TALK TO THE RESIDENT GEEK in a convention center's tech support group long enough, and you're bound to hear something like this: “We have the scalable capacity to partition and provision multiple secure LANs, WANs, and VLANs for point-to-point connectivity, so you can plug and play at speeds of up to a gigabit per second.”
Translate the jargon into plain English, and you learn what leading-edge facilities offer is this: multiple ways to get more information to more people faster and more affordably than ever before.
The specific features that make this possible are really beside the point. What matters to an organization coming to a high-tech convention center is how technology will enable the attendees to get more value from the meeting.
Whether the job is holding simultaneous educational sessions with high-speed Internet access, networking computers throughout the facility, or giving participants wireless Internet access so that they can check their e-mail at any time, the high-tech convention center has the backbone to make it happen.
“What's underused is how much the building can live and breathe the [organization's] daily message,” says Steve Morrison, director of information systems for the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which operates the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. Explains Michael Waxer, chief technology officer for the Washington Convention Center Authority, Washington, D.C.: “Think about it is as connecting everywhere, any way, and scaling to deliver what you need.”
Following are four high-tech features that are available at new and recently upgraded facilities, along with examples of how you can use them:
Everywhere you go, from the local coffee shop to an international airport, wireless Internet access is available so that people can stay connected to what's going on at home and at work. Convention centers from coast to coast are deploying wireless fidelity, known as Wi-Fi, networks for the same reason. “It's an issue of productivity,” says Don Griberg, FAIA, principal architect and director of the national convention center design group for HNTB Architecture, part of the joint venture design team for the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which opens this summer. “People are concerned about getting the most bang for their buck when they're traveling. The ability to stay in touch is very important.”
The Oregon Convention Center launched a high-speed wireless network last year, making it the biggest “hot spot” in Portland. Basic wireless Internet access costs $6 per hour or $12 per day, payable by credit card when you log onto the network with a Wi-Fi enabled laptop or personal digital assistant. The metered service provides access at a speed of 256 kilobits per second, fast enough for attendees to check e-mail. For faster access, a T-1 level service provides 1.544 megabits per second, fast enough for exhibitors to download large files and display Web sites. T-1 costs more but includes technical support.
In Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Convention Center has turned its Wi-Fi service into an amenity. While exhibitors still have to pay, Wi-Fi in the public spaces is free. SunGard SCT, a technology solutions provider for educational institutions, was the first to take advantage of the free connections for a recent user conference. The savings went directly to the bottom line, says Joan Antonelli, director of meetings and events, because her company would have paid the bill for all attendees to have wireless access.
Although some have predicted that wireless will replace wired connectivity, the most advanced facilities are hard-wired for maximum bandwidth. Their infrastructure is a network of fiber-optic and Category 6 cable with an Internet connection capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 1,000 megabits, or 1 gigabit, per second.
This backbone provides point-to-point connectivity among meeting rooms, exhibit halls, public spaces, and often adjacent hotels, so you can transmit audio, video, and data. Every connection point has high-speed Internet access, so your message can reach a broad audience.
“We've seen a significant increase in demand for high-speed Internet,” says Ellen Barry, chief information officer for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and manages McCormick Place and Navy Pier in Chicago. “We layer on that network the other capabilities such as Wi-Fi.” McCormick Place is one of a select handful of facilities that also has an Internet2 (I2) connection, capable of transmitting data at a speed of 10 Gbps.
Extending Your Reach
If you think hard about all the information passing among meeting participants by Internet and Ethernet, you may question how sensitive data is protected. A high-tech center can partition the network infrastructure and secure each segment with a private user name and password. These virtual local area networks, or VLANs, enable the center to host multiple events and keep everyone's information safe from prying eyes, as well as protect network users from viruses or other anomalies.
“We create a lot of private networks on the backbone to segment the traffic,” says Michael Hall, network manager for the Austin Convention Center. “If there is one ill-behaved computer, we can isolate it from the group.”
The center can even be networked with off-site locations using virtual private networks. When Dell Computer holds a corporate event at the center, its Round Rock, Texas, headquarters is connected by a secure VPN that allows employees to send data back and forth over the Internet. “We become another room to them,” Hall says.
The most advanced facilities are designed for multiple simultaneous connections, and they make connecting easy by providing data ports in the floors and walls at 30-foot intervals. An in-house technical support team helps customers to figure out what they need to make all the computers, peripherals, and network devices work.
“We reach out to the meeting planner about 120 to 90 days out, review their requirements, and go over our technical capabilities,” says Janet Allen, facility manager for Smart City Washington, which provides tech support for the Washington (D.C.) Convention Center. When exhibitors plug in, they're up and running in no time. The ability to plug and play helps to control costs, even if late orders are placed on-site, because tech support doesn't need to send out a crew every time someone needs another Internet connection. They can remotely configure and activate the ports.
Cathy Chatfield-Taylor covers the meeting industry as a freelance writer and editor.
Confused by the terminology of today's high-tech convention centers? Here's a cheat sheet.
BACKBONE — A permanently installed network infrastructure of copper wire and fiber-optic cable used to transmit voice and data signals into, through, and out of a facility.
BANDWIDTH — The amount of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time. Bandwidth is expressed in bits per second (bps) for digital devices and cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz), for analog devices.
CATEGORY CABLE — The copper wire component of a backbone. Enhanced category 5 cable (Cat 5e) supports bandwidth of up to 100 megahertz (Mhz). Cat 6 supports a bandwidth of at least 200 Mhz.
ETHERNET (10BASE-T) — A local area network (LAN) technology that provides data transmission speeds of up to 10 megabits per second (Mbps).
FAST ETHERNET (100BASE-T) — Provides data transmission speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Requires Cat 5e cable to operate at its full potential.
GIGABIT ETHERNET (GBE) — Provides data transmission speeds of up to 1,000 megabits, or 1 gigabit per second (Gbps). Requires Cat 6 cable.
INTERNET2 (I2) — A dedicated network capable of transmitting data at speeds of 10 Gbps. I2 access is restricted to a consortium of 205 universities working to develop advanced network technologies.
T-1 LINE — Transmits data at speeds of up to 1.544 Mbps. Can be split to accommodate several users at one time (known as a fractional T-1).
T-3 LINE — Transmits data at speeds of up to 44.184 Mbps, allowing performance of more tasks simultaneously at a greater speed. Also called a DS3 Line.
UNIVERSAL PLUG-AND-PLAY (UPNP) — The ability to plug a PC or peripheral device into a network and have it configure itself, acquire a TCP/IP address, and announce its presence on the network.
WEBCAST — Broadcast of an audio and/or video presentation over the Web in real-time or on-demand.
WI-FI (WIRELESS FIDELITY) — A LAN that uses the 802.11 specification to transmit data over the air. It includes 802.11b, which provides 11 Mbps transmission in the 2.4 GHz band; and 802.11g, which provides 20+ Mbps in the 2.4 GHz band.