Managing Increased WiFi Demand and Keeping Users Connected

Internet connectivity at a trade show or conference has become a necessary service for speakers, exhibitors, and attendees. Recently, the world saw just how important reliable WiFi can be for a presenter when Apple CEO Steve Jobs lost his WiFi connection while giving a demo of the new iPhone 4G at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. The event, held at a former Smart City facility, suffered from a growing challenge facing our industry — namely, a WiFi service without enough bandwidth to support the hundreds or thousands of people competing to access it.

The growing popularity of smartphones and laptops has resulted in skyrocketing WiFi usage. Smart City is seeing triple-digit growth in wireless usage. It is expected that demand will continue to grow at an even faster pace as more consumers retire older devices and buy new WiFi enabled smartphones and use netbooks more.

Cell phone carriers provide 3G services so users can access the Internet. But even on a good day, 3G is not very fast, and when thousands of users converge at an event, 3G systems can slow to a crawl. Users then look to WiFi for Internet access. And with cell carriers moving away from unlimited data plans to limited ones, even more users will rely on WiFi for Internet access. Add to the smartphone users all of the laptop users and a wireless system with limited bandwidth can easily become clogged and overwhelmed.

How to handle the increased demand?

Smart City understands that WiFi systems are becoming overloaded and must be redesigned to accommodate an increasing number of users especially at event centers with highly variable WiFi user density and usage patterns over areas that can be larger than a football field. A redesign usually includes performing a full site survey, replacing all existing access points (APs) with more advanced models, and adding additional APs as needed. A convention center wireless system installed approximately five years ago will typically require 30% – 50% more APs today.

Smart City facilities are equipped to meet the growing demand for WiFi. With Smart City’s wireless products, a wireless user can connect to the Internet anytime no matter how many thousands of users are online at the same time. Users don’t have to worry about signal strength or slow connections, unlike unpredictable 3G wireless technologies that could have dead spots if a wireless tower is not installed nearby. Smart City utilizes the latest wireless technologies, including copper and optical cabling, and can provide event attendees with enough bandwidth to easily download videos and multimedia presentations. Users won’t have to worry about slow downloads, connections timing out or stalled buffering for live video streams.

Will free WiFi suffice?

In addition to meeting usage demands, WiFi costs have become another challenge. One typical business model for WiFi is to have consumers pay for connectivity. However, “free WiFi” is becoming the rage. Retailers like Starbucks and McDonald’s have recently announced that they will now offer “free WiFi” at all of their stores.

While complimentary wireless may attract customers to a store, it is not the retailer’s primary product and often cannot support many of users at one time. Such a system usually consists of a single AP and an inexpensive cable or DSL Internet connection, similar to a residential Internet connection. As a result, usage will likely be limited to only a few users.

Such a bare-bones WiFi service will not meet the needs of a convention center and its thousands of visitors and their variety of speeds and needs. Event centers can have as many as 500 access points as well as advanced features such as multiple SSIDs (network names), VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks) and enterprise security. A convention center WiFi system will likely have more access points than switches and routers combined, and in a well-designed wireless system every AP is connected to the wired network.

Thus, the level of technology and infrastructure needed to achieve fast, reliable WiFi for thousands of users at a convention center is much more significant than the basic wireless service offered for free at a store or coffee shop that can only support a few users at a time. As a result, designing and implementing such a robust WiFi system carries a higher cost.

Smart City Solutions

Smart City offers a variety of flexible wireless products to meet the varied needs and budgets of its customers. For example, most event centers have complimentary hot spots to provide basic connectivity to check email and surf the web, while paid upgrades are available for users who need more bandwidth or speed. Event managers can determine the level of wireless service they need in meeting rooms or on the exhibit floor based on anticipated usage – helping to prevent the WiFi snafu that Steve Jobs experienced from occurring. In other words, WiFi services need to be actively managed and monitored based on each group’s needs.

WiFi usage will undoubtedly continue to grow along with customer demand for free connectivity. Thus, Smart City continues to work to develop products that meet a convention center’s unique connectivity needs through improved technology and infrastructure that is also cost-efficient. Yet, like anything in life, you ultimately get what you pay for. Free WiFi services simply do not have the capability to effectively accommodate the extensive Internet demands of thousands of convention attendees. While WiFi at a convention center may not always be free, with Smart City, event attendees not only get Internet access but also the peace of mind that they can count on the WiFi for any of their Internet needs.

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