Exhibition Wi-Fi: Best in show
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Providing visitors with good connectivity in exhibition venues with Wi-Fi is not easy. Sam Fenwick gathers some tips on how to improve performance.

When you go to any exhibition hall, visitors and exhibitors increasingly expect good connectivity. It directly benefits event organisers by enabling attendees to create online buzz about their shows through tweets and other forms of social media, and for them to sell advertising space on Wi-Fi log-in landing pages to sponsors and other interested parties. The need for rock-solid in-venue connectivity is also being driven by the rise of event-specific apps to aid navigation and networking.

However, it can be a struggle for exhibition organisers as they must grapple with their exhibitors’ tendency to set up their own temporary Wi-Fi networks and mobile hotspots. “There’s always going to be some bad neighbour that’s going to be sitting there transmitting at 30dB, and not being aware they’re doing it,” says Martin Lethbridge, senior sales engineer UK & Ireland at WatchGuard Technologies. Most of the time he sees this, it is because “the people that set these up are not Wi-Fi experts, they’ve either just been handed an access point by their IT department or it’s been quickly picked off the shelf and plugged in so that they can try and maximise their internet line, which they’re paying a rather large amount of money for”.

What’s to be done? Lethbridge gives the example of an events organiser at a large exhibition venue in London, which had “people going around checking who had Wi-Fi and requesting that each vendor turned their Wi-Fi down to 2-3dB – that helped”. He also highlights the importance of making use of Wi-Fi running on 5GHz, due to the greater amount of bandwidth it supports, compared with that available at 2.4GHz.

He also says venue organisers might reduce the issues created by exhibitors’ temporary networks if they charged less for connectivity; for example, by reducing the cost of using a second Ethernet line, while also encouraging people to use the hardware in a reasonable way.

Jeanette Lee, senior director, product solutions architecture at Ruckus Networks, recommends “communicating with the people who are going to be showing up at these events, saying: ‘We’re going to have a very good network and you should use it because it’s going to satisfy your needs.’”

She adds that often the reason people go to all the trouble to set up these additional networks in the first place is the perception that the venue’s own Wi-Fi “isn’t going to meet their needs or allow them to do what they want to do. So it’s really important to communicate to these people that you’re going to give them a high level of service.”

Preparing for the big day

When it comes to venues’ own Wi-Fi networks, Lethbridge says: “Implementing a proper Wi-Fi solution is not about having everything set to auto and to 30dB, and sitting there blasting out the signal. Sometimes the best Wi-Fi [networks] are those only cranking it out at 5 or 10dB and covering a small area with lots of access points.” He also recommends using a managed service.

Ruckus Networks’ Lee adds that typically when something goes wrong, people’s first response is to blame the wireless network. However, “there’s so many other things that [also have to work]. For example, we’ve been at several shows where we [had to use] somebody else’s DHCP server or one not under our control, and I’ve had a couple of cases where that server would run out of addresses – my devices were connecting to [the Wi-Fi network] just fine and had plenty of throughput on that connection, but they didn’t have an IP address so they couldn’t do anything.”

Another issue she identifies is on the WAN side. “I can have people connecting at 800Mbps with an 802.11ac client, but if I have only a 100Mbps uplink and 3,000 people on the network, you’re not going to get great performance; again, that’s not a wireless issue.” This sort of problem is precisely why Lee and her colleagues, when providing or assisting with Wi-Fi for events, like to be involved early so that they can examine the premises and get a feel for the existing RF conditions. This, together with discussions with a venue’s operational team to better understand its infrastructure, allows them to set expectations for the network’s performance during the event. Her team also prefers to arrive early enough to be able to test the network before the event starts, and this goes beyond merely doing a throughput test with one device or carrying out a survey.

“When we’re partnering with a convention centre to do these kinds of things, we love to see people who are very keen on what’s happening, understand their own environment and can communicate it to us. If we’re going to do a show then I like to see CAD drawings that I can use to plan the deployment. If I can get there on-site and have someone walk with me, that’s a bonus, especially if they can explain to me their network infrastructure: where the [connection] drops are, how it’s all interconnected. A topology diagram is incredibly useful and [it’s great] if they can talk to us about some of their background systems, how their WAN operates and the service levels they would expect to get.

“[It’s also helpful] if they can be there when we’re bringing up the system, as it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get everything perfectly deployed right off the bat. If it’s the wireless it’s fine, and if I’m supplying the switches it’s fine, but you’re always running over a site’s enabling infrastructure at the very least [including their WAN uplink]. Having someone that can work with me on those is incredibly valuable,” Lee says.

Thorsten Freitag, VP EMEA of Mist, which specialises in applying machine learning to wireless networks, adds that when it comes to deploying Wi-Fi in exhibition centres, “there is a big labour difference, whether you have an architecture that is cloud-based or one that is physical, controller-based”.

Slicing for success

While we are on the subject of making things easy to manage, Zeetta’s software-defined, network-based NetOS is allowing Ashton Gate, Bristol’s largest stadium, to dynamically manage its Wi-Fi to respond to the requirements of users and the stadium’s owners.

Vassilis Seferidis, Zeetta’s CEO, says this allows venues’ employees to quickly create temporary hotspots for specific events or meetings, using a graphical interface.

“It’s a very easy and intuitive way for even someone who doesn’t have any knowledge of the network to implement and manage the network in a very dynamic way. The system can be used to create network slices that can be assigned to different user groups, providing them with bespoke connectivity.” He adds that this extends to individual users, devices and even applications, “so we can assign higher priority to specific applications. For example, during a match in a stadium, we could prioritise a betting application over YouTube or another type of service.”

One of the advantages of this approach is that in the event of an emergency, “you can stop internet access to thousands of people in the stadium watching the football match and deliver all the capacity in the stadium to the people serving the emergency”.

Mist’s Freitag highlights some of the features of his company’s platform, which include its dynamic packet capture function. When the platform detects that a user is experiencing a network anomaly, it automatically starts capturing, allowing the operator to ‘rewind back in time’ to see what was happening between the wireless network and the device when the anomaly was detected; Freitag explains that this significantly speeds up troubleshooting Wi-Fi issues.

The platform can also be used to set service-level expectation thresholds for attributes such as connection, coverage, capacity, roaming, throughput and latency, and when these are not met can provide the operator with insight into the reasons why. In addition, its new Virtual Network Assistant uses natural language processing and AI to allow operators to type queries such as ‘Why is Bob’s smartphone having a problem?’ and receive meaningful answers.

Fear the fruit

Turning to cybersecurity, WatchGuard Technologies’ Lethbridge says the real problem is that “the younger generation [of hackers] are getting into Wi-Fi”, coupled with devices like the Wi-Fi Pineapple and software running on Raspberry Pi such as FruityWifi, which according to its website “allows the user to deploy advanced attacks by directly using the web interface or by sending messages to it”.

In addition, Arnau Code, a software developer, posted a proof of concept back in January showing how hackers could use man-in-the-middle attacks to force all the devices connected to a Wi-Fi network to mine a cryptocurrency on their behalf.

To Lethbridge, these threats mean that venues need to start looking at how they can protect their airspace and the users within it. “That’s where a lot of these events are failing their customers, by not implementing this kind of protection. The attitude of if you log in, it’s at your own risk isn’t good enough any more. When you ask an average user if they know what a VPN (virtual private network) is, they’ll probably give you a blank stare. So we as an industry need a way to mitigate that and protect users [by other means].”

Don’t forget about BLE

While this piece has focused on Wi-Fi, there are reasons why event organisers and venues might want to factor Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) into their plans. For one thing, according to Freitag, “BLE can be used to detect coverage holes in Wi-Fi access points”, but that’s just scratching the surface.

He explains that Mist recently deployed its virtual BLE solution at the global sales conference for a Fortune 100 company, as a temporary overlay on top of the venue’s existing Wi-Fi with no connection between the two. The 18,000 attendees downloaded a supporting app and wore lanyards fitted with BLE tags. These worked in combination with roughly 300 Mist BT11 units, powered from the mains rather than being battery-powered, to allow the attendees to navigate around the venue with one- to three-metre accuracy and enable the system to detect when they were by a booth and for how long.

Freitag says this could allow event organisers to go back to their exhibitors and say ‘last year, this spot had X amount of traffic and X amount of dwell time, this is a premier location, which is why we’re charging you this price’. “[These kinds of] analytics are huge for convention centres,” he says.

In addition, the system allows event organisers to create virtual beacons that can send notifications and information to delegates when they are near specific stands, and could be used to enable augmented reality smartphone apps to deliver the same information in a more immersive way. Freitag notes that this is another revenue opportunity as exhibitors and sponsors could pay the event organiser or venue owner for the right to deliver their content and adverts.

While getting connectivity right in an exhibition or large venue setting is never going to be completely straightforward, taking the bull by the horns and engaging with exhibitors from the start can make things easier, as does remembering that a Wi-Fi network is only as good as the WAN it is connected to. At the same time, powerful new tools are making it easier for the uninitiated, and new location-based services can unlock sources of revenue.

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