Learning to negotiate Wi-Fi with an event venue requires planners to almost learn a new language so both sides can come to an understanding of how the technology can best help you meet your meeting’s goals. In a recent MeetingsNet webinar, Tim LaFleur, CMP, director, mobile strategy and solutions, Meetings & Incentives Worldwide; and Matt Harvey, vice president, client network services, PSAV, explained the three most important terms for things you need to know about how networks function.
- Bandwidth. “Bandwidth is basically the information we can send and receive over the Internet, and it comes in two flavors—shared and dedicated,” said Harvey.
Shared is what you have at home. You’re buying bandwidth from one of the cable companies, which, if you look at the fine print in the contract, says it will provide “up to” a number of megabits per second. “The ‘up to’ category is important,” Harvey said. “It means that’s the fastest that connection will ever go, and that sometimes, something will make it slow down. That something is everybody else in your neighborhood that you’re sharing that pool of bandwidth with,” he added. “We accept that as a way of delivering Internet in a domestic setting because it brings the price down. You’re diluting the cost of that bandwidth by sharing it.”
That’s not acceptable for meetings and events though, because no one wants their Wi-Fi speed to ebb and flow based on what the neighbors are doing online. “We only have one chance to make an event go perfectly, so instead we use dedicated bandwidth, which is not shared with anyone else and is delivered only to the building, 100 percent of the time. That makes it much more dependable, reliable, and available, and easy to understand what we’re getting,” he said.
But it doesn’t stop with just knowing that your event’s bandwidth is dedicated. “We also have to understand how bandwidth is delivered around the building,” he said.
A venue’s bandwidth is attached to the meeting space, but also to other places in the building—guest rooms, public space, and back offices. “And in the meeting space, we have our meeting, but also everybody else’s meeting. I often hear stories about Wi-Fi working great on day one, and then on day two a large group moved in to the other end of the facility” and everything bogged down.
“Dedicated bandwidth to the edge of the network is important, but what’s really important is that bandwidth can be dedicated all the way to an individual meeting. And by meeting I don’t mean a physical space in the hotel. Think about being able to dedicate bandwidth to the subset of your people who are meeting in the building,” said Harvey.
“We used to ask about how much bandwidth is coming into the hotel, and hotels are getting better at answering that question. Nowadays we [need to] think in terms of asking how much bandwidth can you dedicate to my meeting over my dates, and is that sufficient for what I need to do,” he added.
LaFleur said that it’s also important to understand the different types of access points, which each have different capabilities and do different things. While the topic was beyond the scope of that webinar, he offered, “As a cheat sheet, if a facility tells me they have 802.11 n, a, or c, I feel pretty comfortable. If they tell me they have 802.11 b’s and g’s, I’m a little worried because b’s and g’s are a little older, the technology is a little out of date, they can’t broadcast as much signal, whereas your n’s and a’s and c’s can do a better job.”
- Infrastructure. When we think about bandwidth, we think about the box that sits in the corner of our living room and occasionally needs rebooting. These things do a great job at home for the most part, and they’re priced cheaper than infrastructure that goes into hotels because they’re for a limited number of devices, Harvey explained.
In hotels, that box is replaced by access points that are spread around the facility. “The first question I usually get asked is, ‘Why do you have so many? Why not put just one big one in the middle?’” said Harvey. “The answer is that these things can handle a limited amount of devices too. It’s important that they’re spread out so they can pick up the device load around the building.”
Ask your venue to provide a floorplan that includes access points, and then “ask your favorite techie about how many devices you can support in each room,” he said.
- Support. It’s the people who make it all work. Think about support in two tiers: internal and external. For internal support, ask about who is onsite that will be handling your Wi-Fi needs. “I include sales in this because a good salesperson should be able to help you work through that discussion around what you’re going to be doing in the building and what you’ll need to meet those needs,” Harvey said. And there’s also the offsite engineering team to consider. “These are the guys we lock in dark rooms watching screens all day who respond to problems on the network around the world. There is always going to be an offsite element to the network,” said Harvey.
As part of your planning venue discovery process, he urged planners to ask who is onsite, what their level of training and expertise is, what hours they work, who is offsite, and at what point does the onsite group have to escalate issues to the offsite team.
“These questions are important because there are a variety of service models, and it’s not always going to be the same company doing the offsite bit as is doing the onsite bit,” he added. “So if you have something important going on that requires Wi-Fi, it might be important to involve the offsite team in the planning discussions.”
LaFleur said, “Once you have a good grip on what that terminology is, you need to start thinking next-level. Think in terms of the goals you have for the event, and then [think about] how the Internet is going to support those goals.” For example, do you plan to do polling within an app, or a web stream? “Wrapping your arms around what you’re trying to do from an event design perspective will help you understand if the configuration and capabilities of the venue will support it,” he said.
“It’s important to marry your event design to the capabilities of the network. Planners sometimes miss that step, but it’s a really important step,” said LaFleur.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that Wi-Fi is a shared medium. “Often I hear about clients getting screaming fast speeds when they do a site visit and no one’s there, and then when there are more people pulling off the Wi-Fi, things slow down a bit.”
He said that, while speed tests are not absolute indicators, they can be good guides. He gave the example of a speed test he took in a general session room about 10 minutes before the session started. “I got pretty good results, more than 9 Mbps download and upload speeds. About 17 minutes into the session I took another speed test and it was down to 1 Mbps or lower. The number of people in the room will affect the speeds—use speed tests as a guide.”