Why conference Wi-Fi sucks and how to improve it

I was inspired to do a long article about Wi-Fi at conferences by Joel Spolsky’s article Wi-Fi At Conferences where he asks why Wi-Fi works so poorly at tech conferences. Muniwireless has organized conferences in the past and I won’t say that the Wi-Fi at our events has ben the very best either (however, it was better than at most events I’ve attended). You would think that by now, Wi-Fi access at conferences, especially tech events, would be something no one would even notice — that is, it should just work well. But that’s rarely the case.

Dewayne Hendricks (who has provided Wi-Fi at David Isenberg’s Freedom To Connect events in Washington DC, Social Capital 2009 in San Francisco, West Coast Green 2009 in San Francisco and others) pointed out that in many hotels and conference centers, the existing Wi-Fi network can handle only 20 to 25 connections at one time and the bandwidth for the network is barely enough for people who are downloading and uploading data. Conferences today have to deal with people who are updating blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, and who are sending photos, video clips, and reports. Some attendees are also using Skype and other VOIP applications. Unfortunately, many venues are too cheap to install new 802.11n access points, and because the bandwidth that feeds into the network is too paltry, the conference organizer – if it wants to guarantee a good Wi-Fi experience – will have to bring in both the access points AND the bandwidth (for example, Covad). This dramatically increases the cost of hosting an event. (Note: Dewayne used Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n access points which worked very well at the Freedom to Connect event held in March 2009 at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD. I attended this event and would rate the Wi-Fi experience outstanding.)

Here is a sample quote (dated September 2009) from a well-known bandwidth provider for bringing in (wireless) bandwidth into a venue (each amount quoted below is a one-time fee). This is just the bandwidth; it does not include the access points, the fee charged by the Wi-Fi service providers for installing the access points, managing the event’s Wi-Fi network, dealing with problems and meltdowns, etc.

  • 5 Mbps: $3999
  • 10 Mbps: $5999
  • 20 Mbps: $9999
  • 30 Mbps: $11,999
  • 45 Mbps: $16,999

Andy Abramson, founder of Comunicano, agrees with Dewayne’s assessment of hotel Wi-Fi and adds that most hotels have less than 5 MB of connectivity. Some hotels limit the number of users to 250 concurrent users. Andy believes that hotels have not realized how much Wi-Fi means to an event’s (and the hotel’s) reputation. Most conference attendees rate Wi-Fi connectivity as one of the three most important needs at a conference.

Q&A with Tim Pozar on how to improve conference Wi-Fi

I wanted to unravel the mystery surrounding what it takes to bring good Wi-Fi to conferences by asking Tim Pozar, a network engineer who has been hired by conferences such as TechCrunch 2009, Intel Developers Forum, SNAP and more. Below is our Q&A.

(1) Why is Wi-Fi service so horrible at most conferences, including at hotels where there’s already Wi-Fi and/or wired broadband? What can you do to improve Wi-Fi service?

There are several reasons. In the case of built-in Wi-Fi at hotels, they really don’t design it for conferences. They design it for general guest use around the hotel. They install a minimal set of access points and don’t use a number of the tricks we have used for conferences. Also, on-site hotel staff usually do not have technical expertise to address issues. Most of these installs were done by third parties that may not currently have a support contract with the hotel. If they do, or if the hotel supports it, it is done off-site by some remote network operations center (NOC).

Where a conference organizer brings in an company to provide Wi-Fi access and the network fails, it can be for a number of reasons. Typically I see small companies that are trying to grow larger and don’t test the deployment or think through all the failure points that can happen with a large-scale deployment. When I was called in to solve the Wi-Fi problems at TechCrunch 2008, the wireless provider had some serious problems, not the least of which was the DHCP server they were running, which only supported 250 or so leases. Needless to say, that alone stopped the use of the wireless network pretty early on in the conference until I came in to fix it.

I also notice that many vendors just don’t understand RF propagation and how to manage it. They think that more is better: more access points and/or more power. In most cases, this is the opposite of what you want to do as it just congests the spectrum even more. There are a number of tricks that we use at MSI to try to manage the spectrum.

Redundancy plays a big part of a deployment. If you have a conference that depends on broadband for the success of the event, you can’t have a single point of failure. Having multiple transit providers, DHCP servers, etc. are critical as things fail all the time. Having any service fail will likely make the deployment unusable and worthless for the event organizer.

(2) Why haven’t hotels and conference centers done much to improve the quality of wireless broadband for conference organizers who are already paying a lot of money to host events at these locations?

Good question. It seems that large hotel chains could make this a profitable item, but as with most hotels, they figure they have a captured event and don’t need to put any more effort into this. Also, as mentioned above,
they have had third parties come in and do the deployment. One size does not fit all events and they almost never have technical staff on site to address the problems of this deployment because it costs too much to keep them on the hotel’s payroll.

(3) Why do most conference organizers fail to provide good Wi-Fi? Ignorance? Cheapness? Both?

Both. You get what you pay for. MSI’s deployments include a significant staff that can deploy and address problems during the event quickly. The network engineers that MSI uses (including me) are veterans of decades of networking experience. I have seen a number of wireless providers who think all they need is a broadband connection and some access points thrown around the location. Of course, it is much more complicated than that.

Event organizers don’t have the technical background and skills to do the “due diligence” to see if a vendor has the ability to pull of a deployment. They really need to look at the vendor’s track record with similar deployments and many just don’t have the time. In other cases, the event organizer will choose the wireless vendor who is offering the cheapest solution.

(4) What advice would you give conference organizers? What should they look for, what questions should they ask the hotel or the company they are hiring to bring in Wi-Fi to the conference?

As mentioned above, look at the track record of the company. Ask for references. Ask for previous event’s reports. (MSI always creates daily reports on an event, including bandwidth and number of users. It also includes problems encountered.) Ask them about their technical qualifications. Have they done similar events? How many people attended these events? Were they “tech” events where everyone shows up with multiple devices — laptops, smartphones, etc.?

Meet with the company and discuss the event’s requirements. Ask them how they would deploy the network in detail: where they would place access points, how they are going to bring in bandwidth. Ask them about redundancy such as transit providers, equipment, staffing. Ask if the gear they are going to deploy has been used at events of similar size recently. Ask them about how they will deal with outages and problems. Will they provide a high-level network engineer at all times? How will they be reached during the event?

(5) In terms of costs for providing Wi-Fi at an event, how much should a conference organizer budget (taking into account  the number of attendees, size of venue, type of event — obviously a conference around streaming video/entertainment would suck up more bandwidth)?

This can vary greatly from $2000 a day for a small event (up to 300 people) and no redundancy; to $100,000 and more per day for larger events (up to 30,000 people) that could take over a conference hall like Moscone Center in San Francisco, and a serious build out that would address multiple failure points.

Tim Pozar has been a network and RF engineer for more than 20 years. Past projects, besides broadband deployment for conferences, are a 30Mb/s, 50Km connection the the Farallon Islands to support personal on the island and a live streaming camera for the California Academy of Sciences. Currently he is designing and deploying a city wide fiber network for the City of San Francisco. Pozar also designs and deploys VoIP networks for national teleconferencing companies and high reliability Internet networks for enterprise and ISP companies.

I have made this article into a PDF file posted on Scribd so you can download it, print it, send it around.

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  1. Nice article, thanks Esme. Agreed about Dave’s WTF events. I went to the one in 2005 and the wifi was outstanding, with full streaming video and, ISTR, bike powered wifi being shown off too!

    Here in the UK we constantly have this problem (again this week @nextgen09) where venues just don’t get the importance of the backhaul, the telcos don’t get the fact that if they charge that much they won’t get a sale, the organisers don’t get the importance of being able to work during the event, nor the fact that remote participation, backchannels etc will make any event that more memorable, talked about etc – for the right reasons!

    When we have dumb, fat pipes with a wireless cloud overlaid to give true WiFi everywhere, we will all, of course, wonder what all the fuss was about.

  2. I agree completely about WiFi being a major irritant in most conferences and even most hotel stays. I think I’ll PDF this article and mail it to conference organizers as I sign-up for industry events this coming year.

    I pick and exclude hotels on the quality of WiFi experience, too.

  3. Jim,

    Do send this article to event organizers. I’m also fed up with lousy WIFi, especially at hotels. In Europe, some hotels even charge 30 EUR per day!


  4. Esme,

    Good to see you highlight this.
    I have been talking about this for ages now as it is just unacceptable that tech-conferences can’t provide working, affordable wifi.
    There’s a good example on how it can be done properly here: http://evertb.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/wifi-at-conferences-part-3/


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  6. I have been to many conferences and the WiFi is normally quite bad, they do not seem to know how to handle Tech conferences.

    One exception this year was the world Plone conference in Budapest, at one stage over 400 of us in one room using many different devices and it held up very well for the most part and was seamless in the various meeting rooms.

    The difference seems to be the community provided there own wireless network (www.ploneconf2009.org/blog) led by a Plone guy called Wyn Williams instead of hiring a company to do it for them, with tech conferences being full of tech people maybe it is time to start taking the lead and consider doing it for ourselves ?

  7. Craig Newman says

    Awesome topic.

    I am cautiously optomistic as more and more Event locations and Hotel chains will start to use WiFi VOIP based solutions….hence service will improve…WiFi VOIP of course demands better WiFi deployments…that is planned ones….”spray and pray” installers will be left in the dust.

    I am seeing a rise in Push to Talk applications over WiFi Voip. Check out Motorola’s recent TEAM phone announcements to get more details on this.

    Of course the fat pipe into the building is the biggest financial issue. Several WISP’s specialize in this market for events. They usually can get you a fat pipe with 3 days notice. Try http://www.broadbandreports.com to find one in your neck of the woods.

    …but to get hotels and conference centers to step up permenantly is whole other issue.

    My guess is in 5yrs we’ll see this issue resolved…until then we will all suffer!

    I have had one tip from a friendly traveler in the US that may be of use. Use the Clearwire/Sprint 4G WiMax dongle for laptops. It’s a new network with not a lot of saturation on it….yet!

  8. This is a good article with some good questions. In my opinion a lot of hotels still have the belief that WiFi is for laptops and PDAs. I have been to conferences organised by government agencies and the WiFi is worse than a busy cafe.
    ‘Why do most conference organizers fail to provide good Wi-Fi? Ignorance? Cheapness? Both?’ exactly right. Too many hotels take the novice approach and expect that it will work.

    @Craig I totally agree eventually, people will start taking WiFi seriously and we will see a change, but for a lot of hotels it’s just another expense that their just not willing to fork out for. VOIP will be welcomed especially when the cost of calling internationally is so expensive.

  9. Very good point on wifi access. Now, this is not going to turn around quickly.
    Architecture issues: A lot of the convention centers were built as fortresses, so now wifi access points are difficult to execute.
    Heavy investment: For a trade center, the wifi infrastructure alone can run from 500K to a lot more than that – not inexpensive technology.
    When talking to the infrastructure managers that try to keep the capital costs down while maintaining competitiveness, this is one of the wicked issues.
    Security: The other issue to consider is security of the wifi network. Everyone expects open access – with all the manageability complexity of the firewall and scanning.