Planning Event Wi-Fi

In modern meeting and event planning, you simply cannot ignore the need for attendee connectivity to the internet.
Whether we’re talking about ordinary activities like email and texting, or more intensive access via digital event guides or media-heavy apps, it has fast become an expected essential to a functioning event. And, even if you ask event participants to come prepared to use their own data plans on their own device, there’s much to consider to ensure invited guests are set up for success when they unlock that touch screen and venture onto the net.

As a training and events company, we’ve been around this block more than a few times, so in this article, we’ll breakdown the pros and cons of four potential event Wi-Fi solutions in the hope that we can help shorten your event connectivity learning curve. Let’s get started!

Option 1: Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)/User Cell Plan

If your event is happening outside, in a park, in a parking lot, at a race track or outdoor event space, you may find that the venue can’t provide outdoor Wi-Fi. Expecting participants to rely on their own data plan can seem like a deceptively convenient solution, but you should be wary of some potential pitfalls.

First, not all carriers will have equivalent coverage. In fact, you’ll often find that once you leave major urban centers, Verizon and AT&T (the two largest U.S. carriers) will have drastically different data coverage in certain geographical areas. Make sure that you ask venue employees what service they use on their personal devices, and how their coverage compares to yours to get a more complete picture of what your attendees will encounter if they don’t have the same cell service provider.

Another piece to consider is that signal bars don’t always equal speed. Those bars only indicate signal strength, or how close to a cell tower you are. If the tower is overloaded with users, you might be sharing your connection with hundreds of other people, limiting your access to the internet despite having four bars of LTE service. Our company, automätik, has even encountered venues where we’re getting broadband speeds on a weekend setup day, but come Monday when all the surrounding businesses are full of employees checking Facebook and sending emails, the internet slows down to a trickle. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to get hard numbers using a mobile speed test app, like Ookla Speedtest.

Lastly, consider what happens when your participants venture indoors for lunch or for an indoor breakout session. Concrete basement meeting rooms, steel framing inside the walls of the ballroom, or even high voltage equipment on the other side of a wall can all interfere with cellphone signals. Make sure you test speeds everywhere your attendees might wander so you can plan ahead for known cell dead zones.

Key Points:

  • Not all carriers will have equivalent coverage
  • Signal bars don’t always equal speed

Option 2: Venue Wi-Fi

Venue Wi-Fi can seem like the most obvious route to ensure that your attendees have a strong connection, but high fees and lack of on-site technical support can throw a wrench in the gears of your otherwise smooth event.

Make sure you include Wi-Fi when negotiating room rates, meeting spaces, and food and beverage. Keep in mind that, in most cases, the venue must pay for the internet service whether it’s being used or not, making it a highly negotiable cost. It also helps to have someone who “speaks the language” of IT weighing in on these negotiations, so you don’t get dazzled by techno-babble. (Subtle pitch: This is part of our event planning services. Just sayin’.)

Also, be aware that more often than not, the Wi-Fi and event direct lines are controlled by someone who works in an offsite data center. When the contract promises a certain speed or a certain capacity of users, you should know who to call when the numbers don’t add up. Don’t get stuck playing telephone through your event coordinator if you can just call the hotel’s tech support directly to work it out.

Option 3: Cellular MiFi/Jetpack

Just about everyone in the corporate world is familiar with the hockey puck-sized little miracle devices that can connect you and your team’s laptop to the internet via 4G LTE networks. What if, however, you’re trying to run your entire event on these little miracle machines? Here are some tips to keep your event Wi-Fi plan on track if you’re planning on using MiFi devices:

  • Most MiFi devices have a limit to how many devices can connect at once. Keep in mind this “maximum” is based on having optimal data coverage that, in most cases, you’re not going to have. If the device says it can connect 12 devices, try not to exceed 10. If your site inspection determined that cell service was slow in the area, you might top out at five or six. By planning your class/breakout rotations strategically and putting multiple devices in each meeting space, you can make sure that there will always be enough megabits to go around.
  • Additionally, make sure that you’re placing MiFi devices strategically. Remember that they are two devices in one: one-part cellular data radio and one-part completely separate Wi-Fi radio. That fact means you should always try moving the device around, or even outside of, the room to get the best LTE service. The Wi-Fi should be able to penetrate the walls of the room much easier than the cell phone tower that’s a mile away, so always favor the cell signal over the Wi-Fi signal when placing your MiFi.

Option 4: Bringing in the BIG GUNS

The above tips work great for dozens or even up to a hundred people, but what if you have 250 corporate executives attending your event who will all expect unfettered access to high-speed internet for their phones and their laptops? That’s when you pony up for direct wired access to the venue’s broadband internet and bring in some heavy-hitters on the Wi-Fi side of things.

Enterprise-level Wi-Fi equipment isn’t cheap, but the performance per dollar breakdown makes them the only answer when you just need the job done. Enterprise routers like those made by Cradlepoint can be a life saver when you need the swiss army knife of Wi-Fi routers. Limited to about 250 connections, these routers can connect up to three MiFis to become a SUPER MiFi, splitting up users across Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, for example, as long as you have a MiFi from each provider. They also support advanced functions like mesh networking and load balancing, and can even tie into another Wi-Fi network to pump up those megabits for your users. That’s five internet connections in one.

At the end of the day, though, a Cradlepoint router is still just a router. If you want to really turn one into a tank, here’s the secret sauce: enterprise Wi-Fi arrays. These are the vessels you bring in when your Wi-Fi coverage must cover an entire venue (they can support up to 2,500 users each). They accomplish this herculean task by leveraging multiple internal radios with directional antennas that point in every direction. Think of these as combining eight ‘normal’ Wi-Fi routers into one, super massive Wi-Fi router, with a powerful CPU controlling them all and keeping them in perfect sync. These high-tech devices can cost thousands of dollars, but sometimes only these high-end arrays can get the job done. Xirrus makes some very respectable models that we’ve trusted at many of our high-volume events. 

In Summary

The key strategy to ensuring you don’t have a Wi-Fi disaster on your hands when your event goes live is planning, planning, and more planning. Murphy’s law dictates that anything that can happen, will happen. Even though planning for Wi-Fi failures is a tedious endeavor, it will pay off in the end when things go wrong behind the scenes and your participants never even know.