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Your Burning Wi-Fi Questions, Answered

How many connections can an access point handle? Will the day come when we don’t have to worry about Wi-Fi because all attendees have unlimited cellular data plans? Do hotels really block data signals to force planners to buy Wi-Fi?

If you have been following this series of articles based on the recent MeetingsNet webinar, “Wi-Fi: How to Make Sure You Have Enough Bandwidth at the Right Price,” you now know the 3 Absolutely Valid Reasons Planners Get Nervous Negotiating Event Wi-Fi3 Things You Need to Know to Determine Your Event’s Internet Needs, and What You Need to Know About Wi-Fi Pricing.

But perhaps you still have a few more questions. So did the live webinar audience, and here they are, answered by presenters Tim LaFleur, CMP, director, mobile strategy and solutions, Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, and Matt Harvey, vice president, client network services, PSAV.

What are the maximum concurrent connections a low-, mid-, and high-grade access point device can handle?

Harvey: It's important to realize that the more bandwidth each device is consuming, the fewer devices you can have per access point. Ultimately, the access point performance metric is “data throughput,” so fewer devices transferring more data takes the same resources as more devices transferring less data. However, a good rule of thumb for typical use is:

High-grade (e.g., 802.11ac) APs—about 200 to 300 devices on a dual-band radio access point

Mid-grade (e.g., 802.11n) APs—about 150 devices on a dual-band radio access point

Low-grade (e.g., 802.11a/g) APs—about 100 devices on a dual-band radio access point

LaFleur: From a technical standpoint, what Matt says is spot on. It’s also important for planners to recognize what you are asking your attendees to do, i.e., polling through an app, accessing an online audience-response system, or visiting a website or streaming a video. Each of these actions carries different bandwidth and throughput requirements.

When planning for a session where I know connectivity is an issue, I usually play the two-thirds rule and will assume each AP can connect two-thirds of what it is supposed to. This gives me a little breathing room. If I think I’ll need more connectivity, I usually ask the facility to bolster the network with ad hoc APs.

How “new” do access points need to be?

Harvey: 802.11n should be the minimum standard for any event requiring Wi-Fi. 802.11n networks began appearing in 2012, and the standard has been revised three times since then. I would suggest access points be replaced every four years.  

LaFleur: Agreed. And if the facility says that it has 802.11 b/g access points, I would be very wary of the service that you will be receiving.

Do you have a spec sheet for the recommended number of access points for a large space, such as a ballroom (i.e., 8,000 square feet)?

Harvey: We start from the number of people in the space rather than the square footage. Typical hotel guidelines require that there be enough APs to handle the theater-style load of the room.

LaFleur: Agreed—starting with the number of people in a space and understanding what you are asking them to do, where any potential heavy user spots might be is paramount. Then look at the coverage map from the facility and what types of APs it has. That will determine if there is enough coverage in the room.

We have a group of 20 that only needs Wi-Fi to access their smartphones. Do you need to buy Wi-Fi from the hotel?

Harvey: Ask yourself:
-Is Wi-Fi critical to the success of this meeting?
-Do I need any wired connectivity?
-Do I have any needs beyond “basic” Internet?

If the answer to all 3 is no, you should be thinking about whether Wi-Fi really is required. In this case, since smartphones have cellular data plans, I expect the group could survive the day without Wi-Fi, assuming there are only non-international attendees (i.e., who would have reasonably priced cellular data) and good cellular coverage.

LaFleur: It’s important to understand all three of Matt’s questions, along with what you are you asking your attendees to do on their smartphones. Is it simple web browsing, email checking, and polling through an app, or is more robust, such as video streaming, etc.?

It’s also important to know if attendees are using personal or business phones. I have seen attendees who are very reluctant to use cellular connections if they are using their personal data plans. Also, take into account where in the facility the event is taking place. Is there good cellular coverage?

Do you recommend separate access points for lavs (wireless mics) for main stage presenters?

Harvey: Professional wireless mics operate entirely separate from Wi-Fi. Personally I would stay away from wireless mics operating in the Wi-Fi space due to the high risk of interference and shorter transmission range. Speaking purely about segmenting Wi-Fi, it is possible to give main stage presenters their own Wi-Fi frequency; however it takes a lot of planning with the venue.

Since it looks like mobile phone providers are moving toward offering unlimited data plans, will attendees need the venue Wi-Fi?

Harvey: Cellular data Internet and Wi-Fi are completely different systems. It is certainly possible that unlimited cellular plans will drive some people away from the Wi-Fi for more basic activities. In the long term, a lot depends on the growth in attendee bandwidth consumption since cellular bandwidth capacity is much more expensive to add than Wi-Fi capacity.

LaFleur: Interesting question. This conversation started for me back in 2010-2011 before most carriers started taking away unlimited data. Now that is starting to come back, I have to wonder how long it will be before they take it away again (if at all). While most carriers are bringing it back, some throttle you after certain usage...which could be problematic if it happens at an event.

As Matt stated, cellular connectivity and Wi-Fi connectivity are indeed two different items. Attendees who have unlimited data will ultimately use whatever is working the best for them at the moment. So if the Wi-Fi is running slow for any number of reasons, they might jump to their cellular, and if they are not getting a good cellular connection they might jump back to the Wi-Fi.

If you expect your attendees to use a lot of cellular connectivity, take devices from the major carriers to your site visit and see what type of signal and speeds you get in various places around the facility to give you an idea of what your attendees might experience.

Is it true that facilities block data signals to make planners purchase Wi-Fi?

Harvey: While actively interfering with cellular signals is illegal, building construction does degrade cellular signals—which we all experience when trying to use cellular data in a basement or elevator. Some venues choose to install Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) that improve indoor cellular coverage. However, such systems are significantly more costly than Wi-Fi to deploy and the venue may not see the ROI in doing cellular in addition to Wi-Fi.

Why is a hardline better than Wi-Fi?

Harvey: Wired connectivity is not susceptible to the potential interference and access-point loads that wireless is, leading to a more stable and faster connection.

LaFleur: Agreed, that’s why I suggest putting all show-critical systems on a wired connection (i.e., registration and production computers, etc.)

I have had properties tell me that they cannot provide a Wi-Fi usage report because everything is tracked off site. Shouldn’t they still be able to provide a report?

Harvey: Most usage tracking is performed off site. Some providers to hotels do not yet offer usage reports as part of their service.

LaFleur: Most facilities I have worked in track usage on site. If they cannot do this for you, it speaks to the quality of provider. In addition to just asking for a usage report, I usually provide them with a template prior to the event that I want them to fill out to ensure I am getting good, usable data.

What do you think about using a Wi-Fi card for the planning team network (reg desk, staff office, breakout check-in points, etc.)?

Harvey: I'm assuming by Wi-Fi card you mean a Mi-Fi cellular hotspot in place of the venue network. Whether this will work depends entirely on the amount of bandwidth required.

LaFleur: I think there are a couple factors that need to be taken into account:

1. Is the cellular provider that the Mi-Fi uses strong in that city?

  1. Does your location in the hotel get good connections to the cellular network?

3. How much data are you transmitting, and can the cellular network handle that amount?

I have used Mi-Fis instead of the hotel Internet, but not without a lot of planning ahead of time to ensure that the experience would be a good one.

Do you have a planning worksheet to help figure out the number of access points a group will need?

Harvey: Check out CIC's Internet RFP Strategy Guide. It also has some guidelines for bandwidth availability. 

What is involved with bringing in an external Internet provider? Do most hotels allow this?

Harvey: Venues vary in their approach to this. Their main concern is usually damage to their existing network (which runs not just the guest Wi-Fi but also what’s used in the back office, point of sale, etc.) by a third party. In my experience, hotels with inadequate Internet will be eager to work with you to book the business and make sure the event is successful. Hotels with brand-new networks are more likely to want to protect their asset.

LaFleur: The first thing I always look for is to see if the contract allows for this.

If so, you need to know if the third party is bringing in its own bandwidth (usually cellular in nature) and hardware, or if it will tap into the facility’s pipe and broadcast through its own hardware. I would ask what type of hardware the third party is bringing to see how it stacks up against what the facility has. Additionally, I would find out what ancillary fees the property charges to bring in a third party. For instance, does it have to re-configure its current network to accommodate the third party?

What should planners ask for in a facility usage report?

Harvey: It should contain charts with bandwidth upload and download, shown over time; and device counts shown over time. If you split the event into separate networks (e.g., a separate presenter network), you could also ask for reporting per separate network

LaFleur: In addition, I like to know about spikes in usage and concurrent connections, along with the date, time, and location of those spikes. Was there one session that caused things to spike, and, if so, was it expected? This type of analysis allows me to better plan for the future.

How do you define throughput?

Harvey: It’s the rate of successful message delivery over a communication channel. In the context of this presentation, throughput is a measure of whether the access point can keep up with the demands placed on it without becoming the bandwidth bottleneck.

LaFleur: For example, let’s say you are using an app for polling. The bandwidth demands may be quite small, but if there are not enough access points in the room to connect all the devices, you could experience a disruption of service.

How much Mbps do you need per person for basic browsing?

Harvey: Check out the CIC bandwidth estimator to estimate total bandwidth need for a group.

LaFleur: That calculator will definitely help, but this is a tricky question because what constitutes “good” Wi-Fi is subjective. My idea of fast speeds could be completely different from yours. As a rule of thumb, 1–1.5 Mbps per individual generally will provide what I think of as a good experience. However, it’s tricky because again not everyone will be actively using the network at one time. So while the CIC bandwidth estimator is a good jumping off point, ultimately getting a history of your group’s usage over time will be the most helpful way to really understand your group’s needs.

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