You could hear the hissing as you walked in the door: "Can you connect?" "No, can you connect?" "No." It's the kind of music an event organizer would rather not hear: the sound of frustrated users who can't get online. Yet almost every conference I've been to this year has experienced some kind of network hell. One conference even had to have emergency hardwired lines pulled in, so presenters could do their demos.
The issues varied from spotty connectivity – walk ten feet and you'd get a signal – to total meltdown. The effect was the same: attendee and exhibitor hissing that would do an angry cobra proud. In fact, to hear some attendees, if they'd had that reptile's fangs, there would have been some punctured posteriors among event organizers!
You'd think that we'd have figured out such a relatively mature technology by now, but apparently not. A network can be a capricious thing, and a wireless network, doubly so.
Why? Well, it's complicated.
Here are five tips from a couple of networking gurus that can help you keep wireless users happy, whether they're at a conference or in an office setting.
1. Do a proper site survey so you can choose the best locations for wireless access points, and know about potential problems beforehand. "Without doing a proper wireless site survey," says Pete Riedman, senior network engineer at New York-based DealerTrack, "it becomes a matter of 'hoping it works' rather than 'knowing it works'." He says people still think they can build a network by simply tossing a few access points into the ceiling and hoping to get coverage.
The trouble with that approach is that you're dealing with radio waves, and radio waves bounce off things. In effect, they ricochet. And since those radio waves travel in straight lines, walls, pillars, elevators, and even bodies can get in the way, blocking or diminishing the signal. Other electronic equipment can interfere too.
And, says Shawn Wenzel, networking guru and president of IT management consulting firm CaribTek, a room full of people and equipment has different characteristics from an empty room, so you have to design for the worst case scenario. For many conferences, that means designing for wall-to-wall bodies, all tweeting like maniacs.
2. It's not just our Wi-Fi toys that can cause glitches, it's anything that runs on a Wi-Fi frequency: Cordless phones. Cordless microphones. Even baby monitors. At one conference, attendees were amused (and organizers mortified) when a presenter's wireless microphone was accidentally assigned the same channel as that of the presenter in the adjacent room. Result: chaos. Both presentations blared in each room and no-one could understand a word of either. It pays to pay attention.
3. Split the network. It's not just the attendee gear that can cause Moments of Interest. Wenzel says exhibitors using Wi-Fi equipment in their booths can interfere with nearby access points on the same channel. He explains that most Wi-Fi technology uses the 2.4 GHz band, which is divided into twelve channels. However, he says, most of those channels overlap, leaving only three unique ones: 1, 6, and 11; those are the ones to use in a network design.
In a conference environment, Wenzel recommends that Internet access points spaced around the facility alternate between channels 1 and 11. Exhibitors should stay on channel 6 so they don't stomp on attendees' Internet connections.
4. Communicate and test. OK, so that's two things, but they're tied together. Communication, says Riedman, "helps one plan for additional capacity and implement correctly rather than reactively try to fix things when that new office space nobody mentioned can't connect to Wi-Fi."
And testing, although it may be inconvenient, can spotlight potential issues before they cause grief. While you can't really pinpoint issues that will occur when a room is chock-full of bodies, all competing for the same bandwidth, Wenzel suggests walking the aisles with a laptop running site survey software, after exhibitors are set up, to identify channel conflicts and weak signals that need attention.
5. Monitor. Just because it was working, that doesn't mean it is working. Things change, equipment burps, and the network gremlins get playful. Catching an issue quickly means when people start hissing and sharpening their fangs, you can honestly say you're already working on the problem. Or, better yet, you fix it before they even notice.
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