Does it surprise you to hear that a convention center’s WiFi network does not always work? At EXHIBITOR2012 (a trade show for trade show professionals) held at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, show management sent out the following apology email for the unreliable WiFi service:
Given the high volume of WiFi signals from the EXHIBITOR2012 show floor, the official […] WiFi signal was frequently facing network interference and deemed ineffective. Although Mandalay Bay made every effort to overcome this technical challenge, they were unable to deliver a consistent, working service.
Sound familiar? As an event organizer, you probably take it for granted that the venue’s WiFi network will function properly; unfortunately, often times it does not. Aging infrastructure, inadequate bandwidth, and poor capacity planning are a few of the most frequent causes of WiFi breakdown.
So how can you evaluate the venue’s in-house Internet Service Provider (ISP) and determine the quality of their wireless network if you are not a telecom engineer? By reading this white paper, you’ll gain an understanding of the factors at play, which questions to ask, and what options you have for bringing in your own ISP if you determine your venue may be lacking.
Background Before we launch into the nuts and bolts of Internet/WiFi infrastructure, there are some things you should know up front about the telecom business. First, Congress gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to regulate telecommunications. FCC rules make it illegal for building owners to sign exclusive agreements with telecommunications common carriers. The rationale behind these rules is that exclusive agreements harm consumers, stifle innovation, reduce competition, limit market forces, and drive up prices. We’ve written extensively on this topic on our blog (www.tradeshowinternet.com/blog) and have published our research in our Consumer Bill of Rights (www.tradeshowinternet.com/about/consumerrights). Despite federal law and FCC rules, unlawful and unenforceable Internet exclusivity agreements are widespread in the event industry.
As you’ve likely noticed, FCC rules haven’t prevented most venues from forcing their "exclusive" in-house Internet service fees on unsuspecting event organizers. In fact, telecom is a huge revenue center for hotels and convention centers. Like most official suppliers in the event industry, in-house ISPs typically split revenues with the venue (as a condition of their contract). Since the venue and the in-house ISP are sharing revenue, they both apply pressure to grab hold of your telecom dollars (typically $10K to $50K for an event with up to 500 attendees; $50K+ for larger events).
For Whom Does the In-House ISP Work? In-house ISPs have one primary customer: the owner of the venue. In the case of a convention center, the owner is typically a municipality. For hotels, the owner is usually a corporate hotel chain. If the venue is happy with the revenue share and performance of the ISP, then the ISP will get their 5-year contract renewed. Much like a politician up for reelection, it should serve as no surprise that the ISP’s decision framework revolves around the primary question: how will our decisions affect the likelihood that the venue owner will renew our contract?
When it comes to the performance of the network at your event, network infrastructure investments and bandwidth purchasing decisions create a conflict of interest for the in-house ISP. These decisions are often made years prior to your event. In many cases, the ISP purchases lower-cost network infrastructure from Cisco or Aruba to support the "average" event that takes place at the venue. The goal is typically not to create a best-of-breed WiFi network, but rather to put a checkmark next to "we provide WiFi" on the venue’s list of services offered.
Many events have seen their attendance increase and the corresponding demand for wireless connectivity explode (think of an army of WiFi-hungry smart phones, tablets, and laptops). Meanwhile, the network infrastructure required to support these devices has aged, and in some properties, has become obsolete. Although the venue may physically have capacity to host a high-tech event with thousands of attendees, its network infrastructure may be woefully under-built to handle the WiFi requirements. As a result, the event organizer, their attendees, and exhibitors are often disappointed and frustrated when the network crumbles. All the while, the venue promised they "had WiFi" without qualifying the level of capacity, coverage, or quality of service they could reasonably provide.
By comparison, independent ISPs and network consultants who specialize in the event industry work exclusively for the event organizer and are not bound by fixed infrastructure or revenue-sharing contracts with venues. They operate in a competitive environment with more latitude to negotiate contracts, procure the latest WiFi equipment built for high-density events, and take advantage of market forces to benefit the event organizer.
How to Effectively Engage an Independent ISP Since the venue and their in-house ISP are not looking out for your best interests, and the government is not guaranteeing an efficient, competitive market environment, the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of the Internet exclusivity trap are to:
get informed, and
negotiate early (i.e. before you sign your venue lease contract)
By characterizing your need as one driven by necessity (i.e. the facility doesn’t have the network coverage/capacity to support your group’s network intensive usage), you have the best chance of earning the right to bring in your own independent ISP to work as an extension of your team. Our white paper entitled "How to Discuss Your Event’s WiFi Needs" contains the important talking points you’ll need to have an informed conversation with your venue about WiFi coverage and capacity. Don’t argue about cost or you will likely lose this negotiation with your venue.
The more you can stress how mission-critical reliable Internet is to the success of your event, the easier it will be for the venue to "back down" and allow you to bring in your own independent ISP. Even if you only have moderate Internet usage requirements, this negotiation technique has proven to be the most effective. The ISP partner you select should work closely with you to understand your needs and help you plan for and deploy a robust event-wide WiFi network. They should also be able to "talk tech" on your behalf with the venue and their in-house ISP.
If the venue cedes control of the WiFi network to you, you should still expect some pass-through fees such as fiber pass through, copper pass through, bandwidth, circuit extension, and closet access fees. You can continue negotiating to reduce or remove these fees, or try to exact concessions from the venue for the fees.
Understanding WiFi: Network Infrastructure Regardless of whether you go with the venue’s in-house ISP, an independent, or some combination of both, a working understanding of WiFi infrastructure will help you discuss your event’s needs and make informed decisions. Since all WiFi originates on a wire, you will need to purchase access to a circuit (frequently called bandwidth, backhaul, pipe, T1, DS3, ethernet, Internet, cable drop, uplink, and many other terms) to get access to the Internet backbone. The width of the circuit and the amount of data that can pass through it are measured in millions of bits per second (Mbps, "Megs", or megabits) or billions of bits per second (Gbps, "Gigs", or gigabits). Determining how large a circuit you’ll need for your event is more of an art than a science, and includes several factors such as the number of simultaneous users/devices on the network and the types of content or web traffic they will consume. Your ISP should have a questionnaire they use to collect data about your event to help you estimate the amount of bandwidth required on your circuit.
This circuit typically starts in the basement at the point of demarcation (or "D-mark") where the copper or fiber from the street meets the building. As an alternative, bandwidth can also be wirelessly transported from another building within a 10-15 mile radius to a receiver antenna (typically located on the roof). From the D-mark (or the rooftop), the venue has likely installed an extensive network of ethernet cabling and switches to route the circuit throughout the building. You can think of the network infrastructure in terms of a hub and spoke system, with the network operations center (NOC) or server room as the hub and a series of telecom closets as the spokes. In order to get an ethernet wire or network drop to a meeting room, the bandwidth will typically take several hops from the D-mark, to the NOC, to the telecom closet, and finally to your meeting room.
Once the ethernet cable is dropped to the meeting room, you could plug it into your laptop directly; or, the ethernet drop could be used to "handoff" the Internet connectivity to a WiFi router (also called an access point or array), which distributes the connectivity wirelessly to your users. In-house ISPs typically have fixed access points installed in the ceiling, whereas an independent ISP will likely deploy their own wireless networking gear on tripods and configure your network with their own software. Based on your event floorplan, an independent ISP should be able to generate a predictive site survey to configure the optimal locations for your wireless equipment. A physical site survey should soon follow to evaluate the planned location of each wireless access point and measure the effects of obstacles like walls on the WiFi signal quality. There are a handful of wireless equipment vendors including Aruba, Cisco, Meraki, Meru, Motorola, Ruckus, and Xirrus. Your ISP should be able to explain which wireless equipment vendor they’ve selected, demonstrate their experience with the technology, and explain why the equipment is appropriate for your event’s networking needs.
Since not all wireless equipment is created equal, it’s important to ask detailed questions about the wireless access points installed in the building to determine how many concurrent users the system can support. Some basic questions to ask are:
How many WiFi access points are installed?
How many WiFi radios are on each access point?
How many simultaneous wireless users can each radio support? At what speeds?
What is the minimum WiFi signal level available in each room (as measured in decibels per milliwatt, or dBm)
Since maintaining a cohesive WiFi network requires a dynamic effort, your ISP should have network engineering personnel on-site during the setup days and all event hours. High-density network usage times like during a keynote speech present unique challenges which will require special planning and an agile on-site team that can react in real time to changes in your attendees’ network usage pattern.
Conclusion Most people are not sophisticated buyers of telecom, meeting planners included. Relying upon your venue or the in-house ISP to look out for your best interests is analogous to relying upon the good faith of a car dealer for all of your information in the car buying process. If you don’t consult with knowledgeable, independent resources and evaluate your alternatives, how can you be sure you’re getting the right vehicle at a fair price?
Seeking the help of an independent ISP or network consultant who specializes in the event industry may be advisable if your event’s Internet access is mission critical. As a neutral 3rd party, an event-focused ISP or network consultant becomes an extension of your team, helping you plan for and negotiate an Internet/WiFi solution that meets your needs. 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 WiFi network deployment. With the reputation of your event at stake, having a knowledgeable team on your side can help ensure you receive the best possible network to achieve your event’s goals.
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