Two years ago, Microsoft had high expectations for the unveiling of its groupware program at Austin's convention center. Its executives wanted multiple PCs in each of the 29 meeting rooms and 70 servers to handle e-mail--230 computers in all, every one of them with a high-speed connection to the Internet. The guys from Redmond would supply the hardware, but they needed a network that could handle hardcore traffic.
No one blinked. The convention center in this tech-savvy Texas town had been hosting wired meetings since opening in 1992. From the fiber-optic backbone to the thousands of plug-and-play ports, capabilities that many cities are just now building into their brand-new convention centers are six years old in Austin. Soon, the city will break ground on a three-year convention center expansion that will double its space. With a new airport and a host of wired hotel rooms on the way, Austin hopes to attract convention business away from such established high-tech meccas as San Jose and Boston.
Of course, anyone in Austin can tell you that high-tech industry has transformed this laid-back town, and it is probably the reason why Austin was one of the first cities to build a wired convention center.
From practically anywhere in the building's 176,000 square feet of event space, visitors can plug into the network and transmit voice, video, or data immediately, regardless of what type of hardware they use. Floor pockets every 30 feet in the exhibit hall conceal outlets for fiber connections to the T1 Ethernet, ISDN line, and satellite uplinking, as well as category 3 voice lines (soon to be category 5) and cable television. In the center's first year, only three clients made use of that capabil-
ity. Now, more than half of the shows that come to Austin use the network in some way.
Last year, the Texas Veterans Admin-istration connected 380 PCs to its intranet over the center's T1 line, and the Texas Education Association used the center's ISDN connection to perform an international distance learning demonstration and also uplinked a speech by Gov. George Bush for viewing around the state.
The center is flexible because the network is built-in. "If I had to pull the wire, it wouldn't happen," says Michael Hall, the center's full-time technology manager. Like an operator in the early days of telephones, Hall shifts wires around network panels, plugging in an Ethernet connection here and a satellite link there. If there's a problem, it doesn't hurt that Hall is certified to patch fiber-optic cable, as he did on the spot as a Sun Microsystems executive prepared to speak to 2,000 people.
Soon, all of the center's fiber-optic cable will be upgraded and the pipeline to the center's Internet Service Provider, the University of Texas, will zoom data at 10 gigabits per second. When construction crews enlarge the meeting space by more than 205,000 square feet, they will be running fiber-optic cable behind every wall.
A few blocks away, the Four Seasons Hotel already distinguished itself this year by installing T1 access and dual phone lines in every room and meeting space. By the end of the year, the Doubletree Hotel will extend the same capability to guest rooms (the meeting rooms already have it). The Omni Austin Downtown and the historic Stephen F. Austin hotel will follow in 1999.
In May, the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport will replace undersized Mueller Municipal Airport. A former Air Force base, Bergstrom will sport parallel runways and capacity for 55 gates, though only 20 will be used at first. The improvements couldn't come at a better time for Austin, which ranks as one of the country's fastest-growing metropolitan areas.
After the visit in 1996, a Microsoft event planner told Hall that 95 percent of the company's events were too big for Austin's convention center. Not surprising, considering the center believes it loses 240,000 room nights a year due to limited space. Fortunately, the facility was built with expansion, and technology, in mind.
"Bring on the Microsofts," Hall says