“Compared to the streaming video and webcasting going on at the Sands, radio and television connectivity requirements aren't all that demanding.”

The National Association of Broadcasters walks softly and carries many T3 pipes.

Operationally, this was one of the smoothest meetings in years,” says Chris Brown, senior vice president, conventions and expositions, the National Association of Broadcasters. That's no small claim, given the ambitious connectivity requirements that NAB brought to the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo Center, and Hilton and Venetian hotels for the April 23 opening of what is billed as the world's largest trade event covering the convergence of broadcasting, multimedia and the Internet, audio and video communications, and telecommunications.

In fact, the only glitch during the five-day conference occurred on Monday, the first full day of conferences and exhibitions. NAB had set up a gigabit Ethernet link between the LVCC and the Sands so it wouldn't matter which of the two locations attendees used to pick up their credentials. What was supposed to be a dedicated line between the two registration areas was inadvertently connected to the exhibitor network. Just as the first big wave of attendees hit the registration desk, exhibitors started cranking up their network connections. “At the time we needed it most, it slowed way down,” says Brown. Other than that, though, Brown had no complaints, and given the scale of what went on, that is something of a miracle.

Talk about connectivity! So many T1 lines were installed at this year's NAB that nobody, not even the convention center's main phone vendor, knows exactly how many. “We don't know how many there were because many exhibitors made arrangements on their own,” says John Marino, vice president, NAB science and technology, who oversaw the connectivity for conference sessions. Dave Langford, director of data services for Smart City Networks, the LVCC networks/telephones vendor, does know that there were six T3 lines, each capable of carrying 45 Mbps of data — that's the equivalent of 672 two-way voice telephone transmissions. There were also three OC3 optical circuits (each OC3 line carries data at 144 Mbps, or more than 2,000 two-way phone conversation equivalents) — combining to produce 702 Mbps of bandwidth. For comparison, the country of Finland had 670 Mbps of bandwidth in 2000, according to the Organization for Economic Development, an international compiler of such statistics.

How do you get that much capacity installed in just a few days? Have a good working relationship with the phone company, says Langford, who praises Qwest Communications (the local service provider in Las Vegas) for being “very cooperative and interested in understanding our business model and how we can work more closely together.” Langford admits it hasn't always been so. “We had a hill to get over in years past, but we've got the right team in place now.” Other carriers serving the Las Vegas area include XO, formerly known as NextLink; Sprint; and Mpower, formerly known as MGC Communications. TM readers will recall the difficulties with local phone service encountered by Seagate Technologies at Comdex two years ago (May/June 2000, page 46), when Sprint technicians couldn't complete the “last mile” connections for a network; clearly, performance has improved.

Big Pipes at the Sands

NAB installed most of the big pipes at the Sands Expo Center, where NAB's newest exhibitor constituency was housed. “The new media stuff was all at the Sands,” says Brown. “Most of what you see there is still video-focused, but it's increasingly moving into areas like media asset management — storing video images. It's very bitsy-bitesy.” Companies such as EMC, the Hopkinton, Mass.-based storage media giant, showcased advanced technology for media asset management, IP streaming, nonlinear editing, digital television, and multichannel broadcast, all of which called for multiple-gigabit connectivity. Not only did EMC require big pipes at its own booth, but also in its partnership demos run with 10 other exhibitors. EMC was hardly alone. Campbell, Calif.-based Equator Technologies Inc. had a booth to show off its digital communications and media processing infrastructure as well as to demonstrate how it works with six other firms' products in a mind-boggling display of digital video processing and streaming video prowess.

By comparison, the LVCC, where the mainstream broadcast products were on display, experienced little strain on its million feet of fiber-optic cable and 40,000 twisted-pair copper lines. “Compared to the streaming video and webcasting going on at the Sands, radio and television connectivity requirements are not that demanding,” says Brown.

The biggest connectivity challenge at NAB 2001 wasn't in either the LVCC or the Sands — it was in the parking lot at the LVCC, according to Smart City's Langford. NAB decided to set up its mobile connectivity exhibition there. “We have some permanent cabling to those locations, but obviously it's still a parking lot,” says Langford. “Providing temporary networking services and cabling was a challenge; they had tens of thousands of square feet of tent space.” He adds that the outdoor network was built in three days — and that NAB's requirements were small change compared to last year's Comdex show, when 1 million square feet of tent space were cabled in one week.

“This Is the Real World”

The exhibit floor was not the only place with major connectivity requirements, although the sheer number of exhibitors (1,700-plus exhibitors in a little more than 1 million feet of space) made it seem that way. One of NAB's eight educational tracks is a digital/Internet conference. “They want to show things like streaming media [and webcasting], and want high-speed connections to present those technologies effectively,” says Marino, who organizes the science and technology sessions. Acknowledging that streaming video in a presentation can be a “high-risk activity,” he says most presenters don't bring canned presentations to NAB. “They'd rather draw it from their Web site because part of what they're demonstrating is the ability to have instant live access to media. Many of them actually like having a system crash. They like to show how fast they can recover. It's their way of saying ‘Hey, this is the real world, and this is how this stuff is going to work.’”

Interestingly, NAB doesn't lease anything larger than a T1 line for conference presenters because the conferences can be scheduled around connectivity requirements. “We share the lines,” says Marino. “We try to schedule big-bandwidth presentations so there is only one going on at a time.” Of the 150 educational forums this year, the biggest bandwidth requirements were for the five “super sessions,” drawing as many as 1,200 attendees from across the spectrum of the broadcast industry — kind of like having five kickoff sessions. “The displays have to be big and bright enough for 1,200, so we usually use three screens and three projectors with an ImageMag [a sophisticated video image control signal-splitter for large video displays] running video on one or two of them and the presentation texts on the other.” Sessions are typically scripted and rehearsed a day ahead, although major players like Intel will often come in the night before and say, “Here's what we need for tomorrow's presentation setup,” and work overnight. “It would be nice to have a few days to set up, but we have to take it as it comes,” says Marino.

A Billion Dollars

Presenters and exhibitors go to such great lengths to demonstrate new technologies at NAB events because so much money is riding on the outcome. “This meeting is incredibly important to members strictly from a business standpoint,” says Brown. “It's big-ticket stuff. I can't tell you exactly, but I'm sure more than a billion dollars worth of business was conducted on the show floor.

“This is where members come to spend their technology budgets. Grass Valley Group [a video production hardware company based in Nevada City, Calif.], for example, announced a $25 million contract with one of the big networks,” he says. “Put a few of those together, and you have some big money changing hands.”

In fact, even though attendance fell slightly — 111,500, compared to 115,253 a year ago — the drop was not as bad as it might have been, given the general freeze on travel budgets at member companies. “People came anyway, on their own,” says Brown. “That made us feel pretty good. Even our exhibitors didn't seem to mind, which surprised us. They said there was less crowding in the aisles, more senior-level people, and more time to talk with them.” NAB used 21,000 rooms at more than 30 Las Vegas hotels on its peak night.

Network Boycott

More than travel-budget freezes kept some attendees away, admits Brown. NAB angered network members when it appeared to side with smaller industry players in a dispute over caps on the number of broadcast outlets a network could own. As a result, three of the four big networks — Fox, NBC, and CBS — refused to participate in the conference. NBC went so far as to officially boycott the meeting and cancel two events: a meeting with network affiliates and an engineering breakfast.

Brown is sanguine, however. “When something like this happens, it sends a ripple through the exhibitors; they wonder whether this is going to hurt NAB,” he says. “But the reality is, the nets usually send 200 people, and this year they've sent 80 or 100. It's convenient for them, anyway, because they've cut back on travel because of the economy. We'll invite them again next year. We're not trying to make a political statement.”

The closest the pullout came to causing a crisis was when organizers had to decide whether network logo merchandise should be pulled from the shelves of NAB's conference store. “We didn't, and nobody seemed to care,” says Brown.

Coming Up: Presenter Networks

For the 2002 meeting, NAB plans to add yet another network drop to a meeting that is already up to its eyeballs in connectivity: A network for presenters. “We plan to have a server in the speaker-ready room,” says John Marino, vice president, NAB science and technology. “In theory, at least, all the PCs in the meeting rooms will be able to access that server through a network for content.” Here's how it will work: A presenter will load a PowerPoint presentation into the server in what Marino calls a “pre-session” room. The speaker can make sure everything is in working order and then walk down the hall and give the talk.

Surprise Guests

For Chris Brown, NAB's senior vice president, conventions and expositions, the biggest surprise of this year's conference had to do with geography, not technology. “International attendance was up 10 percent,” he says. “We have almost 30,000 registered [out of a total of 111,500]. We did some international marketing — we have a deal with the Commerce Department to promote technology exports — but we didn't anticipate this strong a turnout. I think they're mainly here for the broadcast technology sessions.”

If the international guests provided the biggest surprise, a different group of guests required the most attention. Because a lobbying function is part of its organizational mission, NAB always invites members of the Federal Communications Commission and key legislative figures. “Having politicians at the conference requires some hand-holding,” says Brown. He says that congressmen prefer Bellagio and a few other high-end Las Vegas hotels because they have below-ground road access. While whisking Congressperson X from an underground entrance is ostensibly done for security reasons, it has other benefits. “Politicians don't like to have their pictures taken while leaving hotels that have casinos,” says Brown.