A billion bits a second, coming soon You may have heard about the coming expansion of the Austin, Texas, Convention Center. Groundbreaking took place in November, and the work, which will double the size of the present facility to 881,400 square feet, is expected to be complete in summer 2002. What you may not have heard about is the connectivity upgrade of the entire facility, which is scheduled to be ready for action in early 2001.

"We're upping the ante, baby!" says an enthusiastic Michael Hall, technology manager for the center. "We're going to do business at billions of bits a second." He's not kidding. The new super-broad-bandwidth network in Austin will, as far as show organizers are concerned, eliminate the differences between voice, video, and data transmission. Hall's goal is to put in an infrastructure that is completely flexible so it will be able to pass any signal over any medium; it will just be a matter of media conversion.

"The nature of trade shows these days is a two-day build out, a three-day show, and a 30-minute teardown," he says. "With this system, we're able to simply recycle the wires. We just change the widgets on the ends."

Thus, for voice service, he installs a phone jack at one end of the wire and a crossover into the phone system at the other. Similarly, for gigabit Ethernet service, he plugs in an Ethernet jack with crossover to the user side at one end and plugs into a hub or switch at the other. This modular approach even works with video: "Lucent has these nice products that let you come off a standard coaxial television signal with a special little converter," he says. "You plug it into the coax, and at the other end back into the network port, and it converts back to coax again."

The infrastructure of the new system will not be Category 5, but Category 6 fiber and copper cable. "With that quality of wire, we know we can go at billions of bits a second and still maintain downward compatibility with existing digital and analog service," says Hall.

While the Category 6 wire isn't in the ground yet, his plant will be ready for it when it arrives. "We're all about speed," he says.

As someone who has been building networks for more than 10 years, Hall is also concerned about network aesthetics. The new system will have ports every 30 feet on every fixed wall. "Actually, it's a safety issue first, but it's also an aesthetic issue," he says. Each standard wall plate or floor pocket port will have six CAT 6 gigabit-rated cables--enough to run just about any kind of signal.

Getting Outside The convention center has six services going out of the building, including a 10-megabit Ethernet pipe that runs to the ISP at the nearby University of Texas with a T1 line as backup; another Ethernet pipe that connects the facility to the Internet via UUNet (sort of a mega-ISP for other ISPs); and miscellaneous DSLs (high-speed digital subscriber lines) to other ISPs. In the works is a DS-3 connection, a 45-megabit pipe to the Internet. "We like to have redundant paths to the Internet as well as different physical routes out of the building," says Hall.

Acutely aware of the need for show organizers to make every minute count, Hall has a contingency plan. "I hope I never have to use it," he confesses. "It won't be pretty. But it will work." That's crucial, he says. "In this environment, five minutes is a looooong time."

Clients are welcome to use outside ISPs as long as they understand that the outside vendor's authority stops where the outside world meets the convention center's system. "Since we are the owners of the building and have a large investment, only building staffers can touch our infrastructure," says Hall. Not that there would be any reason for a client to bypass the system anyway; any service can be patched to any location in the building. The center can also run multiple networks simultaneously without having them cross paths.

"We can separate and segment traffic so client X's traffic stays in its own pipe, while client Y has a separate service--if they elect to do it that way," says Hall. "Sometimes clients want to share connectivity" because bringing in their own pipe would cost them thousands of dollars.

"We're all about the success of the event."