Want conference Wi-Fi that isn’t a disaster? Here’s how to get it right


Ever been at a conference and the Wi-Fi doesn’t work? Frustrating, right?

Either you really want to check your email when some boring speaker is droning on, or you want to update the Twitterverse with the latest pearls of wisdom you’ve acquired. Maybe both.

If you’re running or organising a conference, the Wi-Fi is a utility. You want it to just work. You want delegates to let the world know how rocking your conference is. You also don’t want people tweeting about how lousy the Wi-Fi is, or having your overseas speaker look like he or she is on the international space station.

Full disclosure: I run a company which provides Wi-Fi services for conferences and events. This also means I know what I’m talking about.

First, let’s explain two common problems:

  • Your laptop or smartphone can’t connect to the wireless network, or keeps getting booted off: This is normally caused by wireless hardware that is just not capable of handling the number of simultaneous users or types of devices.
  • You can connect just fine… but the internet isn’t working: This is almost always because the internet connection itself isn’t capable of handling the number of people who want to be using it, although it could also be a problem with the wireless hardware.

Below are some things that your venue or conference organiser should be asking you about, to ensure that the line coming in and there are enough wireless access points, by a good manufacturer, placed at intelligent locations.

If you are not being asked these questions, and the internet is important to your conference, ask them.

What will the presenters be doing? i.e. playing YouTube videos? Google Hangout with Shanghai?

This will determine the line speed, uplink vs downlink, and whether the line will be for primarily local or local and international use.

Is the internet mission-critical to the conference?

If so, you may want to have a redundant connection from two different internet service providers (ISPs).

What sort of devices will the delegates have, and how many devices per delegate?

Many will have at least two: a laptop and a smartphone. This will determine how many wireless routers are required.

What area(s) of the venue will require coverage?

If there are breakout sessions away from the main presentation area, do you or don’t you need coverage there, and how many people are expected in any given area at a time? This will determine placement of the wireless routers.

Last but not least, make sure you find out who is going to be providing technical support in the event that something does go wrong, and what else that person might have going on. If the unthinkable happens, you want someone there to sort it out immediately. In a real-time environment, a one-minute delay is not great. A 15-minute delay is a catastrophe.

Wi-Fi is complex. It’s not important for you to know about uplink and downlink speeds, how to secure the network, how many devices are connecting on the 2.4 vs the 5GHz band, or what sort of interference there might be from other wireless networks nearby. It is important that whoever is in charge of IT or the wireless network for your event understand these things.

The 80/20 rule applies well to conferences. Ask your venue about the average size of other conferences and events that have been held there. If yours is in the top 20% in terms of either number of delegates or projected internet usage, you may well require a temporary internet link above and beyond what is ‘normal’ for the venue and/or high-end wireless hardware to be brought in on a temporary basis.

Will there be additional fees? Sure. But ask yourself this: what do your delegates care about more: pastries or internet that works?



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