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Wired Up

Courtesy Raleigh Convention Center

Remember the day, not that long ago, when convention centers worried about whether their bank of pay phones would handle the dozens of attendees who barreled out of ballrooms during breaks to make calls back to the office?

Today, those pay phones seem prehistoric, the telecommunications equivalent of the horse and buggy, outmoded by the ubiquitous cell phone.

In the past few years, the simple cell phone also has become passe, replaced by the smartphone, a hand-held device capable of doing far more than making phone calls.

The smartphone and other portable computing devices such as tablets and laptops have created a widespread demand for wireless Internet access.

Convention attendees stay connected
One of the places where that demand is most apparent is at a convention center, where hundreds of attendees with iPhones, BlackBerries, Droids and other devices in hand tap into the Internet.

Attendees’ need for quick, easy and reliable Internet access makes technology a focus of every conference, even those that have nothing to do with technology.

“Right now every group is a tech group,” said Dave Anderson, general manager at the Palm Beach County Convention Center and regional vice president for Global Spectrum, which manages convention facilities. “What convention centers are trying to do is make sure the infrastructure is able to handle the substantial increase in mobile devices. That is one of the biggest challenges.”

More questions in the pre-con
Because attendees have become so tied to the Internet, the convention center’s pre-conference conversation with meeting planners has changed.

In addition to reviewing the technology needs of speakers and company executives, convention center staff are asking about attendees’ technology use, according to Laurie Okun, sales and marketing director for the Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh, N.C.

Her staff will ask a planner “Are your users always on their hand-held devices?” and other similar questions about Internet use.

“We want to understand the attendees’ usage, even if it might cause us to increase our bandwidth,” Okun said. “That is proactively putting out a fire before it happens.”

For conference planners “knowing what they need for speakers is just not enough any more,” Okun said.

An invisible but vital network
Unlike the highly visible bank of pay phones, the system used to support wireless devices in convention centers is invisible. Wireless access points, placed throughout the facilities, are tied to a wired backbone that provides access to the Internet.

Both the wireless access points and wired backbone can be beefed up when the number of users increases or as the type of information transmitted becomes more complex and requires a bigger pipeline or bandwidth.

Raleigh, Santa Clara and other cities with reputations as high-tech capitals handle a large number of high-tech conferences.

Among the examples is the World Wide Web Conference, a biennial conference held in Raleigh in 2010. It was the conference’s first time in the United States.

At two previous sites, Barcelona, Spain, and Banff, Alberta, Canada, venues could not keep up with attendees “streaming videos, texting and tweeting,” said Okun.

The conference was deemed a success in Raleigh because the 1,400 attendees were able to make all the connections they needed through the center’s wireless system.

“None of them got booted out. We had to increase our bandwidth, but the fact is that we can up our bandwidth at any given moment,” Okun said.

Making adjustments
Convention centers closely monitor their Internet capabilities, adjusting capacity as technology changes. For example, in Palm Beach, the convention center recently increased its wireless Internet access points by 35 percent.

The Virginia Beach Convention Center’s robust fiber optic infrastructure can support up to 2,000 users at once, although it doesn’t expect to have that many people using the wireless system simultaneously.

The Wilmington Convention Center in Wilmington, N.C., increased its wireless Internet access and created a separate network for Social Crush, a social media conference that wanted to have 200 users online at once.

In Santa Clara, Smart City Networks, the convention center’s longtime technology provider, has overlapped wireless access points to ensure coverage is complete. The system is supported by a hard-wired backbone that is working at the highest level available at the moment, according to Emiliano Fernandez, the center’s Smart City representative.

To handle the adjustments needed to Internet and telecommunications systems, many convention centers contract with a third-party provider. Smart City Networks is among the dominant players. Among its 35 convention center clients are centers in Las Vegas and Orlando, but also some midsize facilities, such as Virginia Beach and Mobile, Ala. Other facilities, such as the Palm Beach Convention Center, opt to handle their Internet and telecommunications needs in-house.

Recouping the cost of connections
Expanding wireless and wired Internet systems for a specific client doesn’t come without a cost. That expense is often passed along to the client.

Because free wireless Internet access is offered everywhere from hotel lobbies to coffee shops, it can be difficult for meeting planners to grasp the need for those charges, but the difference is in the sophistication of the wireless systems, said Courtney Dyer, general manager of the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach, Va.

“When small meetings transition from a hotel to a convention center, sometimes they don’t understand why the Internet service costs more,” he said.

Those systems have a low bandwidth, so they “can’t move a lot of data across them,” Dyer said. “Convention centers often get hammered because we don’t offer free wifi, but if you have to manage it, someone has to pay for it. That $79 line that feeds Panera is woefully inadequate for the needs of a convention center.”

“One of my clients had someone give them Internet access for one of their conventions and they got what they paid for — it was slow and cumbersome and they had trouble with it the entire time because there was no one to manage it.”

There are ways to recoup the cost of attendees’ wireless use. At the Santa Clara Convention Center, about half of the center’s clients opt to pay for Internet usage by selling sponsorship for the splash page that wireless users see when they access the center’s wireless system. The Virginia Beach convention center also encourages its clients to seek sponsors to recoup the cost of Internet access.

In Raleigh, local government will sometimes pay the cost. “Sometimes if a conference means enough to the area, we will apply for funds [through the local government] to underwrite the costs,” said Okun.

The Palm Beach County Convention Center has decided to view Internet access as an amenity. The convention center lines up its own sponsors for the facility’s wireless landing page.

“We are providing wireless free,” said Anderson. “We calculated the hit from revenues and we offset it with sponsorships. We felt that every attendee should have the ability to jump on.”