The Wi-Fi connectivity conversation is an essential part of the event planning process and should be initiated at the site visit and attendee registration stages. Across the industry spectrum, great attendee experience is a paramount concern—and connectivity is a huge part of the picture.

“We’re just living in a world now where the Wi-Fi connectivity conversation can no longer be a negotiating point or an afterthought—it needs to be an integrated, transparent, and thoughtful process,” said Michael Owen, managing partner of EventGenuity, a member of the APEX (Accepted Practices Exchange, an initiative of the Convention Industry Council) Bandwidth and Connectivity Workgroup, and chair of the APEX Standards Committee.

Decisions about connectivity in the event space, according to Owen, should be priority No. 1 for the planner and venue management. A venue’s chronological age isn’t nearly as important as the generation of technology used, coverage, and density needed for an optimum and robust wireless experience in the event space.

Owen sees a need to understand the Wi-Fi conversation as a pan-industry imperative—not only for planners and show organizers, but also for venue salespeople.

“If you’re a salesperson you want to be a better partner to a planner. If they’re not asking the right questions, then prompt them to do so,” he said. “Understand the product, how it works, and the expectations so they can get what they need.”

Jeff Hardy, a network engineer with the Moscone Center in San Francisco, would like planners to have some idea of how the network will be used.

“The biggest thing for event planners to understand is the difference between bandwidth and RF spectrum,” Hardy said. “You can have gigs of bandwidth and with poorly designed or configured wireless network, it will do no good. While having adequate bandwidth is important, understanding how your clients and attendees will use the wireless network will help us to design a solution that will maximize the use of the RF spectrum. This will ensure a positive user experience is achieved.”

Other recommendations that venues and suppliers would like event planners and show organizer partners to understand: the necessity of having the connectivity conversation at the site visit and contract levels, the importance of discussing the venue’s Wi-Fi capability, understanding the right questions to ask, deciding what is “mission critical,” knowing who the provider will be and who will manage the Wi-Fi space, becoming familiar with the event app and its needs (if applicable), and reports of event data usage.

Owen advises planners/organizers to ask the Internet provider, whether in-venue or outsourced, for charts that show peak usage, the number of devices used, etc., in order to gain a better idea of data demands and usage and to more appropriately prepare for the next event.

One baseline factor in understanding a venue’s Wi-Fi capability is to have a working vocabulary of common, relevant technological terms (see Glossary sidebar).

John Rissi, senior vice president of operations for PSAV and leader of the APEX Bandwidth and Connectivity Workgroup, has seen more planners on the meetings side addressing the bandwidth issue at venues, including bandwidth requirements for different parts of the event. But he still sees much work to be done in educating the various sectors of the hospitality industry.

“There’s still a huge population out there not acquainted with this issue—not only on the planner side but on the venue side,” Rissi said. “Sometimes it seems the hotel and convention center managers are even less aware of the issue than the meeting planners. There’s probably been less training at the venues, but one of our goals is to educate on the meetings side and the venues side, to help them both understand the issue and their obligations.”

To facilitate the connectivity conversation, PSAV has created an online Bandwidth Estimator tool and has made it available for free on the CIC’s website (www.conventionindustry.org, applicable for up to 1,000 attendees). PSAV is also in the process of creating a site visit checklist and technology RFP for planners to help determine whether or not a venue’s network will be able to fulfill an event’s Wi-Fi expectations.

Another tool that can add visual understanding to the connectivity conversation is the Architecture of Radio App created by Richard Vijgen—available for iOS and Android, December 2015 and January of 2016, respectively. Planners and venue owners will be able to see what Vijgen describes as the “Infosphere,” the system of informational entities that comprise the wired infrastructure of the invisible Hertzian space (http://www.architectureofradio.com).

Ask the Right Questions

Attendees/exhibitors of events set the expectations, and integrating and managing those expectations within the scope of an event venue’s Wi-Fi capability is a key factor in the success of any event. Know your attendees/exhibitors and evaluate their technological adaptability (based on ability, not simply age demographics), the number of devices per person (including wearables and Bluetooth), the way in which each will be used, what types of content (live streaming, social media, etc.) will be consumed/broadcasted and the requirements of each session/presenter/exhibitor.

Educating Attendees

In turn, event planners/organizers can also educate their attendees/exhibitors in Wi-Fi best practices at events. One easy way in which to help eliminate “bandwidth hogging” can be to urge the downloading of any necessary apps for the event beforehand. Tchad Rogers, interim CIO for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA) in Boston also recommends encouraging people to connect to the 5 GHz network (if supported by their devices) rather than the 2.4 GHz in order to enjoy a better experience. Recently, the MCAA has seen twice the number of people connecting to the usually already congested 2.4 GHz network.

Disruption and the FCC

Rogers has also seen the negative impact and disruption of unauthorized Wi-Fi transmitters within the venue space. These devices create interference with a venue’s network and can potentially degrade the level of service for everyone trying to get wireless access. Here again is where education of the client/planner/organizer/attendee on this issue is important. Although the MCAA has a policy of disallowing the usage of individual networks, it is left up to the individual client on whether or not to enforce the policy.

“We don’t actually police or enforce it,” Rogers said. “We just try to tackle it from the education perspective.”

Unauthorized personal antenna wireless “hotspot” devices are a bane for the Internet providers of venues. Tasked by clients with providing robust connectivity and restricted from interfering with these “hotspot” devices by Section 333 of the Communications Act and a 2015 FCC Enforcement Advisory, venues face huge issues of interference, integrity , security, compromise of  mission-critical services and “noise” disruption while still being expected to provide an exceptional quality of service.

In 2014, the FCC investigated Marriot International for blocking consumers from connecting to the Internet with personal hot-spot devices. Marriot agreed to pay a US$600,000 fine to settle the investigation.

The FCC released the Enforcement Advisory in January 2015, warning that Wi-Fi blocking is prohibited and persons or businesses causing intentional interference to Wi-Fi hot spots are subject to enforcement actions. The advisory specifically states: “No hotel, convention center or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network. Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.”

The FCC’s second major enforcement action was against Smart City Holdings in August 2015 for allegedly blocking personal hot spots. Smart City entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC to pay $750,000 in order to settle the issue and not engage in a costly defense. Mark Haley, president of Smart City, issued a statement in response allowing that while Smart City has “occasionally used industry-standard technologies made available by major equipment manufacturers to prevent antenna wireless hot-spot devices from significantly interfering with and disrupting the operations of neighboring exhibitors on our convention floors.” Smart City had no prior notice of this Advisory and was retroactively targeted, despite having ceased using the technology in October 2014 after they were contacted by the FCC.

In both cases, neither Marriott nor Smart City was found by the FCC to have violated any laws and each had utilized FCC-approved technology.

“If you’re not able to manage the network using technology, then you have to use more manual methods or have some rules in place that everybody is going to agree to play nice in the sandbox to get the most out of the network,” Haley said in July 2015.

In response to these FCC rulings, IAVM formed a Wi-Fi Coalition to help establish standard operating principles and rules that ensure a reliable Wi-Fi environment for all users. Individuals and groups representing meeting professionals and industry suppliers have joined the coalition, including the Convention Industry Council, the International Association of Exhibition and Events, and the Convention Sales Professionals International.

The Wi-Fi Coalition is tasked with drafting a set of Common Sense Rules for the industry. Part IV of this series will explore these efforts. FM