In this Q&A with Morgan Denton, Open Air Business learns that supplying Wi-Fi to an outdoor event is not about having the biggest aerial!
How is Wi-Fi use changing at outdoor events?
We have noticed that year on year both people and their devices use more and more data. This is due to people putting more of their lives on Cloud-based services, while social media sites and Apps like to improve content by streaming video when on Wi-Fi connections. Also, devices are now more aware of conserving mobile data; most mobile devices sync large amounts of data when they have a Wi-Fi connection (assuming it’s an unmetered, high speed connection). This, therefore, increases the load to the networks we build, most specifically to the main internet connection we bring to event spaces.
Furthermore, visitors to events expect to pay for services, products and whatever via card and contactless means so traders have to adopt reliable technologies to achieve this. It falls on the event organiser to provide a contractor who can supply and support this service on behalf of the traders.
What is the public’s expectation?
We have had a client refer to Wi-Fi as ‘a human right’ before now! With the increase of free Wi-Fi in coffee shops and restaurants, expectations are most definitely rising. When an event is all built and shiny with the power, plumbing, stands and showmanship open for business, people seem to forget they’re standing in a field which a month before had nothing but sheep grazing in it.
When is internet connectivity essential?
Organisers always need to be connected to send and receive emails during the build and de-rig of an event. This is why we are normally one of the first contractors on site and the last to leave. Due to failing mobile phone networks at most outdoor events the use of GPRS or 3G PDQ machines become unreliable. Exhibitors spend a lot of money to attend shows and nothing can be more frustrating than not being able to take payments due to a technical difficulty.
Many exhibitors like to offer hospitality services, showcasing online content and products, so reliable internet connections are critical to making sales. We have a repeat client who attends three shows a year and he always books a large, leased package from us: if the internet fails he could lose a £100k contract. And then you have the visitors. Individual requirements are actually quite small but their sheer numbers can load the network very heavily: this needs to be controlled. We have different ways of managing this which varies from event to event.
Are there any events to which you can’t supply Wi-Fi?
We have never failed to get internet to a site, and we have worked some very interesting locations, from a 100Mb leased line on a moving train to the middle of a forest for a film shoot.
Can Wi-Fi give organisers a competitive advantage?
Very much so; people always want to be connected. If you are able to provide a value-added service above and beyond your competitor’s event site you’re in a better position to increase visitor numbers. You will also be able to use services like Wi-Fi as a tool for your own means.
What Wi-Fi options are there?
The list is endless: high use, low use, secure, public, pay as you go, free, hot spots, etc, etc. Which you go for depends on your commercial goal. Is user data more important than taking money to recoup costs? A decent supplier will help you work out your requirements. We most commonly work by reducing the risk and financial outlay to the organiser by offering paid services at agreed prices and then pay a commission to them. This means the service can be offered in sensible areas of the site, without either the organiser or the contractor wasting money and resources.
In addition, the public attending an event will always consume connectivity. This is something an organiser can use to its advantage either as a means of generating more revenue or as a way to capture data from visitors by requiring they login at a Wi-Fi hotspot. In order to achieve this we would bring a leased line to site. Each business that wants the hotspot pays for their own needs and the service is then delivered to the whole site. This requires co-operation from the organiser which is one of the reasons we pay a commission for all services offered at its event.
Two Common Myths
I get a great signal on my site visits so exhibitors / show visitors will too
It’s almost a certainty that even if you do have a mobile phone signal when you, as an organiser, visit your site, that signal will fail at the event. The reason is that mobile phone operators build their networks for the day to day population in any one area. If that village of 1,000 devices suddenly increases when 3,000 more turn up for an event then the mobile phone cell site literally runs out of space. So, the cell site can’t provide service to devices like PDQ machines. It’s not in the mobile phone operator’s financial interest to spend tens of thousands to expand the capacity for the days of the show, even if it were technically possible. This means services, like properly deployed Wi-Fi networks, are crucial for the success of outdoor events.
A big Wi-Fi aerial will fix my connectivity problem
There are many technical reasons for not doing this. Yes, you can buy an aerial that is capable of ‘shouting’ internet across the whole site. However, your mobile has to ‘shout’ back and its aerial is only capable of reliably transmitting 70m in clear air and 50m in a crowded area or one with structures and fixed objects. This means multiple access points need to be strategically deployed across the site to cover areas of interest. The other technical limitation is that an access point can only handle a certain number of devices before connectivity slows or fails. So, you can’t install one big access point in the middle of the site and expect 30,000 guests to receive good service. People will berate an event’s bad Wi-Fi on social media; you’re better off having no Wi-Fi than risking the backlash if it doesn’t perform.
Case Study: Birdfair
- 42 acre site
- 3 day event
- 22,000 visitors
- 150 exhibitors
- 350 trade stands
- 450 concurrent devices
- 28 PDQ machines
- 31 wired connections
- 54GB of data used
Birdfair encompasses the whole spectrum of the bird watching industry while supporting global bird conservation. This is the event of the year if you’re into birds and wildlife. There are hundreds of stands selling the latest products for wildlife enthusiasts from scopes to sculptures, binoculars to bird food and eGuides to eco-holidays.
The event takes over a 42 acre section of Rutland Water Nature Reserve and has more than 22,000 visitors and over 350 trade stands every year. The site has no regular data infrastructure or 3G mobile phone service but the organiser had three separate requirements:
1) The organiser needed the ability to sell internet connections to the exhibitors. In past years this had been problematic as various suppliers failed to deliver a reliable service
2) The exhibitors needed to take electronic payments which, due to the lack of mobile and data infrastructure, had also proved to be challenging in the past
3) A publisher required to launch an iOS App to be downloaded by visitors at the event
Each exhibitor has slightly different needs from their internet connection. This varies from checking international email to streaming live footage from across the globe – and everything in between. All 150 exhibitors were expected to order one of a variety of connections. This would mean around 400 devices requiring a stable and reliable connection for the duration of the event.
Wi-Fi: We created a unified Wi-Fi network across the majority of the site which was centrally managed. This allowed us to control the authentication of users and how much data they were allowed, based on the package they had purchased. We used a branded, captive portal that identified each user to their package, meaning one exhibitor only had one login for all of its devices. This stopped extra devices from affecting the network and, therefore, everyone’s quality of service. An added benefit of this form of authentication meant that users could also roam anywhere on site and still receive the same connection. We segregated the networks so the ticket gates, organiser and exhibitors could not affect each other. We did this to ensure ticket gate traffic was given the highest priority in the event of over subscription.
Electronic payments: We also supplied some exhibitors with PDQ machines and PayPal-enabled tablets for electronic payments. These were also locked down so only encrypted transaction information could pass uninterrupted. Many exhibitors required payment terminals that had direct connection to their merchant provider. We hard-wired these terminals directly into the network to ensure stable connectivity.
We also offered a cheaper, wireless solution to those not requiring the above. This used the PayPal platform, consisting of a tablet computer to provide a clear and easy to read screen for customers and a PayPal authorised Bluetooth card reader. This enabled exhibitors with smaller budgets, or who were not expecting to take many card payments, to still be able to do so.
App caching: Harper Collins, a publisher of wildlife books, was launching a new App for iPhone and iPad. The challenges for this on its own were quite measurable before adding the element of bringing the infrastructure to a nature reserve. We devised a solution to deliver this App to the end device faster and without the excessive bandwidth costs by caching the App locally on our servers. This meant that the device would only need to communicate with iTunes to get authentication for the App to download. However, our servers then seamlessly replaced the download with the locally cached version.
As Birdfair sells connections directly to the exhibitors, with the profits going to charity, reliability of this network is key. Since Birdfair had had issues with suppliers in previous years with connectivity and stability issues, the client was understandably nervous that a repeat was possible. We were confident that both our chosen equipment, method of delivery and our highly skilled team would be able to manage this without issues.
We successfully delivered and as a consequence Birdfair is now expecting an even greater number of orders for next year. As an event organiser is always busy around and on show days it is important that a sub-contractor be autonomous, giving the organiser one less thing to worry about. We gave that freedom and peace of mind. Birdfair was so pleased with the Attend2IT service that it had booked us for the following year before the event had finished.
About the Author
Morgan Denton is the senior outdoor events project manager for Attend2IT, a well established specialist events IT company that only offers IT services for the events industry. Attend2IT has built its reputation on understanding the needs and reacting to the fast pace of the industry. www.attend2it.co.uk