The Intersection

Why Providing Free Wi-Fi Is Harder Than It Seems

Wi-fi headaches? You're not the only one.

“Attendees now have the expectation that Wi-Fi is provided free of charge — whether it’s a paid conference or free event,” said Michele Schneider, vice president of strategic events at Salesforce, which held its annual Dreamforce enterprise technology conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center this past November. “And that they can use multiple devices to access it.”

That can prove challenging for meeting venues, according to Todd Walton, vice president of production services for MGM Resorts International, speaking in this month’s video for The Intersection Series: Where Technology Meets Inspiration, presented by PCMA and PSAV Presentation Services. Facilities are grappling not only with putting in the infrastructure to support the higher demand, but also with how to monetize it. “The demand for Wi-Fi has grown exponentially over the past few years,” Walton said. Whereas just four years ago there was no such thing as an iPad, “today everyone has one…. It’s not uncommon for [attendees] to have four [wireless] devices.”

Many planners wonder why it is that their local Starbucks can provide free Wi-Fi access to patrons while larger venues struggle to do so. “One access point plugged into the Internet [as is the case at a Starbucks] — not very complex,” Walton said. But it’s a different story with a high-density situation like you’ll find in a convention facility. The infrastructure and engineering it takes to support potentially hundreds — or thousands — of attendees accessing the Internet from multiple devices is much different than in your local coffee shop. “There’s a huge cost to that,” Walton said.

Generally speaking, said John Rissi, PSAV’s senior vice president of operations, planners think that the process for providing Wi-Fi in venues is simple, and if they can get it for free at Starbucks, the same should hold true elsewhere. “The challenge is they’ve kind of abdicated their responsibility to learn more about the Internet, specifically some of the technical things,” Rissi said, “… Part of our charter is to try to make it so it’s easy to understand, so that we’re all talking the same terminology, first of all, and that everybody understands what questions to ask.”

What are the right questions? Schneider recommends that planners come into a venue-sourcing conversation with a checklist regarding the facility’s Wi-Fi capabilities. “Understand the cost options,” she said, “who is the NSP [network service provider] providing the Internet, and how much bandwidth is available in the venue and dedicated to the meeting space.” Another key, according to Schneider, is knowing whether your venue has an in-house team dedicated to supporting Internet access, or whether that’s outsourced to another company.

But the burden of understanding Wi-Fi capability doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of planners. “Venues can provide a list of their Internet capabilities during the contracting process,” Schneider said, “such as current amount of bandwidth, largest amount of users they’ve supported, how they split the bandwidth up between different groups, and, finally, backup plans if their main NSP connectivity is compromised.”

Katie Kervin

Katie Kervin was formerly assistant editor of Convene.