You have to hand it to Karen Carter

She knows what she wants from a meeting network.

“The goal of setting up a comnet [communications network] at a conference is to give people access to information they might not have been able to get before the show, to let them share knowledge and communicate with each other, and to provide [a vehicle] for feedback,” says Carter, the group product manager for Microsoft's new Embedded & Appliance Platforms Group. “Some people think this means setting up 500 machines so people can check their mail, post feedback to special news groups or bulletin boards set up for the event, and giving everybody the ability to print out all the slides from the sessions. In my world, which is the world of handheld devices and PDAs, we don't need all of that, and there's a significant cost attached to it. My budgets are not as huge as some others.”

When Carter brought more than 800 EAP developers into the Bellagio in Las Vegas last November, all her attendees cared about was being able to check e-mail, connect with each other, and download PowerPoint presentations. She also wanted to give attendees an opportunity to give evaluations online rather than through the usual printed form.

To do this, she hired EventPoint Inc., a local outfit based in Redmond, Wash. EventPoint built a custom Web site for the meeting, loaded in speaker presentations and downloadable files associated with the event, and then handled the implementation of a wireless network at Bellagio. This meant that EventPoint was responsible for building the network infrastructure, coordinating with the local Internet Service Provider to get a high-speed connection from the hotel to the Internet, and coming on-site and installing the server and the wireless access points that make the system work. In the end, it meant acting as the help desk for attendees who were having problems with their wireless cards.

As it happened, Bellagio did not have a wireless network. But the property did have wireless access points. “The fact that they have all that hardwired stuff in the walls saves a lot of pain and cost,” she says.

Where the Money Goes

Refreshingly, for someone at a top high-tech company, Carter is candid about the need to control costs. Hiring EventPoint to build the Web site, handle the online piece, and do the on-site setup was a major expense, but, she says, the biggest cost is usually the connectivity. “Leasing a T1 line in Europe can cost $10,000!” she says. “Fortunately, when you get into a hotel like Bellagio, there is already a lot of network hardware — you just have to get the pipe there.”

For Carter, deciding on the amount of bandwidth to plan for in the budget was a function of figuring out how many of the 800-plus attendees were likely to access the network at any one time. “If we're pretty sure that 400 of the 800 are likely to be online during lunch, then maybe we get a T3 instead of a T1. You have to run the math: How many people are going to be on at the same time, and what will they be doing?” Having produced this particular conference before, Carter was reasonably confident of her estimates. She points out, however, that coming up with usage rates depends on the industry. “For this industry, a lot of attendees are likely to show up with wireless devices. In another industry, they may come with a laptop or a PDA, but they haven't really thought about wireless, so instead of half using the service, maybe an eighth do.

“For high-tech firms, it's easy. We just say ‘Got a wireless card? Bring it to the show!’ But if your attendees really don't have them, think long and hard about whether it's really worth it to go down that road.”

The Static with Wireless

Carter is pretty relaxed about the whole notion of installing a wireless network. “This is one of those things that is a really great ‘nice-to-have’ if you have the resources for it,” she says. “If you don't have it, well, I've never had an attendee come in and say ‘How dare you not have a wireless network for me? My world is incomplete.’ The people who really complain if we don't have a wireless network at a conference are the Microsoft people.” She adds that sometimes she'll have a small network set up just for Microsoft staff and the speakers. “They're the ones who use it more than the attendees. And it's nice for the speakers, who are giving up their time to be there, to be able to do their ‘real’ jobs while they're with us. Having happy speakers is good.”

For planners considering a wireless network, Carter points out that there are costs to watch for. “If we're handing out loaner wireless cards, we have to set up a booth and hire a temp, because we need to have attendees fill out a form or at least give us a credit card number in case they walk off with the cards.”

The wireless cards themselves represent a substantial cost, which Carter mitigates by working with Symbol Technologies, based in Hauppage, N.Y. Symbol is an important Microsoft partner in the EAS market- place, and in return for promotional considerations it provides the cards. “If you're in a situation where you're giving out wireless cards and can't find a partner to loan them, that could potentially be your biggest cost,” she says.

Carter looks to the day when she'll have the resources to do even more. “There's so much that you can do with this technology. For us it comes down to having time to think about the things we could do — and whether we can afford to do them.”

High on Carter's wish list is to have sufficient resources to make sure every attendee receives a wireless device at check-in. “There is a lot more you could do, like sending a poll in the middle of a presentation. I'd love to have everyone connected. Can you imagine not having to enter meeting evaluations by hand?”