Conference Venues and Connectivity

Image by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com/photography/

I’ve been prompted to write this post by my experience live streaming Commscamp yesterday in Birmingham. It was an illustration of my frustrations with the inability of many conference venues to offer decent connectivity. I know it is a frustration shared by many others. A lot of venues have simply not caught up with the requirements of the modern world.

Image by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com/photography/

I do a lot of live video streaming. I do it relatively cheaply, using low cost equipment and free web-based tools. I pride myself in being able to broadcast a video stream from most places. I’ve live broadcasted an event from the top of a windy hill in Lancashire, another from a pub basement in Barnsley, and, of course, there was some cricket match or other (for which I had a lot of technical help from some wonderful people). I use a number of different means of getting the live stream to the world. I find that, in very many cases, the connectivity offered by venues, particularly if it’s via wifi, is inadequate for the purposes of live streaming. But then, live video does require a fair amount of bandwidth, perhaps not as much as you might believe, but a fair amount, nevertheless. So, I very rarely find a venue wifi system that can handle me doing a live stream from it. And it’s even more problematic if if there are going to lots of delegates there using their own internet-connected devices. This is why I usually stream over 3G using my WiBE or mifi.

Image by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com/photography/

Live streaming is one thing, but it is that point about lots of people using their own tech at events which is the real crux of the matter. These days, I think at even non-technology related conferences and seminars, lots of people turn up at events with their own laptops, tablets and smartphones, which they expect to be able to connect to the internet. A case in point is yesterday’s venue. I won’t name it, because it is one of many that hasn’t woken up to the modern world, but it won’t be difficult to find out which it is. When I arrived there yesterday, I did something I often do on such occasions, I tested the speed of the in-house wifi to see if it would support live streaming. It came in at around 6Mbps download and 0.5Mbps upload. This is about one-tenth of the speed of my home broadband connection. And this was in a venue which was about to welcome 135 delegates to an event where most would have their own connected devices. I then further found out that the 3G connectivity was pretty poor there, and was scratching my head about how to support a live stream when the wonderful Paul Clarke arrived waving his 4G smartphone in my direction. Paul saved my life and I was able to use his device (which offered a 6Mbps symmetrical connection) to live stream for most of the day. And the fact that I had exclusive use of it meant there was no interference.

But, in order to keep the 4G connection free from interference, I connected my laptop and  smartphone to the venue wifi. After a while, the connection kept dropping, and several other people reported the same experience. I suspect this was because the venue was using “domestic” routers which limit the number of devices that can be connected at any one time. If that number is exceeded, they simply start chucking people off who were previously connected.

Image by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com/photography/

So, conference and event venues need to wake up to the implications of 100s of people turning up equipped with internet-connected devices. Yesterday’s venue was in central Birmingham, not in a rural outpost. I am sure it is perfectly feasible to secure an internet connection there which offers better than 6Mbps down / 0.5Meg up. And, note, it is the upload speed which is important when people are posting content to the outside world. And the wifi needs to be robust, stable, and capable of handling large numbers of devices all connected at the same time.

It’s not rocket science, is it?

All images by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com/photography/ used under CC BY 2.0

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