Why Wi-Fi sucked at the Mobile World Congress: so what else is new?

Another large tech conference means another barrage of news reports and complaints from attendees about how the Wi-Fi service sucked. CNN reports:

There were dozens of Wi-Fi networks at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. But with more than 60,000 people in attendance, the systems were so overloaded that there may as well have been one landline connection with a 56k modem . . . Areas marked “free Wi-Fi here” often had no or painfully slow connections. Demonstrations from Microsoft, Google, Intel, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard and Research In Motion, among others, became comical when the presenters were unable to connect even to their own networks. Average peak usage reached about 3,200 devices managing to connect simultaneously to Cisco’s 110 access points.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, remarked, “That’s the problem with networking conventions. Everyone is on the network.”

Actually having everyone on the network is NOT the problem. The problem lies with who’s in charge of the Wi-Fi network and in this case, the culprit is the event organizer itself. When Cisco asked the event organizer if they could install more access points to handle the huge traffic, the organizer limited the availability of the free network to 10 percent of locations at the conference (because the organizer wanted people to pay for WiFi access). That was a huge mistake. So large numbers of people began congregating around the areas where there was free WiFi. According to the CNN story, “the press room access point, designed to supply connections to 200 clients, had 700 people accessing the network.”

See these articles debunking the myths surrounding why Wi-Fi sucks and how to ensure conference attendees have a Wi-Fi experience:

(1) Why Conference Wi-Fi Sucks and How to Improve It: interview with wireless network engineer, Tim Pozar, who has deployed successful Wi-Fi networks at conferences such as TechCrunch 2009, Intel Developers Forum and more. These conferences have lots of geeks using smartphones, laptops and iPads simultaneously.

(2) NYT Biffs It on Wi-Fi Conference Overload (by Glenn Fleishman)


  1. I have said it from the start, charging for access at a convention is crazy. It should have been sponsored by the city or town, aka muniwireless funded by tax payers. All in all, wouldnt it have been great to use the same network at a restaurant close the convention as well as at the convention. The city could have promosted the convention all over town, thus bringing in more dollars for local business.

    One day…One day..


  2. The key is Intelligent Network Design with capacity planning. Organizers should plan for three WiFi devices per person.

  3. Charging for Wi-Fi at an event like MWC is just a greed-driven mistake. Personally I have found events that used Xirrus (no personal investment or business connection) work very well as long as the backhaul is sufficient. Spain is not known for its embrace of Wi-Fi or free/public availability. Disclaimer – I provided Wi-Fi access for MWC 2010 GSMA executives, not at Fira Montjuïc but at a local hotel.

  4. Agree with comment from @Carlo it’s a shame that the organisers felt the need to generate additional revenue from wireless network when, in reality, it distracts from the overall experience of the event. We work with events and I appreciate the pressure organisers are under to generate additional revenue but would most not pay a small adder to their stand to get it sorted?

    Disclaimer – we (Etherlive) provide event technology for many UK events however we do nothing with MWC. I feel for CISCO as I imagine they are facing the same challenge we find sometimes – i.e. could technically solve the issue…but hands tied.

  5. Building networks at scale is a challenge … but crippling that challenge further with silly pricing tricks is a sure path to failure.

    But indeed, one the key challenges for wireless (WiFi AND licensed) is the challenge of thousands of smartphone devices in a small area. Conferences are only the bleeding edge of this phenomena .. consider the problems of arenas.

    I am unaware of a single enclosed arena WiFi network that works at all when the arena is full.

  6. Intel11 says