1. Verify the bandwidth

• Ask the venue for previous usage reports at the center so you can verify how much bandwidth is coming into the building. If all the reports “flatline” at 20Mbps, you can see that the building isn’t really getting the 50Mbps the salesperson told you it gets.

• Test the bandwidth during your site inspection at a Web site such as www.speedtest.net. Try it at your home or office so you’re familiar with how it works. “The most common mistake planners make is not testing the connections (at least once) during the site visit,” says James Spellos, CMP, of Meeting U. “What the hotel’s IT department states is provided and what actually is usable at any given time are often two different things. Remember, though, that any test is only a snapshot of bandwidth at a given point in time.” Ask about who else is on site and what they are consuming that might affect your speed-test reading.

You can also do tests while your meeting is on site. If you find the service is not what you expect, “speak the language,” says redbutton.tv’s Sam Stanton. “Instead of, ‘It’s not fast enough,’ be able to say, ‘I’m only getting a ___Mbps connection; my contract guarantees me ___Mbps.’” But know how your network is set up, says Matt Harvey, vice president of client network services, PSAV. “You may have secured 60Mbps for your event but we set up the network so no one device can use more than 1Mbps in order to prevent abuse.” A speed test in that case would show you only your device’s cap.

An alternative to random testing is to get reports of your daily usage during the event.

2. Ask who manages the network

For mission-critical Internet connectivity, you want to know that there are specialists on site monitoring your network during your event. But what does that mean?

“Bandwidth needs to be actively managed,” says David Langford of Smart City Networks. “If the planner needs 20Mbps, the venue needs to have a system in place to show if they are hitting that cap. You also want an RF (radio frequency) detection device in place to detect interference with the wireless signal.” If such interference is detected, the network managers can track it down and deal with it. Many things operate at 2.4GHz, the same frequency as wireless signals—cordless phones and microwave ovens, for example.

Want to avoid the whole interference problem? Have the venue design you a network in the 5.0GHz spectrum. The downsides of that choice are that it is more expensive, and some attendees’ devices won’t be able to use it. (This is changing.)

Ian Framson, founder of temporary network provider Trade Show Internet, adds that network management also may involve setting up rules so rogue users don’t grab too much bandwidth and potentially crash the network. “These rules limit what people can do in order to preserve the experience for everyone.”

Another design option is to create private virtual local area networks, or VLANs. This allows a certain segment of attendees to share content only among themselves. “You can physically separate the traffic,” Framson explains. “Some meetings may include content protected by nondisclosure agreements, so the organization needs to be confident that this content is on a network that is separate from the general network.”

3. Ask about the age of the venue’s Wi-Fi system

“When you are talking about fixed infrastructure, there is a time horizon/useful life of equipment,” says TSI’s Framson. “Venues calculate a 3- to 5-year depreciation during which they don’t make any new investments, they just collect the profits from their initial investment. But in the Internet connectivity world, things change every 18 months. A venue needs to upgrade more frequently than every three years.”

4. Ask about support

Who is your on-site contact? Are the network engineers on site or in a remote location? What’s the backup plan if a service failure occurs? “Event planners need to ask about the facility’s infrastructure and the capabilities of those who provide the connectivity,” says Smart City’s Langford. “No one asks about this service with the appropriate level of importance, the way they ask about safety.”

5. Ask where the bandwidth is coming from

If Internet connectivity is critical for your meeting, don’t book a hotel that gets its bandwidth from DSL or cable, says Harvey of PSAV, because that bandwidth is shared before it even hits the hotel. “You must start with dedicated bandwidth to the building.”

When PSAV designs a hotel’s network, he says, a portion of the bandwidth coming into the hotel is set aside for the meeting space. “If we have 100Mbps coming into the hotel, for example, we might set aside 70Mbps for the meeting space. The remaining 30Mbps is allocated to the guest rooms and is shared, and in general, most people will have an at-home-type experience with the connectivity in that shared environment.”

6. Bring in reinforcements if you need them

If you’re unconvinced that a venue can meet your needs, you have the option of hiring an outside company. This could be a small company such as Good GuyMobileInternet (started by redubtton.tv founder Sam Stanton), which comes in with easy-to-set-up equipment that can connect up to 20 people (appropriate for a trade show booth or your on-site planning room). Or it could be a temporary network provider such as Trade Show Internet, who will create a entire site survey for your network, and bring in the equipment and support you need.

“You can bring in an Inter-net service provider to provide needed bandwidth or other services,” says Talia Miller of nationwide audiovisual company Meeting Tomorrow. “Often the bottleneck is not the bandwidth, but rather the number of connections. A lot of hotels have great network capabilities, but because they are shared with the rest of the hotel they don’t have the ability to offer Wi-Fi networks for all participants of a conference, where you might have 200-plus iPads. Third-party companies can come in to deploy temporary wireless networks to handle
the traffic using the hotel’s or the third-party ISP’s Internet bandwidth.”

John Rissi, senior vice president, operations, for PSAV and chairman of the APEX Bandwidth and Connectivity Workgroup, notes that venues are stepping up their connectivity. “But for those that have not yet upgraded their facilities, third-party providers can design a temporary network for an event and provide all the necessary hardware and technical expertise.

“However, it is important to understand the event’s overall bandwidth requirements and what bandwidth is available at the venue. Additional bandwidth can often be brought in, but it requires advance planning, as it can take weeks or months for an Internet service provider to actually deliver the additional bandwidth to the facility, and there is additional cost involved. This sort of planning should begin at the budgeting and site-visit stages.”