Bandwidth and connectivity is a major headache for meeting and event organizers. Few understand how much is needed, but everyone knows when there’s not enough. The problem is compounded by venue staff that doesn’t understand technical requirements or how to troubleshoot A/V.
What follows is an excerpt from my event diary and the portable Internet solutions I found after our venue’s connectivity was unexpectedly disrupted.
Tuesday, 1 p.m., two weeks before the event
Did a site tour of the venue today. It’s gorgeous! I love the staff; they are very helpful. They had a password for me so I could test the Internet speed at the venue. I used my Speedtest app, which is the mobile version of Speedtest.net, to test the upload and download speed of the venue’s existing Wi-Fi.
Test showed upload/download speeds of 1 Mbps. I explained to my CSM (convention services manager) that I’d be streaming the education live and would need a wired connection of at least that speed, but ideally closer to 5 Mbps up/down. (Thankfully I use Google+ Hangouts on Air to broadcast our education, so in a pinch, I can stream on as little as 500 kbps.)
I also explained that I’d need the Wi-Fi speed to be closer to 10 Mbps up/down because I was expecting about 80 people. The app they’d be using would work fine using just 5 Mbps up/down because it needed little bandwidth, but I wanted to ensure that anyone who hadn’t already done so could download it without any problem. My CSM noted my requirements and assured me they’d talk to their tech support and have their broadband increased for the day of the event.
Friday, 5:35 p.m., five days before event
Just got an email from my CSM. The city is doing construction on the streets surrounding our venue. It’s knocked out the Internet. The city can’t tell them if it will be back in time for our event on Wednesday.
I’m in a bit of a panic. It’s time to pick up my kids, so I can’t work late to research options. I don’t know if I’ll be able to reach anyone until Monday morning, anyway. I’ll see if I get any bright ideas on the way home.
Friday, 5:58 p.m.
I send an email to Daypasswireless.com and await their response. Their cards are only $9.99 per day plus shipping. I’d have to add $29 for overnight delivery, but it looks like a possible solution. At least I’ll be able to sleep tonight.
Saturday, 10:43 a.m., four days before the event
Lisa from Daypasswireless.com Customer Service says I can use a maximum of 5 users per mobile hotspot. I ask if there are any options they have that could provide a temporary wireless network for an event.
Sunday, 8:01 a.m., three days before the event
Martine from Daypasswireless.com Customer Service says I could use one of their aircards with a router. They don’t rent routers themselves, but she knows customers have rented aircards to use with personal routers, so it’s possible. I need to find a router with a USB port that is compatible with the aircard. The two cards she recommends are the Verizon 4G/3G UML290 and the Sprint U301. The Sprint card comes with unlimited data usage. For our event, that makes the most sense.
I decide to see what collective wisdom I can find on my social networks. I post in the G+ “Women in Technology” and “Event Professionals” communities. I am told to tweet @eventnerd for advice and check out exhibitorconnect.com, which rents a broadband router for wireless and wired Internet connections for $295 per week for the first seven days and $25 per day afterward. It’s designed to work in remote locations. They can overnight me a device, but shipping will cost $80. It’s a hefty price for a one-day event. I send them an email.
I also post in a couple of Facebook communities and hear back almost immediately from #eventprofs friends Mike McAllen and Ray Hansen in the TechSpec forum. Ray messages me his phone number and tells me to call him Monday. Mike suggests I look at DragNfly.com, which offers the same kind of plug-and-play all-in-one solution as Exhibitor Connect, but which allows you to build a branded gateway (sponsorship opportunity!) and capture data about the people using your Wi-Fi at the event. What a cool solution for event organizers working on multi-day conferences, I think. I submit a request through their online form and add their name to the list of people I need to start calling at 8 a.m. tomorrow. I also send an email to TradeshowInternet.com, which I’ve written about in the past and seems to have roughly the same solutions at comparable cost to Exhibitor Connect.
Monday, 8:35 a.m., two days before the event
I call the Customer Service line at Daypasswireless.com and ask for Martine. She calls me back within 15 minutes. I feel certain that the Sprint U301 will be the best solution for me, but I need to first ask my CSM if people get good cell reception with Sprint phones on-site.
I also need to see what solutions DragNFly Wireless might offer. I still haven’t received any response from Exhibitor Connect or Tradeshowinternet.com. (I never do hear back from them or @eventnerd.)
I call my CSM. No one who has Sprint service is at work yet, she tells me, but she’ll check their connectivity as soon as they’re in.
Monday, 10:35 a.m.
Ray Hansen and I have already missed each other three times. His last message says his afternoon is wide open though.
I call the Customer Service line at DragNFly and get the owner. He is familiar with my situation (he just finished reading my email). The problem, he says, is that the unit that would be perfect for my event is out on another engagement and might not arrive in time to set up and ship to me for the Wednesday event.
I ask him about using a Sprint aircard. He says that would be a great solution and that it’d be easy to find one locally, but then I might get locked into paying a monthly fee for the service with the carrier. I say that I found a place that rents by the day. He’s curious about that, asks about pricing. The fact that it’s about $10 a day is impressive, he says. His unit might be overkill for me. DragNFly’s plug-and-play unit could give me connectivity in the middle of a desert for hundreds of people but it costs in the $200 range. He thinks if they can get me a card in time, Daypasswireless.com is my best option. I mentally put DragNFly on my short list for the next time I have a huge, multi-day event with intense broadband needs.
I go to the Daypasswireless.com site and open the shopping cart, select the Sprint card, decide to make it a two-day rental so that I can test it tomorrow after it arrives, add a one-day rental so I can save on shipping and use it for my March 19 event, but stop before pulling the trigger. What if there’s no Sprint cell reception at my venue?
I decide to wait until 1 p.m. for my CSM to get back to me. As long as I order by 3 p.m. ET, the aircard can be overnighted from North Carolina.
Monday, 12:55 p.m.
My CSM calls back. Sprint cell phone users get great reception on-site, she says. I complete my online purchase. Delivery is guaranteed by 3 p.m. the next day. For the first time in three days, I relax a little.
We have a spare router in the office. We set up a PYM-specific network and password, and I hope it will prove compatible with my aircard. If it’s not, at least I’ll have three hours to find a store where I can buy one before end of day Tuesday.
Monday 3 p.m.
Ray and I finally manage to connect He assures me I made the right decision by getting the Sprint card and using a router to create a temporary Wi-Fi network. For our smaller events, where we have less than 50 attendees, he says, that is a perfect solution for ensuring coverage. Having 70 to 80 at our Wednesday event will be a stretch, however, because the more people on the network, the slower it will get. He offers me some tips to keep it from getting bogged down:
- Let people know that if they have 4G on their phones, they should use the wireless network as a last resort because 4G/LTE speeds are faster than most Internet connections.
- Get as many people as possible to download the app before coming. (We’d already been pushing that information out via newsletter, event website and social networks.)
- Educate our staff at registration to ask everyone “Have you downloaded the app yet?” when people check in so that downloads will be staggered.
- Pray the venue’s Internet will be active the day of show, so there’baca backup.
- Use a separate data stream to broadcast the educational content via Google Hangouts.
Last week, I updated my phone. It’s now on 4G/LTE. I ask if my mobile hotspot would be enough to stream on. “Absolutely,” he says. “I don’t need a wired Internet connection?” I ask. Wired is always best, he replies, but second-best is tethering my phone to my laptop via its USB connection while the hotspot is on. Good to know.
Tuesday, 10 a.m., the day before the event
Our office mail carrier has come and gone. No package. I check the tracking link from my email. On the U.S. Postal Service website, all it says is that the package left Greensboro, N.C., and that it is guaranteed delivery by 3 p.m. today. It doesn’t say what time it left North Carolina. It doesn’t have a check-in anywhere else. I start to feel a little nervous, but I have to put that aside while we go over the next day’s schedule with our events team.
Tuesday, 3:01 p.m.
Still no package. I pull up the email with the tracking information again. There’s no update posted to the USPS site. I request confirmation of delivery. I go back to the email, there’s a USPS phone number to call if there are any problems.
Ten minutes later, I get Dennis on the phone. I explain my situation and ask if he can locate the package. After a long pause, he says, “I can understand why you’re frustrated. All it says is that the package left Greensboro some time last night. But it doesn’t look like it’s gotten to Atlanta or been checked in anywhere.” It should have arrived in Atlanta by 5:30 this morning, 10:30 a.m. at the latest.
“So what can I do?” I ask. Dennis suggests I wait until 5 p.m. “It’s probably en route,” he says. “Sometimes, if it’s late, the carriers decide, well it’s already late, I’ll just deliver it near the end of my shift.” He gives me a case number and suggests I call back if the package doesn’t come by the end of the day.
I send an email to Daypasswireless.com Customer Service. All their packages have been delayed, they say. They’re investigating with the USPS. My overnight fee will be refunded.
Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.
I call USPS again and get a very sympathetic man who sounds a lot like Dennis. He’s so nice to me, I assume it is.
He says that it’s possible the package may be delivered by 7 p.m. He looks up my local post office and gives me the address and phone number. It’s already closed for the day.
He counsels me to send them a fax explaining my situation and giving them authorization to hand the package to a member of my staff. They could then show up with a business card and retrieve it for me while I’m on-site.
Then, just before we hang up, he tells me to hang on. He gives me a second phone number. “Call this one,” he says. “Ask for the delivery supervisor. If you call now, you’ll probably be able to get someone.”
I call and get an obtuse man who repeatedly insists that if I was guaranteed delivery by 3 p.m. today then I’d have my package by 3 p.m. today, despite the fact that I obviously haven’t. We argue about that absurdity for five minutes before he hands me over to a woman who actually listens. It should come in with the 5 a.m. shipment, she says. I ask her to call me. “At 5 a.m.?” she says. “Yes, at 5 a.m.,” I reply.
I hang up the phone and consider my options. If I were to purchase a card now, it would come with a two-year cellular commitment and a monthly fee. AT&T handles our business account, but the co-worker with access to the necessary data was already home for the night and AT&T might not have a workable one-day solution for us anyway. It occurs to me that my home Internet is powered by a Clear 4G tower. If I could remove the password requirement, I could transform it into a temporary Wi-Fi hub … maybe … I don’t know how that would work yet, but at least now I have a possible alternative in my worst-case scenario.
I pack up all the dongles, wires, plugs, chargers, computing devices and the spare router and go home for the night.
Wednesday, 5:30 a.m., day of show
The woman at the Sandy Springs post office says the truck from North Carolina is delayed. She even came in early to look for my package. She can’t tell me why or when they expect the truck to arrive, but she’ll call me when they find it. I feel slightly sick.
Opening my laptop, I go to the Clear site and begin a chat with their technical support department. I get instructions on how to disable the password protection on my home tower. They ask me for the address I’ll be moving the tower to, I reply that it’ll only be for a day, they tell me in that case, I won’t have to change the address. There are cell towers all over the city and my portable receiver will automatically connect to the nearest one. I doublecheck the location of Clear towers in downtown Atlanta and coverage looks excellent.
I log onto my Clear router’s IP address, rename the network and disable the password protection, power it down and pack it in my show bag with the spare router. I get ready for the event and head for a coffee shop where I can take stock of what else needs to happen before my 11:30 a.m. call time.
I open up the final registration list. In the past five days, our RSVPs have doubled. Instead of 70 to 80 people, now as many as 130 attendees may be on-site trying to get online. It’s great news for our exhibitors. But bad news if my home tower is our only connectivity option, I think.
Wednesday, 8 a.m.
My contact at the Sandy Springs post office is losing patience with me. “I have your number,” she says, “I will call you when we find the package. You can stop calling me.” I text my co-workers at the office and ask them to keep an eye out for me if it happens to come in.
I want to see if the USPS website has any posted any tracking updates and realize that I can’t find where the hotspot option lives on my new phone. After a quick panic attack and a short phone conversation with AT&T tech support, I find the area of the settings menu it’s migrated to and turn it on, linking it to my laptop.
Frustratingly, all the USPS site can tell me is that the package left Greensboro two nights ago. It still has no time of departure or any arrival information.
Wednesday, 11:15 a.m.
My CSM is waiting for my by the skybridge to the parking garage. Their Internet hasn’t gone out yet today, but everyone in the office is on it. “Don’t worry,” I say. I tell her I think I may have a solution.
I check out the tech setup. Google Hangouts don’t support external cameras, so I’m going to have to use my laptop’s webcam to film our speaker. They’ve set a highboy for me behind the stage. That won’t work for camera operation, but it may for setting up my Clear Internet tower. I enlist a PYM staffer to download the Speedtest.net app on his phone and in the 30 minutes before our speaker soundcheck, he and I take the tower all over the bi-level venue until we receive a reading of 5 Mbps down/10 Mbps up. It’s not ideal for the number of people we’ll have, and it’s definitely not consistent from floor to floor, but it’s better than having only spotty 1 Mbps service.
Wednesday, 12:10 p.m.
A few minutes into our tech run, I get this text message from the home office.
Wednesday, 1:30 p.m.
I start the technical orientation for our exhibitors. No problems yet. People can download the app quickly. Only issues seem to be related to their operating systems (if their phone is too old) or if geolocation is disabled in their privacy settings.
A half-hour later, technical orientation for our attendees begins. People know to use the wireless as a last resort. Things are going smoothly. The venue’s Internet is still working, no connectivity issues. Cell reception is strong.
Wednesday, 2:20 p.m.
The aircard arrives 10 minutes before the live broadcast begins. I load the CD-rom that came with the device and install the necessary software to connect. I do a Speedtest using my web browser. Results are fantastic.
I unplug the aircard from my laptop and put it into the USB slot of the router. Nothing happens. I realize that I don’t have software for the router on my laptop. There’s no disc in the box. I can’t configure its settings without it, so I can’t set up a secondary Wi-Fi network. I unplug the spare router and pack it up, plug the aircard back into my laptop. I’ll use it to stream the education. The rental will end at noon Thursday, so that will give me time to test the router when I’m back in the office.
The rest of the event goes off without a hitch. My MacGyvered home Internet tower has held up. The aircard worked like a charm during the broadcast.
Thursday, 10 a.m., day after the event.
I load the router software so I can set it up and realize it’s not recognizing the Sprint aircard. I go through the instructions Daypasswireless.com sent and find a tech support number. I call Sprint and they tell me the Cisco router I’m trying to use isn’t compatible. They give me a couple of options made by Cradlepoint: The MBR 95 and the MBR 1200B.
I look up the devices on the web. They both work with all major cell carriers, which is good news since in some of our event cities, Sprint aircards may not be the best choice. There’s a difference of $100 in cost ($149 vs $249) for which you get twice the amount of secure log-ins on the MBR 1200B as the MBR 95 (64 users vs. 32). I figure that will cover creating a password-protected Wi-Fi environment at our events for the rest of the year. I can always disable the password for our 100-person+ shows.
We’ll test it at our March 19 PYM LIVE Dallas/Irving and let you know the results.