Microsoft is getting an upgrade Down Under. When the Redmond, Wash. software giant signed up to stage its 1999 Asia-Pacific technical education program at the Bris-bane Convention and Exhibition Centre (BCEC), it was expecting 8-megabyte-per-second satellite downlinks for Internet connections. By the time the show opens in August, the Internet links will be up to 45 Mbps (with 512K and ISDN uplinks).

"They should be quite pleased at the upgrade," says BCEC IT manager Paul Robinson. "We're going to run fast Ethernet to every machine."

The BCEC, the largest meeting and convention facility in Australia, sports fiber-optic and Category 5 cabling behind every wall and under every floor. Fast Ethernet, also known as 100BaseT Ethernet, is standard, Robinson said, and the center is already set for gigabyte Ethernet, the next step up in the connection speed department.

"We do a lot of 100 meg meetings," he explains, "but we haven't had anybody using gigabyte yet. It's a bit ahead of the industry curve."

Room to Grow The Queensland center, which opened in 1995, was designed to stay ahead of the curve. Brisbane learned from painful upgrades in Sydney and Mel-bourne, Australia's other major convention cities. Instead of fitting information technology into BCEC, planners started by designing the systems and then shaping the convention and exhibition spaces to fit network parameters.

"It was a bit of a leap in 1995," says Robinson, who coordinated BCEC's pre-opening information systems acquisition and installation operations. "Fiber optic was the ultimate technology back then. Now, it's second nature."

Take the Great Hall, which handles pro basketball games and sit-down functions for 4,000 with equal ease. There are floor pockets every 20 feet with computer and video sockets; and the same setup exists in all four exhibition halls (215,000 square feet), the 17,000-square-foot ballroom, the 15 meeting rooms, the rooftop, and outdoor function areas. Need more sockets? Just ask. BCEC opted for an AT&T cabling system that supports snap-on expansion outlets patched through one of four central hubs in each hall. Equipment cupboards, conduit, and cabling were deliberately overbuilt, Robinson says. After three years of system upgrades, the BCEC's most crowded equipment racks are less than half-filled, and the building still has untouched conduit and cable capacity.

Talk About Multitasking The combination of capacity and flexibility has made BCEC one of the most successful convention centers in the region. Microsoft is one of several high-tech clients that keeps coming back. It attracts new ones, too: The Interna-tional Conference for Information Sys-tems is coming in 2000, in part because Brisbane presented its bid over the Internet. "This is the first time anyone had ever used the Internet to bid for an international convention," says Rob Weber, a computer science professor at the University of Queensland who was recruited by Brisbane to work on the bid. "The deciding committee was able to log on and examine all the details regarding Brisbane's potential as a destination."

Other notable repeat clients include high-profile government and political groups. In March 1998, BCEC hosted the Liberal Party National Convention, the equivalent of hosting a Democratic or Republican national convention for a U.S. convention center. The Center not only ran internal networks for the convention and the Party, it was also host broadcaster for all five of Australia's television networks. Convention sessions were covered live by Center crews, switched and edited in-house, then fed to network studios by fiber-optic cable or microwave for national broadcast.

"We pride ourselves on being able to provide anything a client asks for," says Robinson. "If we don't have it, we go out and buy it--and we haven't had many surprise purchases."