1. Number of attendees

You might think this is the most relevant number, but it’s only part of the equation. Matt Harvey, director of client network services for PSAV, which provides network management at 150 hotels and venues in the U.S. and Canada (and sales and support at more than 300 others), says that a group’s required bandwidth “is very difficult to predict. There is not a straight line between the number of people and the bandwidth you need, even if you know they are all doing the same thing.”

For a rough idea, planners can try out the Bandwidth Estimator (convn.org/wifi-estimator), a tool from the Convention Industry Council’s new Bandwidth and Connectivity Workgroup, part of the Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) effort. It is meant as a starting point, not a definitive calculation. In fact, the estimator is capped at 1,000 attendees, Harvey notes, “because above that point the variables are too great to control.” (CIC’s workgroup also released a white paper on Internet connectivity in late April.)

2. How attendees use the Internet

If you expect that most attendees will do little more than check e-mail during breaks, you might have low bandwidth needs. If they’re all participating in Web training, constantly accessing your mobile meeting app, and posting photos to Facebook, you have high bandwidth needs.

3. How presenters use the Internet

Know exactly what they intend to do: Live demos? Streaming video? Audience polling via smartphone? And consider a wired instead of wireless connection for them. “A hard-wired (Ethernet) connection is more stable and makes it easier to control the amount of shared access,” says James Spellos, CMP, president of Meeting U. “As a speaker, I always request both, and that’s a good idea for all planners to do.”

4. Number of devices

According to Matt Harvey, the average number of devices people carry around these days is 2.1. Where do your attendees fall on the connected spectrum? Does everyone have a smartphone and a tablet? “The scenario used to be that a person attended a trade show, walked the floor, then went to find a quiet place, opened up a laptop, sent some e-mail, visited an exhibitor’s Web site, turned the laptop off, and went to the next business session,” says David Langford, vice president, technology, Smart City Networks, which manages networks at 37 convention centers and venues. “It was a quick on-and-off with one device. Four years later, the attendee has two or three devices that require wireless Internet access, and once they’re connected they stay connected. We used to look at where the meeting breaks would take place when considering wireless coverage. Now everyone is connected all the time and everywhere.”

5. Where your users need Wi-Fi

And there can be bottlenecks. “At one show, we heard that the Wi-Fi signal was terrible in one area,” Langford recounts. “It turned out that everyone was told to turn off their Wi-Fi during the general session, then as soon as they got out to the prefunction space afterward, they all tried to jump on the Internet at the same time in the same place. Had we known that ahead of time, we would have supplemented the signal in that area.” They were able to remedy the issue, but could have saved the planner some grief with more detail up front.

Look at your attendees’ traffic patterns, scheduled breaks, and agenda flow in order to identify potential bottlenecks like this. Find out the locations of the venue’s wireless access points (units that contain radios sending out the Wi-Fi signal) and how many simultaneous users each can support. “Then do the rough math,” says PSAV’s Harvey. “If you know there are too few access points for the number of devices, then you need to add some.”

6. Know where you need dedicated bandwidth

Harvey explains the difference between shared and dedicated bandwidth: “Take a domestic setting. You can buy, say, 50Mbps of bandwidth for $70 per month from the cable company. In actuality, the cable company is delivering ‘up to 50Mbps’ and they are making the same promise to 49 other people. If everyone is using it at same time, you’re only getting 1Mbps. But the cable company relies on the idea that everyone will not be using the Internet at the same time.” The APEX Bandwidth and Connectivity Workgroup compares it to airline overbooking—usually it works out, but that’s little consolation when if you get booted off a flight.

Similarly, shared bandwidth probably would work out at your event. But meeting planning isn’t based on things probably working out. For connections that are critical—speakers, registration, your planning war room—you want bandwidth dedicated to you that no one else can touch. The APEX best practice: “Keep attendee bandwidth and event operations bandwidth separate.”

7. Don’t overestimate your bandwidth

“Due to the advertising around domestic shared bandwidth, some have a tendency to assume that they need 5Mbps for each meeting attendee,” Harvey notes. “When you multiply this by the total attendees you reach huge estimations of the required bandwidth. It’s important to know that once you move from a domestic to an enterprise bandwidth environment, the rules for calculating bandwidth change.”

8. Know what your exhibitors will be doing

If exhibitors bring in their own Wi-Fi equipment, it could interfere with the wireless network you’ve secured for your attendees. Smart City Networks partly resolves this issue in its venues by offering exhibitors a Wi-Fi package on the 5.0GHz spectrum. This keeps the exhibitor traffic separate from the rest of the meeting’s wireless, which is on the 2.4GHz spectrum. It’s getting a little technical to talk about radio frequencies, but both exhibitors and planners would do well to ask the venue about the challenge of wireless interference and what options exist to mitigate the problem.

The 2.2-million-square-foot Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas just spent $1.5 million to really amp up its wireless infrastructure with a new type of access point that can handle more users. But while the Sands offers wireless coverage for corporate events, in meeting spaces, and in halls, it does not sell Wi-Fi service for exhibiting events in hall space, says Justin Herrman, the center’s executive director of IT. “The reasons are due to interference challenges associated with the exhibiting event. All Wi-Fi is still a shared spectrum, prone to interference, and offers only a limited number of channels that must be shared before interfering overlap occurs.”

There is no ideal solution here. Some convention centers prevail upon exhibitors to act in their own best interests. Here’s how one convention center makes the case in its exhibitor package: “Wireless Internet service is vulnerable to interference from other wireless devices such as Wi-Fi routers, wireless cameras, cordless phones, and personal Wi-Fi hotspots. Wireless users in the exhibit halls may experience higher levels of interference due to the nature of the event and any electronics/equipment that may be a part of a product demonstration or display. If you are conducting a product demonstration, presentation, or streaming video over the Internet, we strongly recommend the purchase of a wired Internet connection. We request your cooperation in eliminating/minimizing the use of these devices to improve the quality of wireless services in our facilities.”

And it’s not just exhibitors who can muck up the airwaves. Attendees or presenters accustomed to lame connectivity may bring in their own “Mi-Fi” or hotspot devices, which get their signal from the cellular network but still can interfere with the venue’s wireless network when they send signals to the users’ devices. (By the way, if amping up cellular service is a concern for your group, see “Portable COWS.”)

9. Keep your app developer in the loop

If you’ve invested in a mobile meeting app, you’ll want to take care that attendees get the full benefit of the features you’ve included. The APEX workgroup offers a rough description of how much bandwidth typical apps might require:

• Low bandwidth: an app that provides basic, regularly updated event information

• Medium bandwidth: an app that allows and encourages attendees to post photos
to social media

• High bandwidth: an app that includes live-stream capabilities