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Is Free Wi-Fi Really FREE? The Ongoing Debate about Access for Meetings and Events

April 9, 2015

 

We are all familiar with this sign. It is everywhere -- at the library, fast food establishments and even rest stops along the highway. While this is great for a traveler or a person who wants to scroll through their emails while enjoying a cup of coffee, how does it translate to a meeting of 200 to 1,000 attendees? Probably not very well -- mostly out of insufficient knowledge and high expectations by planners and attendees alike. 

Let's look at what attendees expect when they come to a meeting, why it may or may not be a reasonable expectation and most importantly, what an event services company can do to meet or exceed those expectations. 

When most attendees come to a conference, they expect to receive the same level of Internet service that they would at home or at the office. In other words, they expect great speed and easy navigation into the Wi-Fi system. They don't expect to pay for it either, as they feel that the sponsoring organization should have figured those costs into the registration fee. 

They also don't understand why the organization would rent iPads as their smartphone can access everything the iPad can and possibly even more. 

The truth of the matter is Wi-Fi access at home or the office is not free. The person or organization pays a bill each and every month. Somewhere along the line, retail establishments started offering free Wi-Fi and that expectation spilled over into the meeting industry. However, there is a big difference between 10 people at a coffee house connecting to the Internet and 500 individuals simultaneously accessing a bandwidth-intensive application (such as video). While it makes sense to roll a Wi-Fi network array rental into the registration cost, sometimes that is impossible to do until the meeting organizer has a good expectation of how many attendees are coming to the conference. And let's face it, attendees are registering as close to the meeting date as possible. One solution may be to have a sponsor cover the cost of this rental unit. 

The reason you can't run all your mobile meeting applications on a smartphone platform is because 

  1. Not everyone has a smartphone. According to Pew Research, only 45% of U.S. adults own a smartphone and even though that percentage is growing every day, event organizers cannot assume an attendee has one. 
     
  2. Even if you polled attendees and found out that 100% of them owned smartphones, there is a high probability that not all of them are going to be the same brand. Applications are written to specific devices, for example an iPhone app may or may not be supported on an Android and vice-versa. 
     
  3. Due to the spectrum crisis, not all phone carriers have unlimited data plans which could limit the amount of time attendees can access a particular application. 

 

Wi-Fi can be complicated because the event organizer needs to know the bandwidth, number of access points at the venue and the number of devices that will be connected to the Internet at any given time. Meeting planners should ask for a detailed Wi-Fi consumption report from a similar event that was hosted at the venue. 

In addition, APEX has a Bandwidth Estimator which can be a start for the amount of Mb/s you will need for your event. But remember this is only estimation and you will need to work with a qualified provider to be assured of the right configuration.

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