Up and down the grand corridors of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., men and women were talking into their cell phones. Others were consulting their PDAs. The people were attendees at Cellular Telecommunication & Internet Association's Wireless 2002 show, so this behavior was not only natural, it was expected.
What was unexpected was Bob Seay's behavior. A couple of feet from a Pepsi vending machine, Seay sat on the floor, laptop perched on outstretched legs. And he surfed the Internet. And e-mailed the office. And uploaded and downloaded files.
And he did it all via a wireless, high-speed Internet connection available to all 35,000 attendees at the show for just $7.95 a day. And while Wi-Fi, as the 802.11b wireless standard is called in the industry, is popping up in hundreds of Starbucks, airports, hotels, and conference centers nationwide, CTIA's March Wireless 2002 event is believed to be the largest commercial Wi-Fi network deployed in a single location in the United States.
“Every square inch of the convention center was enabled with wireless, high-speed Internet access,” says Rob Mesirow, vice president of conventions for CTIA in Washington, D.C. “People were walking around, breathing high-speed access. The fact that we're a wireless show, it made sense for us to roll it out first.”
Seay agrees. “I haven't done this at a show before,” says the vice president of operations for San Diego — based Mforma. “Since Boingo had this offer, I thought it was a great time to try it.”
And? Did it perform as advertised?
“Some aspects are really good,” he says. “Some are so-so. In this building, you get a lot of time-outs. At other times, I got great throughput. If you know what you're doing, you can configure it pretty easily. It lets me stay connected to the office. That is productivity. It clearly has value.”
Value is what it's all about. Attendees found value in the convenience of the wireless access. CTIA Wireless saw value in being first to roll out the service on a large scale. “The amount of people who bring PDAs and laptops to our shows is about 80 percent,” Mesirow says. “All you needed was a PC card to slip into your mobile device and you had access. The first page that came up when you opened your browser was a home page for our show. You could click on the keynotes. You could hit another link and stream the keynote.”
Management at the Orange County Convention Center saw value in selling Wi-Fi to attendees. “It was wonderful to debut this,” says the center's marketing manager, Kathie Canning. “We were concerned about whether we could do the whole building. Our intent as a facility is to be wireless. And we want not just the technology conventions to use this system but the medical conventions and all the others. This show was a big plus for us.”
But for all the pluses, the wireless attendee system very nearly didn't happen.
Last Minute Wireless
Boingo Wireless approached CTIA Wireless only two weeks before the show kicked off. Boingo, the Santa Monica, Calif. — based wireless access provider launched in January by Sky Dayton (founder of Earthlink), hopes to bring wireless roaming to the masses, not by installing the 802.11b infrastructure, but by aggregating the wireless “hot spots” of companies that do the installation. What better way to introduce its subscription service than at a convention of wireless enthusiasts?
The service was underwritten in part by Boingo, which was looking for potential subscribers, and by Basking Ridge, N.J. — based Avaya, which was interested in selling its wireless PC cards, and was enabled by SmartCity, which took over as the technology provider of the facility in January.
“It was last-minute,” says Don Engler, vice president of marketing and sales for SmartCity. “I was down there two weeks before the move-in, and that's when the Boingo call came in. The whole idea [was] to create an opportunity for attendees to access the system at minimal cost. Anybody who was already a Boingo subscriber could ride on the system, and they were selling new subscription cards at their booth.”
In the end only “several hundred” of the 35,000 CTIA attendees signed on for the service, according to Christian Gunning, Boingo's director of product management. Gunning isn't releasing specific numbers but is “pleased with the response from attendees.”
As wireless attendee access comes into vogue, pricing will be among the big issues for show managers, Internet service providers, and convention center management. For example, Smart-City's hard-wired Internet access prices run about $1,300 for exhibitors at the 11 centers where it manages technology services. Wireless exhibitor prices are somewhat lower given labor savings, says Engler. “It hasn't had that much demand. But now that things are starting to bubble, we'll try to standardize it.”
Of course, while an exhibitor might expect to pay hundreds of dollars for Internet service, no attendee will pay that kind of money. “We're putting together a pricing plan with our partner facilities for attendees,” says Engler. SmartCity now has Wi-Fi infrastructure in four of its 11 centers. Besides Orlando, those include centers in Las Vegas, Anaheim, Calif., and San Diego. “If the attendees are paying, then the show doesn't have to pay. We want to make it fair, so it encourages the attendee to use it. We also want exhibitors to use it. We're working on a pay-as-you-go option for attendees and for exhibitors, if they choose to be wireless. And we don't want to dilute any revenues our facilities are already receiving. We haven't seen a groundswell of attendee demand yet. It's priced right now for exhibitors but prohibitive for attendees. Demand is what will drive the whole thing.”
Boingo is evaluating the issue as well. “We're in discussion with a couple companies such as SmartCity that specialize in convention center installation/management, and are trying to find a way to provide the Boingo service to attendees while maintaining the integrity of their core business,” says Gunning. “This should be a value-add service for attendees, not one that cannibalizes existing services provided by the network manager.”
CTIA's Mesirow believes that finding the right financial model for selling the service en masse to attendees is the ticket to making the wireless revolution occur sooner rather than later.
“Imagine having 40,000 people at your show and 10,000 of them have a wireless device,” Mesirow says. “You could build a matchmaking service. Think of all the lead-generating devices people buy for a show. Charge attendees $10 or even $5 a day for high-speed access. If you have 10,000 people, that's a lot of money, $50,000 to $100,000 a day for just 25 percent penetration.”
Many experts expect to see more shows, large and small, embrace this emerging technology. “After the success of this event,” says Patrick Sarcinella, SmartCity's facilities manager at the Orange County Convention Center, “this is something we want to make available at all the facilities we manage.”
That's certainly what Dave Vucina, CEO of Austin, Texas — based Wayport, is hoping for. Since 1997, his company has installed Wi-Fi systems in 450 U.S. hotels and four major airports (San Jose, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin-Bergstrom, and Seattle-Tacoma). In fact, 500 of Boingo's 600 wireless locations are provided by Wayport. For $29.95 a month, you can use all the wireless you want in Wayport's hotels or airports. You can also pay on a transactional basis, $9.95 for 24 hours. “You should use it and see the reaction of the person next to you,” Vucina says. “They don't believe it until you ask for their Web site and key it in.”
Not everyone in the industry, however, expects a surge of attendee demand. SmartCity's Engler is one. “Long-term, I don't see a lot of people dragging their laptops along,” he says.
Vucina disagrees. “I can't travel without my laptop,” he counters. “There was a time when I went on the road and if work slowed down, it was OK. Today, it's not OK. If I'm on the road, I have to keep up with my e-mail responses. I don't want to be typing certain documents on a BlackBerry.”
If show managers do choose to offer attendees a Wi-Fi experience, there's more for them to think about than just the wireless connection. Take Bob Seay, for instance. He paid Boingo for Internet access during Wireless 2002, but the most comfortable place he found to work was sitting on the floor, back to the wall. There were no work spaces set aside for wireless laptop users. Stand-up tables would be a start, for doing quick e-mail checks.
One wireless expert colorfully describes the Wi-Fi experience as “what we used to call the ‘give them the heroin first concept.’ Once you try it, you want more.”
“I would equate the feeling to the television remote control,” Vucina says. “I've seen people tear up furniture to find the remote because they can't live without it. When you get used to wireless, you'll feel tethered without it. It's going to be big.”