Rocket Science or a matter of common sense? Some friendly suggestions for providers of so called “network connectivity” on conferences


If you have been to any major tech conference in the last years I assume you will recognise the following situation:

“We are proud that our sponsor XYZ will provide us with this gigantic connection to the Internet to make you all happy! Go forth and blog about it and be happy.” says the conference host and everybody starts the game.

Throughout the conference you then spend your time trying to connect, get happy for some minutes, try to get back on. Where again is the powerplug? Lost connection again. Shoot! I just want to do IRC which is like the lowest usage you can think of!

You start exchanging views with your friends where to find the most reliable router which crashes the least. One or the other has to leave the conference in order to “find a signal” because they have to submit an article, really do some work or other. The happy ones have gotten the costly but more reliable option of a mobile connection as this never works out.

At the end of such a conference everybody is pissed because the wifi was flaky, no Ethernet cable in sight and you know you will have to do the reading at home / at the hotel (mostly a costly option) and do all the blogging / tagging / flickering you wanted to do later.

Evening organisation is not done by online tools but by mobile phone through crappy SMS.

Additionally the conference chair expects some warm welcoming applause for the provider. (Btw: Why do you clap in such situation? They will not change if you applaud them).

So we have the pathetic situation that conference attendees hope for some connection every time and still get disappointed.

Tell me if that sounds familar.

Now, I am not a hyper technical person and I do know that there are some limitations involved as well as the technology itself but sorry. This is nearly 2007 and getting a working system up and running to satisfy the need of for example a thousand or just 500 people in the room is not rocket science if you apply some basic measures like thinking about it from the perspective of the root of all evil as well as know how to prevent some of the issues.

So Joe Reader (you are most likely male), this will your assignment if you take it! Let’s see if we can break the task down and tackle some of the problems. You just need to read any reportage about the conferences in the last months and you will find some common issues and problems appearing every fraking time!

  • At any technology / geek crowed oriented conference chances are that 100 % of the participants have a laptop with wifi possibilities nowadays and guess what – they actually expect to use it. Especially in the morning when they want to check their emails and see who else is there.
  • If for some reason the net is not working, they will try it over and over and over again in hope to once get a signal. Many may never have heard of the concept of strongest sending signal and the necessity of several routers. They will just go on and use what looks good. And this in some cases can mean that they like the other name better.
  • If then finally something is running part of the time, some people do have their computers up as “access points” and do run p2p software. You or the host go up and ask them to switch that off and to turn off the p2p.

    Everybody nods and nobody thinks it is them – which is why they crash the network and have open access points. The ones knowing what they do will be able to use this sensitively. For the rest you do talk in the wrong language to them.

  • The conference host wants them to buzz and gloat about it online during the conference so you need to have the connection up and running the whole time. No connection, no postings, no buzz.
  • It is not good buzz when the only people posting are the ones who had to leave the conference due to problems with your connection and they had to get back to the hotel or worse.
  • You also need to provide some ways that the presenters have access to a connection. Experience tells you that it is a stupid idea for the presenter to use the same connection (especially wifi) as the room – if will again embarrass you.

    As you will learn from looking at videos from presentations you will notice that despite better knowledge most presenters are also clueless in learning from experience and do not prepare a self sustainable presentation which can run without net connection.

    If you have another room for presentation or just other sponsors and they need a connection, you will make sure that they as well have a separate connection to be able to showcase whatever they want.

So we have a lot of experience / same old problems – and still there are no solutions to it. Why oh why is this? When we look closer at the problem we do have the following

  • technical incompetence on side of the attendees
  • technical limitations
  • technical incompetence on side of the organizers / connectivity providers
  • organizers / connectivity providers not being able to think smart

technical incompetence on side of the attendees

Let’s face it: Many people just click on connect and expect a wonder to happen. They will not know if their computer is cluttering up your system with broadcast messages, they will not understand or care if they are “access points” and they just want to run skype, not knowing what they do there. Before you try to get a hold of them, start on your side first, because that is much easier to deal with.

Even with a knowledgeable audience – last year in Paris iirc we crashed not only the leblog network but the chamber of commerce’s one and the university which was in the same building.

technical limitations

So you wanna set up connectivity on a conference with X  participants. Just looking at the pure number you will be able to smell trouble. X participants means X+x users on your network – laptops and mobile phones.

I would be happy to link to somebody giving a small oversight of what the main problems are which are happening here, as I am not an network technician. But interestingly most of those problems are homemade which is why I will come back to technical limitations at the end.

technical incompetence on side of the organizers / connectivity providers

You should never assume that your attendees will be able to know what they are doing. You need to cope with worst case scenarios (and it is not the first time this is happening, so you do not have an excuse).

If you will not be able to bring up a reliable working system with wifi then leave it. And provide ethernet cables or get a sponsor for one of those nice small mobile options where you can track and expand a cable – makes a GREAT schwag gift. (I got mine from Lufthansa when they where promoting their wireless service in the planes …)

But lets stay with the idea of wireless for a second. You know you will have your so called “inexperienced” people who not even try to have their laptop set up to be an access point – they do not know. Find a way to find those laptops and notify the owner. (Am I the only one thinking trace the access point not in my list of allowed access points by mac address and net send here?!)

Get an intern and give him or her the task of finding those people. Set out a bounty or whatever.

People using peer to peer software

Trace the usual suspects of application, hunt the ip / mac down, message the owner as in “your laptop will blow up in 10 seconds if you do not stop this. We have your mac address”. AND: Take your time to LIST the p2p software you want to ban during the conference. Because most people do not realize what actually runs on p2p, like for example skype.

organizers / connectivity providers not being able to think smart

They will crash your routers and connection. You know it. Why not deal with it?

  • Name the access points in a way normal user understand what to do. Like at the last Leweb: Organize seat rows and put up signs like ‘please connect to this name of access point. It is your best, trust us.’ And they did not use geeky names but colours. Even if you did not understand french you will be able to identify rouge, noir, prune etc.
  • Provide places outside with wired access so people who have to send something will have a way of doing so. People will use this fast connection to shortly send up those flickr fotos and then go back happy that they did not need to use the wifi.
  • Provide places with wired ethernet. As there are technical limitations which cannot be overcome at the moment – we understand. We just want our fix. We even will bring our own cables if you tell us to and promise us connectivity. We need cables anyhow for our laptop power.
  • If part of the problem is getting people to connect due to the amount of tries to get an IP address – then distribute preset IP addresses! I’d rather go through the hassle of using such than not having a connection. Put it in the Schwag bag or something.
  • If your wifi uses security settings or needs special attention: Those information belong on the screen, in big letters, and need to be accessible everywhere. It is a bad sign when attendees memorize 10 digit access code.
  • Bandwidth always seems to small and nobody really has a grasp of how much data is transferred. It may be technical but get somebody to EXPLAIN what is happening as well as provide statistics at half time to show the participants that there actually is something happening. Have a screen on the side / in the hall to show current traffic.
  • Dress up your team to make them recognizable. I would suggest dart target pictures btw. Make Network angels – that will be a great lesson for people you want to train to deal with angry customers. There is only a limited amount of laptops floating around and network problems so not much of a problem.
  • Make a net check point or something. Let people bring their laptop to get it checked for malicious stuff happening from there.
  • If you are also a mobile provider: You know you will have problems. You know you will have a depending customer base which is angry to annoyed. So why not make a special deal at the conference setup and show them through the days of the conference how your mobile service is working?

    Take a deposit for the card, get a free connection for those days and offer it to special people or all of them. You not only will get a mass test, a good feedback if you do it clever. You might even get a new contract or more out of it.

technical limitations II

even if every option is exhausted (and my listing above is by far not complete in any way) there will be technical limitations. What do you do with such? Just cave? No. You go out and invent something new which can deal with these new requirements.

And in case you think: 2Why care about such an event, this is only happening some times a year” then try to think some years in the future and realize that the times where so many connections are coming to your service will come soon and you will have to deal with it anyhow.

What else did I miss?

Suggestions happily welcome.

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2 Responses to “Rocket Science or a matter of common sense? Some friendly suggestions for providers of so called “network connectivity” on conferences”

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  2. SamJackson says:

    What would you do if the internet crashed for good? Would you get used to life with less communication and less “being connected” or would you be pretty bummed for the rest of your life?

    This is assuming it was not fixed. Perhaps some largescale EMP attack or something that crippled it for the next 50+ years or so.