for 10,000 delegates?  Well I don’t know.  I only know the rough concepts behind the technology.  Which is why I’ve asked a series of industry experts — some of the best ‘go-to’ companies around — to give me answers to the following questions.  I will be publishing each expert’s answers across this week.

Here are the questions I posed to them:

  1. What’s the best way of guaranteeing brilliant, seamless WiFi service at a PR launch for 100 users?
  2. Now, factor that up to 10,000 or 20,000 people at a huge exhibition? What kind of technology is needed to support that?
  3. What kind of technical considerations are required when you’re dealing with multi-room or huge venues like Earls Court or big, big hotels that might need connectivity on multiple floors?
  4. Once you’ve managed to assign and log a user on to a WiFi network, what’s the best way to assure brilliant internet connectivity? Is it just a matter of a big, big data pipe? The bigger the better?
  5. Is there a functional limit for the amount of people that you can get connected to a single WiFi network?
  6. Do you have any suggestions for a rule of thumb in terms of data consumption? e.g. 1 user consumes 200mb WiFi internet data in a day, therefore 100 users would need 20gb bandwidth in total. And what kind of backhaul pipe is needed for a decent service? Does ‘fast broadband’ from the likes of BT cut it in this arena? Or should we be talking super-fast dedicated connectivity?
  7. In reality, is it just too expensive to do this properly to serve, say, 5,000 or 10,000 delegates?
  8. What are the main ‘gotchas’ that result in event organisers being harassed by frustrated users?
  9. Do you have any brief case studies or examples you could share where the technology has really worked?
  10. What would your equipment/service shopping list look like to deliver WiFi to 500 or 10,000 delegates?
  11. Take a gaze into the future: What should we be looking for in the future to deliver this kind of connectivity?

Standby for the responses — they’re good.  And if you’re looking to solve the WiFi for one of your upcoming events, I think the participants will be able to help.

Here are the expert contributions:

  1. Scott Reeves of Ruckus Wireless
  2. Ben Wilson of Xirrus

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

11 replies on “New Series: How to deliver WiFi for 10,000 delegates, properly”

thanks for doing this Ewan. I have been attempting to figure this out, on and off, for the past 18 months or so, so really looking forward to the answers.
Unfortunately it seems that most articles all end up saying, “it depends” and not giving any guidelines or rules of thumb to work with.

About the only bits of advice that I have found so far that are in any way consistent are;
* approx 20 devices per access point,
* you need to use some form of management system, once you get past a couple of AP's

Ewan i’m just seeing your post and your responses from vendors like Xirrus and Ruckus great stuff. I have personally deployed Xirrus. I wonder if you would be interested in talking with a company that exclusively deploys wi-fi for live events? SignalShare as done this for events such as the 2010 US Open of Tennis, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Festival. They are focused on both Fan networks and Production networks in support of events like this. They also have technology that sits in line with the deployed network to help with bandwidth management and messaging to attendees. If you want some practical deployment experience you will find it there…

Nice article, but you CANNOT just allow event attendees open wifi access as per your Event Charter 4 – its illegal. Failure to ask for the identity of a connected user is non compliant with the DEB and other UK and European Laws.

David Riches, Candengo Wireless Networks.

Hi Ewan

Prior to the getting online, the user is show a very simply self registration page : Simply email address, name, telephone number and postcode which they must fill in. Once entered, walled garden is removed and full access allowed.

Law is strange on the matter – you must ask and record the information, but there is no need to confirm it as correct!

Hi Ewan

Prior to the getting online, the user is show a very simply self registration page : Simply email address, name, telephone number and postcode which they must fill in. Once entered, walled garden is removed and full access allowed.

Law is strange on the matter – you must ask and record the information, but there is no need to confirm it as correct!

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