Like Water for Wi-Fi: an Event Manifesto

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At every event I’ve ever attended, tap water has been free while bottled water usually costs money.

I propose that organizers supply Wi-Fi like water at events.

These days, event Wi-Fi is a utility. People need to be able to be connected online, even when they are physically together in the same space. I know that providing Wi-Fi costs money—but so does providing water.

I believe that event organizers should, at a minimum, provide base level rate limited free Wi-Fi throughout the meeting spaces of the venue, plus an optional paid higher-performance tier of service.

The free Wi-Fi would be rate limited to somewhere in the region of 100-300kB/sec per device, irrespective of the number of devices each attendee brought. The paid tier would provide a higher bandwidth, appropriate to attendee needs.

How much would this cost? HotelChatter’s 2012 Wi-Fi Report states:

“…for a 250-room hotel, the cost is about $2.50-$4.50 per room, per month.”

This infographic breaks down the costs, which work out to 10-15 cents a day. That’s $20-30/day for an event with 200 attendees. (At this point you may be wondering why some hotels charge $14.95/day for internet access per device. This is called “making money hand over fist”.)

None of this is hard any more. Rate limiting internet bandwidth for individual users is simple due to the incorporation of Quality of Service (QoS) policies in modern inexpensive routers and access points. You don’t even need two sets of access points for different bandwidth tiers; you can support multiple discrete Wi-Fi networks on a single access point (VLANs). Finally, ramping up bandwidth and reliability for high-demand events is now relatively straightforward because most systems support bandwidth aggregation, allowing bandwidth to be obtained from more than one circuit from multiple internet service providers.

Attendees don’t expect events to provide high bandwidth internet access for free (though they’ll love you if you do). But, like a tap to fill your water bottle, bandwidth that’s sufficient for basic tasks like checking email, interacting on social media and light web browsing should be available for free at every event.

Like Water for Chocolate Wi-Fi. That’s my manifesto.

Want to join me—or am I dreaming? What do you think?

Photo attribution: Flickr user waitingpictures

11 thoughts on “Like Water for Wi-Fi: an Event Manifesto

  1. I don’t think you’re dreaming when it comes to smaller events of a few hundred people but for large conferences with thousands of attendees ubiquitous, reliable, free WiFi is a huge technical challenge.

    It is not impossible but it IS expensive. Very. The hardware required runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars and the people required to run it (like me) are highly skilled specialists with specific expertise in high density networks. Furthermore, the networks are usually only required for a few days so it doesn’t make sense for organisers to buy their own. It’s rented in the same way lighting, video and audio.

    Low cost Access points do have some QoS rules but they don’t handle roaming between them very well, if at all. You can’t and shouldn’t expect to deliver a professional WiFi experience with hardware bought from Best Buy.

    Rate limiting at the router won’t help congestion in the air, there’s a strong argument among event WiFi engineers for no rate limiting at all in order to get the traffic off the air and ‘on the wire’ as soon as possible.

    The reason that most attendees experience poor to unusable event WiFi is because it is expensive and difficult to do well.

    Load balancing/Bonding at the router will work but can cause problems for certain types of traffic.

    Better to use the VLANs you mention to allocate groups of users to QoS queues and direct them to their own individual links. It’s not the best way though.

    I’m working on a template solution that organisers with little to no technical expertise can rely upon for events in a single room with up to 300 users. That will be provided freely via my website.

    You can also get “The Event & Production Manager’s Guide to IT”, also free at http://www.InnovationInEvents.com.

    I agree, WiFi should be free to attendees when they are buying tickets, paying for hotels etc. It is incumbent on conference organisers in these times to ensure that they provide a high quality experience in every area, including connectivity. The question should therefore be “Who’s going to pay for it?”.

    1. Jeremy, it’s great to get a long thoughtful reply from someone who knows more than I do!

      I’m glad that you think I’m not dreaming when we’re talking about events with a few hundred people (which covers most of the events I’m involved with). So let’s talk about larger events.

      One of your points that I question is that at large event venues, Wi-Fi “networks are usually only required for a few days”. I guess this could be true for venues that host a significant number of special events as opposed to conferences & trade shows, but I wonder if it’s really cost effective these days for large venues to continually install and remove Wi-Fi infrastructure. Yes, it costs a lot to install a permanent network, but the cost can be amortized over many events, and I’d be surprised if the cost per supported device would be many times more than the hotel figures I quoted.

      I can see your point about congestion in the air, but I’m skeptical that removing rate limiting will improve matters (though I bow to your experience). If you give users as much bandwidth as their network adapters support, don’t you find that many of them take full advantage of what you make available to them, driving up your bandwidth provision costs and/or choking your network on its bottlenecks?

      Looking forward to your responses to my questions; that’s one way I learn! And please let us know when your template is available.

      1. As someone who’s business depends on the reliability of the network during conferences, let me say that I agree with both of you! The “problem” at any scale is the third-party IT management companies that many venues use to reduce the “cost” of knowledgeable staff.

        Many venues and cities have TERRIBLE contracts that control the costs of connections for convention centers and larger corporate hotels. We have had to bypass venue agreements with third-parties a number of times in the last few years. True costs are a lot cheaper than you think, although those numbers you quote in the article are laughable and inaccurate.

        We often order new sets of fiber optics to a building while negotiating with the venue directly for access to their ports. This actually still saves our clients money from the original quotes for basic service from the third-party IT management team.

        Depending on the client (how technical is the client) You cannot expect to “give as much bandwidth as their network adapters support” to more than a few people. Defcon, CES, Panasonic, Apple, HP and other technical events usually have to bring additional fiber circuits for single exhibit booths.

        A single video producer in the General Session may be using 100Mb/s uploading/downloading “approved” HD video back and forth to the “home office” for example. There is no way they have enough bandwidth to the building for all of the attendees desires. Most don’t have enough bandwidth for just the production staff’s needs prior to the event!

        All this, and I haven’t even mentioned wifi!

        Wireless is all about RF management and hardware. It is not often you will have someone with the expertise to manage more than a few hundred users in a conference center on staff and available for the smaller events. The bigger events usually bring in their own guys. (Like me! Shameless plug). The lack of anyone on staff that understands the technology leaves the venues in a state of disarray and poor IT management is very common in venues as it’s a “new guy” in there every week wiring up the IT closet for the next event.

        All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the most important part: INFORMATION SECURITY! This is a totally different topic that is currently in an appalling condition in the corporate meetings industry.

        Almost everyday I recommend that my clients negotiate their technical IT needs before signing the venue agreement as it could be the difference of $100K or more. EVERY event planner needs a network engineer/consultant before the event is even booked. Bring him to the site visit, he will save you more then he costs!

        I say this a lot to my clients, “Everybody knows the cost of chicken, chairs, staging, and a sound guy, but nobody thinks about that $80K bill for ‘internet service’ until it’s too late.”. There are plenty of alternatives to internet service contracts in venues, the problem is that event planners just aren’t aware that there is!

        1. Thanks for supplying your valuable perspective and experience Matt. You make a great case for competent independent expertise. As someone who was an independent IT consultant for over twenty years (though my knowledge is, these days, pretty much obsolete) I’m sympathetic!

          I’m glad you mention security. I sweated bullets about security in the good old days when 10BaseT was hot and I provided IT solutions for just about every aspect of a business. Today, just keeping data and networks secure is often a full time job for multiple experts.

  2. I do not conflate Wi-Fi with Internet. Wi-Fi is LAN, Internet is WAN. Even in venues and events that can’t afford or don’t want to provide Internet access, they can easily and inexpensively use Wi-Fi to provide the audience with locally hosted and served content. Bandwidth, hotel, security and cost issues are greatly reduced or eliminated by serving content on-site.

    1. I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to, unless you are assuming that local devices will be hard-wired (ethernet) to a LAN. Otherwise, data, wherever it comes from will be traveling over the air, with all the issues described in the article and Jeremy’s comment. Generally, in my experience, the bottleneck is not determined by the location of desired content but the limitations of the Wi-Fi infrastructure in place.

      1. I disagree. The bottlenecks I’ve run into have been the bandwidth of the building as much as it has been infrastructure (wifi/RF) related issues. If they only have a 20Mb/s feed to the building, it doesn’t matter how well their wifi network passes data it’s still going to be “slow” or “not connecting” to the average user.

        1. Matt, thanks for sharing your experience of which you clearly have more than I do. On the other hand, I’m guessing it’s easier to up the bandwidth if it’s insufficient than to upgrade deficient infrastructure…

  3. For some reason here in Australia the cost of wifi is just ridiculous. If you try bring your own the venue wants you to have their own IT guy onsite so you have to pay for that per day even though you don’t need it. Venues in Australia typically the 4-5 star ones do not make it easy for conference organisers and the cost is not a matter of cents its outrageous. I only know of a few that offer it as part of their room rate – seems like a big opportunity for a smart venue if you ask me – differentiate by offering affordable high speed internet and organisers will flock to them

    1. Thank you for the update on the Australian Wi-Fi experience John. (I’d love to hear from folks in other countries too—it’s always interesting to learn how different cultures respond to a common issue.) There was a time in the U.S. when event Wi-Fi was provisioned as you’ve described. Now we’re seeing improvements at some venues—perhaps driven by the thought of competitive advantage—but my manifesto’s vision is being realized here slower than many of us would like.

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