How to Discuss Your Event’s Wi-Fi Needs
A primer for event organizers
by Ian Framson, CEO, Trade Show Internet
With mobile event apps, exhibitor demos, social media and email all sharing the same airwaves, Wi-Fi networks at events are becoming more and more crowded by the minute. The result is like rush hour in Manhattan: everyone is moving a little bit, nobody is going very fast, and everyone is frustrated. With the explosion of smart phones and tablets, it’s not uncommon to see attendees using two Wi-Fi-enabled devices at the same time. As if this weren’t enough, attendee expectations have never been higher. The result – unreliable or slow Wi-Fi can cause people to leave an event in search of an Internet connection or may prevent them from attending in the first place if they think it will limit their productivity. For a low-tech event, this experience can be frustrating for an attendee. For a high-tech event, poor Wi-Fi can sink a keynote speech, cripple an exhibitor demo, or disrupt attempts to create viral marketing, causing significant damage to the event’s reputation.
Learning IT lingo can be a daunting proposition. However, with a little bit of education and planning, every event organizer can be prepared to have a productive conversation regarding their event’s Wi-Fi and Internet needs. To plan for this conversation, you must first consider your event’s requirements. Here are four simple planning steps:
- Start with your event’s floor plan.
a. Where do you require Internet access? Do all breakout rooms require Wi-Fi? What about the exhibit hall floor?
b. How will you provide Internet access in each area? Will you use a combination of wired ethernet drops and Wi-Fi?
2. Determine the needs of all attendees.
a. Will the network be open to attendees and exhibitors? Will there be a separate network for speakers and staff?
b. What types of devices will your attendees bring to the event (smart phones, laptops, tablets)?
c. What types of content will they consume on these devices (voice, video, social media, email, mobile event apps)?
3. Determine usage needs according to your program schedule.
a. Are there peak usage times when everyone will be accessing the network (during a keynote speech or tech training session)?
b. Do session rooms require more bandwidth? Will presenters be streaming video?
4. Define your on-site support requirements.
a. What level of support will you offer attendees (such as session speakers and exhibitors) if they have issues connecting to the network?
b. Is there telephone technical support? Do you require a help desk staffed by a network engineer?
Once you understand your event’s needs, it’s time to ask the venue some detailed questions to determine if they can provide the network coverage and capacity required to support your event. “We have Wi-Fi” may suffice for your neighborhood coffee shop, but it’s no longer a sufficient answer for a convention center or hotel.
Since most event organizers desire “hard-wired” reliability with the flexibility of a Wi-Fi network, the following questions will help you better understand and evaluate the venue’s Wi-Fi infrastructure. Before you dive into this next section, please read our disclaimer:
If your event’s Internet access is mission critical, seeking the help of an independent Internet Service Provider (ISP) or network consultant who specializes in the event industry may be advisable.
- What make and model of Wi-Fi access points are currently installed in the meeting rooms/exhibit halls? How many? Access points may also be referred to as routers or arrays.
- Which rooms are covered?
- Can you conduct a wireless site survey and produce a heat map showing the location of each access point and its coverage area?
- What is the minimum WiFi signal quality available in each room?
Signal quality can be determined during a wireless site survey and is measured at the user device. Signal level is measured in decibels per milliwatt, or dBm. Your venue should be able to provide a signal level of -65 dBm for a good signal quality in each room (higher is better, i.e., -55 is better than -65). When talking about Wi-Fi signal quality, avoid using the “5 bars” scale as there is no standard definition for what each bar represents.
- How many Wi-Fi radios are on each access point?
- On which spectrum(s) do these radios broadcast: 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz? As background, 2.4 GHz has 3 non-overlapping channels whereas 5.0 GHz has 24 non-overlapping channels and much greater capacity. Most smart phones currently support 2.4 GHz whereas newer laptops and tablets support both 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz.
- How many simultaneous wireless users can each radio support? At what speeds?
- How much dedicated backhaul/bandwidth is allocated for the event, as measured in Mbps (millions of bits per second, “Megs”, or megabits) or Gbps (billions of bits per second, “Gigs”, or gigabits)?
- Is the bandwidth symmetrical (same speed uploading and downloading)?
- Which telecom carriers are providing the backhaul/bandwidth?
- Is there any redundancy in place if the underlying backhaul provider’s network goes down?
- Are separate VLANs (networks) available for speakers/staff?
- What is the capacity of your network switches (10 Mbps, 1 Gbps)?
- Will the network be actively managed?
- What rules will be applied to throttle bandwidth allocation to users and mitigate security threats?
At a minimum, your venue should be able to discuss Wi-Fi coverage and capacity in a way that instills confidence in their ability to deliver a reliable network. You may want to enlist an event-focused ISP or network consultant to serve as an extension of your team and help you plan for and negotiate your Internet/Wi-Fi solution. Trade Show Internet is one of a few independent ISPs servicing the event industry. TSI provides network consulting services up to and including event-wide Wi-Fi network deployment. With the reputation of your event at stake, asking the right questions early on in the planning process and having a knowledgeable team on your side to articulate your needs will help ensure you receive the best possible network to achieve your event’s goals.
Ian Framson is the CEO of Trade Show Internet (TSI), which he co-founded in 2008. The leading independent Internet service provider in the events industry, TSI provides do-it-yourself Internet Kit rentals for exhibitors and network consulting/engineering services for event organizers. From 2005 to 2009, Framson served as national accounts manager for Reach Systems, a security software provider that he also co-founded. A frequent speaker at trade show and event industry meetings, he has 10 years of experience as an entrepreneur, executive and investor in software, security and Internet companies. Framson can be contacted via email (ian[at]tradeshowinternet.com) or by calling 866-385-1504. For articles on the Internet, Wi-Fi, trade shows and more, visit the TSI blog.