The Wi-Fi Dilemma: Part 1


“We figured out why my demo crashed—because there are 570 Wi-Fi base stations operating in this room, OK?” Steve Jobs tersely informed attendees during his keynote session at Apple’s 2010 World Wide Developers Conference. “We can’t deal with that…So we either turn off all the stuff and see the demos or we give up and I don’t show you the demos. Would you like to see the demos or not?”

Jobs’ demo fail still looms as a subconscious specter for some venue IT-network-management personnel. Although this event occurred more than five years ago (almost two lifetimes in the technosphere), venues are still grappling with how to provide for exceedingly increasing customer Wi-Fi expectations in high-density environments.

SMART DEVICES PROLIFERATION: Evolution of the Event Ecosystem

Compounding the expectations and wireless demand in these high-density environments is the increasing number of smart devices that attendees are bringing into the event space and connecting to the venue’s Wi-Fi network.

“I am married to my iPhone. I don’t remember a time [when] I didn’t have it, and I’ve only had it for seven or eight years,” said Michael Owen, managing partner of EventGenuity and chairman of the Convention Industry Council’s (CIC) APEX Standards committee.

That smartphone isn’t all that Owen brings to meetings and events—he also has an iPad and, if he’s presenting, will bring his laptop. So in this instance, three Wi-Fi-connected devices for one person.

According to Pew Research’s “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015” report, 64 percent of American adults own a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011. And 46 percent of those smartphone users reported, albeit dramatically, that they “couldn’t live without” the device.

The proliferation of these devices is astounding. In December 2014, eMarketer predicted 220 million U.S. smartphone users and 2.16 billion users globally by the end of 2018. eMarketer also projects more than 1 billion of the world’s population will use a tablet this year, increasing to 1.43 billion by 2018, although growth is expected to begin dropping this year, due to competition from “phablets.”

Tchad Rogers, interim CIO for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA) in Boston, says 2.4 devices per attendee is the currently recognized standard metric. The MCAA’s most recent $2.6 million wireless infrastructure overhaul (the fourth since 2004), a high-density system that goes live this month, had the assumption of 2.5 devices per user built in as an initial requirement.

The Visual Networking Index (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update 2014-2019, published by Cisco in February 2015, claims 189 million laptops on the mobile network in 2014, with data traffic per laptop of 2.6 GB—3.2 times the traffic generated by the average smartphone.

And mobile digital media is being consumed by adults at an exploding rate. Mary Meeker, creator of “2015 Internet Trends Report,” found mobile digital media use by American adults has increased from 0.3 hours in 2008 to 2.8 hours in 2015 YTD.

The VNI also revealed that mobile video traffic grew to 55 percent of total mobile data by the end of 2014. And as mobile network connection speeds increase, Cisco forecasts an increased proportion of high-definition and streaming video.

Venues are not isolated from society; they are coral animals embedded into the technological reef of society at large.

David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events and chairman of the Convention Industry Council’s (CIC) board of directors, sees technology driving meetings.

“Great new technological advances will allow the meeting and exhibitions industry and the experience for exhibitors and attendees to be even better because of the computer we’re carrying around in our hands,” DuBois said.

Fans and attendees not only have more devices, they expect to be able to connect at all times and for richer, more contextualized experiences. As they enter your venue, they expect to offload from their cellular networks and onto your Wi-Fi network. They want bigger, better, faster, and, oh yes, free Wi-Fi.

The Connectivity Demands of a Nomadic Mobile-Centric Society

Mark Haley, president of Smart City Networks and a hospitality veteran with more than 30 years of experience, sees the growing demand for Wi-Fi at events as not simply the result of the increasing number of devices, but also the ways in which the devices are being used.

“People expect Wi-Fi to work everywhere and they show up at your convention center expecting to walk in and be able to check their email, stream video, watch highlights of the game last night, Netflix, anything they can do,” he said. “And it’s the same thing with meeting planners—they’re figuring out ways to utilize these smart devices more and more with their events…They expect the wireless networks to be able to support them.”

Gen X and Gen Y are driving these expectations and changing the way our society learns, works, plays, and communicates.

In 2014, Cisco’s “Connected World Technology Report” found that over half of Gen X and Gen Y respondents consider themselves accessible via technology 24/7. Of Gen X respondents, 44 percent self-identify as smartphone “supertaskers,” compared to 42 percent of those in Gen Y that make the same claim. On average, respondents from both of these generations use two to three devices daily, and 45 percent want a flexible workday.

According to NEC’s 2013 “Enabling the Nomadic Workforce,” there are 120 million mobile workers in the U.S. Millennials, especially, want to be productive on the go, with more than 40 percent of those surveyed reporting that they would not want to be without their phone or laptop. These digital nomads consider event venues—and any connected environment—an extension of the office. Accordingly, the expectation is that Wi-Fi will not only exist, but also be reliable and fast.

Neil Reid, a former Cisco engineer and owner of Neil Reid & Associates Mobility and Network Consulting, designed and deployed the MCCA’s recent upgrade. Wi-Fi is a “fundamental demand” for many attendees, he said, and venues can’t compete without it.

“Nothing is more important than having an overall high-performance, pervasive system,” Reid said.

Enhanced Technology Drives Demand on Venue Wi-Fi

In every facet of a professional-venue event ecosystem, enhanced technology is evolving and driving the demand for Wi-Fi, whether from attendees, show organizers, planners, or venue managers. Technologies such as second screens, projection mapping, event apps with real-time analytical capabilities, content downloads, geolocation, heat mapping, attendee engagement and social media integration, and, in the case of Levi’s Stadium, individual seats as a food-and-beverage point of sale, are already here.

Live-streaming apps such as Broadcaster, Periscope, Meerkat, Ustream, and Streaming Unicorns—which allows you to live stream your smartphone’s screen—can be a particular headache for venue IT infrastructures and are growing in use. On the horizon are the data-intensive demands of virtual reality and augmented reality applications as well as drones.

The Dallas Cowboys, at AT&T Stadium, have begun to use virtual reality for training, simulating the quarterback’s view of the game.

“Somebody can go sit in a room, put on the goggles, and practice being a quarterback,” said John Winborn, CIO for the Dallas Cowboys. “You put a camera on Tony Romo; it’s pretty neat.”

The AT&T Stadium’s app has also incorporated augmented reality into it. Around 20 targets around the stadium were picked out to highlight the Cowboys’ history.

By 2020, 90 percent of the world’s population over the age of six will have a mobile phone.

And the drones are circling. Austin, Texas-based HeliVideo live-streamed footage of the 2015 U.S. Open Championship from four drones utilizing microwave radio frequency and $1 million of related support equipment, including 4k cameras. The June 18 coverage at Chambers Bay golf course, southwest of Tacoma, Washington, attracted 2 million viewers—the event’s largest since 2002. The use of drones for live-streaming footage at events—especially sports—is growing. Eric Austin, a pilot and owner of HeliVideo, will be filming with drones at the Women’s Open in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and, for the Fox Network, SuperCross and NASCAR.

Wearable technology such as smart watches, glasses, jewelry, wristbands, and “hearables”—earbuds that track medical info—are also nascent in the technosphere. A report by CSS Insight projects more than 250 million “wearables” will be in use by 2018. The Seattle Sounders soccer club uses sports-specific wearable tech to document game analytics and potentially enhance performance, as well as for geolocation with the stadium’s motion-tracking cameras. All of these components can take up valuable bandwidth or even interfere with Wi-Fi networks.

Location-based services (LBS) include transmit-only beacons (such as the iBeacon, which operates on Bluetooth) and backhaul-enabled beacons that include a Wi-Fi chip set. LBS grants venues not only increased revenue and marketing opportunities—such as offers for seat upgrades at sporting events as has been done by the NFL, MLB, and NBA—but also increased connectivity and personalization for fans, as well as navigation, replays, and other game information for smartphone users equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 and who have downloaded the event app. Other venues, such as the MCCA—which has 200 iBeacons and is in the process of installing 100 more—utilizes geolocation throughout the entire facility, including employee areas. Event beacons are not only for navigation, but can be used for advertising, push alerts, information, gamification, and customization. And beacon technology is being primed for hands-free mobile payment with Pay Pal, Apple Pay, and Google Wallet.

According to projections from Business Insider Intelligence’s “THE BEACONS REPORT: Exclusive Market Forecast and Top Strategies as Retailers Race to Adopt Them,” 2014 would see 30,000 beacons installed, and the total number of beacons installed within four years will top 4.5 million. What this amounts to is hyper-local, immersive media—the data will come to you. And if you’re at a venue with Wi-Fi, the data will most likely be transmitted through the facility’s infrastructure.

Beacons and other Wi-Fi-connected devices that are being adopted are increasing the demand for mobile Internet access on a global, pan-industry level.

The Rise of the Machines

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

Nearly 500 million mobile devices and connections were added in 2014, according to Cisco’s VNI white paper—for a total of 7.4 billion. That’s up from the previous year’s 6.9 billion. Smartphones grew by 439 million net additions in 2014, accounting for 88 percent of that growth.

By 2020, a Strategy Analytics Q3 2014 Global Internet Device Installed Base Forecast graph predicts there will be 33 billion Internet-connected devices—4.3 devices per person. But predictions vary from source to source: In its 2011 “The Internet of Things How the Next Evolution of the Internet Is Changing Everything,” Cisco predicted 50 billion Internet-connected devices by 2020; International Data Corporation’s “Worldwide and Regional Internet of Things 2014-2020 Forecast” has a target of 212 billion, with a market size of nearly $7.1 billion.

Terminator-director James Cameron might call this convergence of Internet-connected devices and sensors “Skynet,” but outside of action-packed summer blockbusters, the phenomenon is commonly referred to as “The Internet of Things (IoT).” That phrase was coined by Kevin Ashton, a pioneer on RFID (radio frequency identification) and sensors and co-founder of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research lab dedicated to these technologies.

The IoT convergence of smart-tech data—smart cars, smart cities, smart industries (also called the Industrial Internet Awakening), smart farming, smart garments, appliances, medical support items, M2M (machine to machine), etc.—will exponentially impact the demand for bandwidth.

To put the ongoing and upcoming data tsunamis in perspective, mobile data traffic grew 69 percent, year over year—to 2.5 exabytes per month at the end of 2014—for a total of nearly 30 exabytes last year, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index. The entire global Internet in 2000 measured only one exabyte.

By 2020, mobile data traffic is projected to exceed 3 exabytes of data per month in the U.S. and Canada alone, according to the “ERICSSON MOBILITY REPORT North American Appendix (Nov. 2014)” and 90 percent of the world’s population over the age of six will have a mobile phone.

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) High Density Events – What Venues are Experiencing

Mobility and network expert Neil Reid, managing consultant for all Wi-Fi at nine stadiums for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London—the first Olympics of the smartphone-dominant era—said the amount of data generated during the event was staggering: 60 gigs of data per second, around 13.2 million minutes (or 220,000 hours) of British Telecom Wi-Fi were used across Olympic Park, and 961 TB of information were amassed from 94 locations in the Olympic network.

Digital nomads consider event venues—and any connected environment—an extension of the office.

AT&T Stadium set its current record for data in January 2015. Fans produced 4.92 TB of data during the College Football National Championship Game at the venue.

Levi’s Stadium, a $1.2 billion project that opened in July 2014 and is considered by some to be one of the world’s most high-tech stadiums, saw Wrestlemania 31 fans not only break attendance records, but also generate 4.5 TB of data on March 29, 2015. That is for only one day at one stadium. The Wi-Fi infrastructure at Levi’s Stadium will experience an even greater test of its abilities as host of Super Bowl L in February 2016.

That’s a Yottabyte: The Flood of Wireless Information

Our world is awash with radio waves transmitting information—the currency of the modern age. The two frequencies that wireless Internet devices run on—2.4GHz and 5.0GHz—differ in range, bandwidth, and the amount of interference.

With older mobile phones operating on 2.4 GHz, many high-density environments, such as arenas and convention centers, are experiencing saturation. With the evolution of technology, newer smartphones and devices can run on 5.0 GHz. Both of these frequencies are utilized at most venues.

But when you have tens of thousands of people entering your venue all at once—many with multiple devices and the expectation of using your wireless network—connectivity is the name of the game. Many of these people are multi-tasking, not only attending your event but also using your space as an extension of their office. Even if they are not using a particular device at the moment, with Wi-Fi turned on those devices are communicating with your venue’s network. And many events have become virtual, in a sense. Their reach extends to the noosphere of the planet, with attendees tweeting, Facebooking, live streaming, and communicating with the world outside your venue.

Large numbers of people expecting and accessing this connectivity have prompted venue owners to upgrade their network infrastructures, often at seven figures a pop. And with the rapidly evolving technological landscape, networks need to be robust, redundant, and agile. Compounding this equation is that every venue and each event have different requirements for their attendees.

Venues are not isolated from society; they are coral animals embedded into the technological reef of society at large. As society becomes more and more connected with the proliferation of smart devices, competition for bandwidth becomes more intense.

The second part of IAVM’s Wi-Fi series will address recent venue-network upgrades, effects of the looming spectrum crunch on venues, and current FCC regulations. FM

(Image: Chris Oakley/Creative Commons)