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

11 thoughts on “Conference Venues and Connectivity

  1. John – this resonates with myself – back in the last century, I did a series of CPD sessions for both a National provider and the ASE under titles similar to, ‘Using the Internet in Science Teaching.’ These sessions were often at large chain hotels relatively near a train station in a large City, exceptions included a couple of football grounds. Every session required me to connect my laptop, via it’s modem, to the Internet, to go ‘live’ (in those days, this was a ‘big thing’ and deemed ‘risky’ – it was something you would ‘never’ do in the classroom).

    I would contact venues, in advance, and always be assured that a phone socket was accessible and there would be, ‘no problems …….’ – on arrival, anything could happen – I always had to dial ‘9,’ the 30 m telephone extension lead I carried with me was invariably utilised and once there was no connection as a utilities company had cut the wires (by accident).

    The best experience was at Lewisham Town Hall – very large screen, accessible connection. The worst was at the (then) recently built football ground who seemed incapable of understanding what I was requesting and then when I connected via the line which was usually used to handle credit cards, it dropped at 5 min intervals (obviously the default time on the credit card system).

    You’re right, venues need to be clear and open about what they can (and cannot) provide – figures please!

  2. I don’t entirely agree.

    Whilst I do agree that event venues do indeed need to wake up to the modern world and provide decent wireless connexions, the internet connectivity requirements of the kinds of events you and I attend are vastly in excess of the connectivity requirements of most events they host. Most events aren’t connectivity-oriented – most events won’t have at least half the participants all wanting to post to and read Twitter simultaneously with at least one person also wanting to stream live video – most events will have most people interacting entirely offline, with at best the only internet going on being people receiving their push-email on their Blackberrys.

    The thing is, ‘we’ seem to be turning up to these events expecting to each individually get 1mbps speeds off our laptops and tablets, like we get at home, or through our own personal 3G connexions. But 80 people all trying to connect to the same access point, all trying to pull 1mbps simultaneously? Clearly the average venue access point is not going to keep up with that strain – they’ll need much beefier connexions than they normally need, and much beefier access points. This kind of kit costs – do you want to pay for it in the shape of increased hire costs? Do you think the majority of events which don’t need it should also be paying for it in the shape of increased hire costs?

    The overwhelming majority of us who attend these things already have our own 3G internet on our phones, and MIFI dongles and 3G broadband is also commonplace amongst us; if we’re generally heavy internet users anyway, we’ll have high / unlimited data plans too. Whilst it is indeed time venues improved their internet access, it’s also time those of us who attend these things take responsibility for our own internet usage and use our own, rather than constantly griping that somebody else hasn’t provided it for us properly – and leave the venue’s wifi free for those who really need to use it.

    • Thanks Simon

      I think the problem with saying those of us who are tech savvy should sort ourselves out is that the tech savvy then remains a small clique. In the age when more and more organisations are encouraging Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, and providing wifi to ensure they can be used, I think it is reasonable to expect the same kind of access if those people then take those devices to events with them. The non-tech savvy won’t in most cases, be able to sort out their own access. Tablets and smartphones are encouraging more of the usually non-tech savvy to use connected devices, so I don’t think this is just a tech events issue.

      I don’t think the extra cost of providing decent connectivity will be big in relation to all the other things that go into providing conference facilities, so I still believe it should be done.

      • I agree with Simon here, whilst you lament that the venue wifi is only 1/10 of your home connection that doesn’t matter!

        You should not have an _expecation_ to be able to live stream from an event if you are
        a) the organiser and have not listed it as a requirement and tested prior, or
        b) if you are an attendee what would happen if _every_ attendee wished to live stream. . .a tad unreasonable I think you’d agree?

        Likewise I’d put the onus on the event organiser to ensure that the venue hired is suitable for the delegates requirements. It’s not upto the venue to provide super fast internet to all conferences, as it’s likely not required for 90% of their bread and butter bookings.

      • I’m not saying those of us who are tech savvy should sort ourselves out, I’m saying those of us who have already got high / unlimited 3G data plans and mobile broadband plans on our phones and dongles should use those, leaving the venue wifi free for the people who don’t already have them; All sweeping generalisations have exceptions, but I really do think that the kind of event at which a participant would be expecting to see and participate in a real-time Twitter stream, most of those participants will already have their own connexions because they’ll be heavy Twitter users already anyway. If anything, connecting to a venue’s wifi access point takes more tech savvyness than using your 3G, because your 3G just works already! And again, most events don’t have the same connectivity demands as the kinds of events we both go to have.

        I’m not a network engineer, but I know that flaw-free network connectivity for 100+ people would require a number of professional wireless access points costing £100 – £200 a throw – you could be looking at a grand just for that. You would also need a professional internet connexion to give 100+ people individually a seamless 1mbps data transfer rate experience; your BT Infinity fibre broadband again wouldn’t cut it, so you’ld be looking at easily £50-£100 a month at least for that. All for the annual social media conference, which will be used be few other conferences?

  3. As an events organiser of some years, I can see both sides of the coin here. When running events where you’d expect alot of people to be tweeting, live blogging and streaming, you need to choose a venue that can cope with any contention that might be experienced with large numbers of people accessing the wi-fi/internet connection and either choose the venue for that reason over other factors such as is it near the train station?, does it look futuristic? etc. etc. or pay for the venue to provide the web access capability required and pass that on to the attendees or get someone to sponsor it and make it clear to those attending that the smooth web access experience is down to that sponsor.
    Never book a venue without going to check it, take phone/tablet etc. and check the wifi signal and ask to speak to their techie and get cast iron assurances that there wont be a problem.

  4. Pingback: Some things from my head following #commscamp13 | Perfect Path

  5. I know of at least four unconferences in the venue concerned, in the last twelve months, where the audience had the kind of expectations John describes. Whatever the limit of reasonable expectations, a modest domestic setup doesn’t cut it, when the venue makes both the promise of the availability of Wi-Fi and a capacity for 150 people in its advertising.

    Readers may be interested in my blog post Wi-Fi checklist for unconference or hack-day organisers.

  6. I’d just like to commend Manchester Central, the venue where I’ve been live streaming for 4 days at BlueLightCamp 2013, and British APCO 2013. They’ve got their wifi just right and I’ve even been using it to live stream

  7. Pingback: JFDI: How to run an unconference | Random musings

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