Networking and Internet access have become critical aspects of a successful meeting.
From providing attendees with the ability to get online to executing a networked presentation management system to taking your meeting virtual, there are multiple considerations meeting professionals need to weigh – and often, many confusing details to sort through.
In fact, we regularly end up fielding questions and helping identify solutions for services that rely on network connectivity. We see these issues causing enough confusion – and having an impact on both budget and outcome – that it’s important to provide some clarity.
Most of us take Internet access for granted in our daily lives; public Wi-Fi hotspots are ubiquitous as we move from place to place (however their quality of service and security concerns can limit their use for many of us). Internet access in the meetings environment is a business-level service with constituent cost – if you don’t provide the right access, your attendees’ experience will likely be impacted.
Most facilities have an In-House networking provider. This may be the facility itself, or an official contractor. In most cases you will need to use the In-House provider for all networking as they are responsible for all physical and wireless connections within the venue.
Below we have outlined four areas you need to consider: Wi-Fi, hard-wired cabling, presentation VLAN and live streaming, with a checklist for each to help you make the right decisions for your unique event and attendee needs.
For most purposes, Wi-Fi is your attendees’ connection vehicle to check email and conduct other low-bandwidth activities. If you have an event app you’d like attendees to use that requires Wi-Fi, you need to have enough bandwidth to support that throughout the building.
Wi-Fi goes beyond “basic” usage when presenters/sessions require it’s use for things like mobile audience polling or Q&A, which will require additional bandwidth. One of the things most misconstrued is the need for bandwidth for presentations themselves, which is an area many organizations end up over-paying for. (We’ll talk more about this in the Presentation VLAN section below.)
Wi-Fi checklist/things to consider:
- Many convention centers and hotels are offering free Wi-Fi or a buy-out of the Wi-Fi. It is important to understand the coverage and usage being offered to determine if it will be enough for your needs. Typically, these offerings are designed for light usage that is not mission critical.
- Be aware of what’s taking place externally during your event that might impact bandwidth. For example, if your meeting is scheduled around or during a major public event where people are going to be following along, you should plan to have bandwidth that supports the uptick accordingly.
- List out the busiest times – when you expect bandwidth to be at its usage height. For example, most attendees check email and jump online during breaks and lunch. You can calculate the need based on how many attendees you have.
- Do you have a session or sessions with audience response? If so, you don’t want to rely on the same Wi-Fi everyone is using, as it could cause major issues during the session. A good option would be to have a separate SSID set up ahead of time, so the presenter is guaranteed to have the bandwidth he/she needs.
- It is common to restrict each Wi-Fi user to a small amount of bandwidth (for example, 256 Kilobits). This will enable them to retrieve email and browse the Internet, but is not suitable for watching video or other media. These restrictions are put in place to enable the maximum number of simultaneous users on the shared Wi-Fi in the venue.
- If you are paying for a specific service level, make sure you understand the “total bandwidth” that will be available for all of your users – the total number of users who can be online at one time and the maximum bandwidth allocated per user. How does this match with users’ expectations?
Most venues have Ethernet Network Ports throughout the meeting space to accommodate hard-wired network drops. This type of cabling is preferred where a device will be stationary for the duration of the event and it is important that the device remain “online” such as an email station or digital sign.
Here are the most common types of cabled Ethernet drops:
- DHCP Internet Drop. This is a cable typically intended to connect one or more devices directly to the Internet. The computer will get assigned a private IP and be connected to the Internet automatically when plugged in.
- Static Internet Drop. This is a special type of Internet drop used for live streaming and other special cases. The provider will give specific information that will need to be entered into the computer to gain access to the Internet.
- Dry VLAN (“Virtual Local Area Networks”). This is the term most often used for a local network (without Internet access) that connects multiple locations in the venue (most often used as a presentation VLAN). In this case, it is strictly a network connection (with no other services on it) and your audiovisual provider will need to manage the computers on this network. Dry VLAN Drops are typically a fraction of the cost of an Internet drop in the same location so this difference can really affect your budget.
Room diagrams should indicate any locations where a drop is needed and what type of drop it is. Certain services such as live streaming and presentation management should always include a hard-wired drop to ensure they are always online. On larger events, there may be multiple VLAN’s within the venue and it is important that each drop is properly identified on the diagram.
Most scientific and medical meetings that have a presentation management system rarely need Internet in each breakout room. (The natural reaction many planners and presenters have is to say they need access in each room.) Since so much of our everyday lives are conducted online, it’s only natural to assume that big meetings – and their concurrent sessions – require connectivity. But that’s often not reality.
VLAN checklist/things to consider:
- Presentation management should always be handled through a hard-wired Ethernet drop. Wi-Fi is not suitable for large file transfers and is typically not configured for Windows Networking by default as a security measure.
- Ask speakers whether they will need Internet for their presentations. Most of them shouldn’t; if they are using videos, for example, they should embed them into the presentation and not try and run them from the Internet, to avoid network issues. This might take some education in the form of presenter “guidelines” or “best practices” sent out by your presentation management company.
- If you have one or two speakers who need Internet – for example, a remote presenter – you still might not need it for every room. There are options, if you use a presentation management system, to work with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get an Internet drop in the speaker ready room, which can be transmitted across the system to the rooms where it’s needed. Alternately, a separate Internet drop can be ordered just for that session needed (see previous section for more about “Internet drops”).
- Make a list of all the rooms where you will need a drop for the presentation VLAN. This will also include the speaker ready room.
- If you are using network signage, you will probably need a second VLAN Drop at the signage location.
- Most venues charge a “Per VLAN Drop” and then a VLAN Configuration Fee (a one-time charge to create the VLAN).
If you are planning to live stream your event, you will need to have a dedicated hard wire connection. It is important that you have guaranteed bandwidth for the Live Stream that is not shared with anything else on the event.
Live streaming checklist/things to consider:
- Decide how viewers will watch the stream – Facebook Live, Stream embedded on your event website, etc.; each destination has specific requirements that will dictate what services you will need to order onsite.
- Make sure you choose a reputable vendor to handle the actual onsite live streaming. They should provide a turnkey package of equipment and a dedicated live streaming technician who will be present throughout any sessions where live streaming is taking place.
- The vendor will work with you to confirm the schedule and the specific service requirements for networking from the venue (the amount of dedicated Internet bandwidth the stream requires).
- Order a dedicated hard wire Internet drop with the appropriate amount of bandwidth.
- Schedule accordingly to get the live streaming drop in early. You want to have a full test of the live streaming content and audio from the actual location and fix any issues long before the first attendee takes a seat. (A best practice is 24 hours before doors open).
- The live audio feed should be direct from the House Audio in the room.
- If a video camera is to be used as a part of the live streaming, then consider whether ancillary lighting will be needed and make sure the camera is situated on a separate riser with a full-time operator for the duration of the live stream.
While figuring out your event’s bandwidth needs can feel overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. We recommend focusing out and then back in; start by looking at your event, identify what services you’re looking to use and work that into the site survey to finalize what’s going to be needed and how much it’s going to cost. Armed with the right information, you will end up with exactly what you need – which your attendees, speakers and budget will all appreciate.