Making the connection

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Digital communication methods are influencing our interaction in all sorts of ways, so it’s not surprising to hear a new working group on Wi-Fi connectivity at exhibitions stemmed from a LinkedIn discussion. Wi-Fi has been on the show floor for a long time and has been continually criticised. But rising demand for Internet connectivity from exhibitors and visitors, triggered by proliferation of Wi-Fi-enabled devices on exhibitor stands and in visitors’ hands is creating service reliability issues that are only getting worse. Add the number of organisers using Wi-Fi for apps for registration systems, lead generation, new apps and navigation tools and you’ve got a major problem. A working group facilitated by ESSA has been established to bring all sides of the exhibition industry together. Their aim is to find an appropriate, legitimate and financially sustainable way of providing adequate Wi-Fi during exhibitions. Online chat via LinkedIn led to an industry forum at the Event and Exhibiting Show in July, chaired by ESSA and AEV director Chris Skeith, and now a fully-fledged working group. Members come from Aztec Event Services, Clarion Events, Reed Exhibitions, DB Systems, Earls Court and Olympia, Excel London, the AEO, AEV and ESSA. “We all know that at a busy event you cannot get a mobile connection, but your chance of getting a Wi-Fi connection is even less,” Aztec Event Services MD and ESSA chair John Robson said. “We are overloading something that was never intended to handle this volume of traffic.” To compensate, exhibitors are increasingly relying on their own Wi-Fi devices such as routers and pocket-sized 4G Mi-Fi access routers. These are competing for spectrum access, causing the whole lot to overload. Ways to cope There are several options on the table for dealing with the Wi-Fi issue but they’re all complex and require buy-in from all involved parties. One suggestion is for venues to upgrade wireless infrastructure to the next-generation technology. However, what appears a straightforward – albeit expensive – solution has hidden snags. One is that most Wi-Fi devices in your hand are not yet equipped to use the higher frequency band required (5GHz versus 2.4GHz) to deliver better quality services. In addition, in order to recoup costs, a ban on exhibitors bringing in their own Wi-Fi networks must be enforced. This raises legal and operational issues. “Upgrading of infrastructure would be a considerable task and raises the question of funding, peaks and troughs, permanent installations or show by show, management of the channels and control,” Robson explained. “Unless absolute control was given to a single operator to manage and allocate accordingly, the current situation will only become exacerbated.” Given the complexity of the issue, ESSA forum participants agree no single technological solution will fix the problem, even if budgets were infinite. Instead, the way forward has to be through a blend of technical and management controls that achieve the optimum solution for all stakeholders. “Ultimately, exhibitors will look for the most cost-effective way to do things and currently buying Wi-Fi at venues is very expensive,” Reed Exhibitions Group operations manager Jennifer Booth said. “If we are able to change the cost model then we will reduce the amount of exhibitors doing it for themselves and that should go someway to resolving the issue.” For director of Wi-Fi supplier Max WiFi, Richard Hughes, no solution will be found until organisers and exhibitors start treating wireless connectivity as the professional, business-critical tool it is. He blamed a dismal understanding of the technology and costs behind providing quality-grade Wi-Fi services as major stumbling blocks. Hughes pointed out the average user at events managed by Max WiFi last year used 300-500MB of data per day. This has since leapt to 3-4GB per day – an amount of traffic no Starbucks Wi-Fi services would ever be expected to handle. And yet that is what visitors and organisers compare exhibition hall services to. “The perception of Wi-Fi is that it should be free, but you wouldn’t expect this of other critical services like power, so why should Wi-Fi be?” Hughes asked. He estimated correctly provisioning a Wi-Fi network to ensure adequate coverage is available at an exhibition could cost upwards of £25,000. Hughes also insisted exhibitors need to be denied the right to bring external Wi-Fi devices into halls such as pocket Mi-Fi devices, Bluetooth or routers. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with actually enforcing any policies they have tried to implement,” he claimed. “These include cutting power or Internet access to stands that put up their own wireless network without consent and appropriate planning measures. “Exhibitor devices cause congestion and interference, all of which lead to a harder environment to work in. There need to be clearly defined penalties associated with violating these terms and organisers need to be prepared to actually enforce them.”The UK is not alone The UK exhibition industry isn’t the only one battling the Wi-Fi issue. In a recent article, president of Smart City Networks in the US labelled Wi-Fi on the trade show floor “the new Wild Wild West”. He was one of several industry representatives participating in a similar discussion at the VenueConnect trade show of the International Assemble Venue Managers in July. “The type of Wi-Fi network needed in a convention centre serving thousands of users simultaneously is much more complex and costly than the Wi-Fi network found at your house or at Starbucks,” he stated. “A Wild West environment where every device increases its volume to be heard is not sustainable and jeopardises the Internet experience for everyone.” Booth agreed Reed also faced similar issues globally, particularly in the mature markets. This was because of legacy infrastructure and the proliferation of smartphones and end-user devices, she said. Skeith said the next step for the group is to call a formal technical committee meeting inviting interested parties to move the agenda along. “From the initial meeting there appears to be a very strong appetite to explore the issues and possible solutions in more depth to help all parties understand all angles,” Skeith added. “Once we have this understanding, it will be easier to explain this to our customers and be able to consider tackling them more efficiently, possibly as a collective, sharing knowledge and experiences along the way.” Hughes agreed the problem is a shared one. Venues need to recognise in-house systems are not up to the task anymore, while organisers needed strict policies for what is acceptable for exhibitors to use on their own stands. “Everyone involved has a stake in getting it right,” he claimed. “Organisers need to understand that a good level of service involves complex design challenges and using enterprise-grade equipment. All of that has associated costs, trained staff and thousands of pounds worth of kit that has to be paid for.” Reed’s Jennifer Booth was more inclined to give responsibility for Wi-Fi to the venue. However, she agreed that if venues needed to fund continual reinvestment into infrastructure, organisers had to support it being a paid-for service. “We are tied into suppliers for these services so we need them to find a solution thzat will supply a robust and stable Wi-Fi service,” she said. “However, we do recognise that in order to enable them to do that, there needs to be an open dialogue between all interested parties to make sure that they fully understand what our needs are in order to find a solution that meets them. “What we can’t do is ignore this issue and hope that quick fixes and patches will work because it is not going to go away. As organisers, we need to make sure we fully understand how our audiences are using Wi-Fi and what they need it for and communicate that to the venues to help them find solutions that will actually make a difference.” Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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