It’s almost expected now that along with an event comes a mobile app for the iPhone, Android or other platform. At most events, certainly the larger ones and those outdoors in temporary locations, the enthusiasm for a mobile app soon wanes when the user finds that all they get is out of date information or error messages saying ‘no connection is available’. The simple fact is that the mobile networks cannot deal with data traffic effectively at event sites and this more than anything else leads to poor reviews in the app stores.

The two obvious approaches to fixing this problem are to either improve connectivity or make the app stand-alone so that it doesn’t need connectivity once it is installed on the phone. Improving connectivity via the mobile networks is not really an option, as even with temporary mobile towers the capacity and connectivity available is not good enough to deal with the sort of high density found at event sites and the cost becomes very prohibitive. A correctly designed Wi-Fi network can deal with the capacity and provide a much better user experience but this option may not always be possible in terms of budget.

I have seen more recently a trend to make event apps stand alone, driven most likely because of the connectivity issue, but there are two major flaws in this approach. Firstly the whole point of a mobile app is to offer something different, unique, current and interactive. If you take away the connectivity then you are left without most of those features and risk an app that is stale which, after an initial browse, is closed and forgotten about. The social media generation live in a connected world with a thirst for live information and that feature is what can make an app much more than an electronic programme guide. The second issue with a stand-alone app is that it doesn’t address the problem of downloading the app itself. Although you can try and persuade people to download the app before the event the fact is many will want to do it at then event itself and with a stand-alone app it is often the case that the install is even larger than a connected app as everything needs to be in the app download meaning the download is more likely to fail (and if too large is not allowed to be downloaded) over a mobile network.

There is a middle ground in all of this and it takes a leaf out of ‘mobile development’ from the 1990s when mobility was a laptop (more akin to a briefcase) and a 28k dial-up modem, it seems a lifetime ago now but it did teach developers an approach which is still very valid today. The approach is not earth shattering but it is too often forgotten by many of today’s applications, simply put it just means never assuming the network is available! More specifically it means factoring in the following design aspects:

  • Ability to operate with or without the network
  • Graceful degrade when the network connection fails
  • Local cache of data which updates when the network is available
  • Progressive and background downloads so that the user is not waiting for ages unable to do anything
  • Differential download of data so that only new data is sent
  • Avoiding or minimising ‘auto refreshes’ to reduce network load

Effective implementation of the approaches above will provide a much better user experience as the app operates when the network fails but the user still gets updates when they move into an area with connectivity, with the updates trickling in quietly in the background. There are some very good examples of mobile apps available but far too many still fall over or perform badly when network connectivity is poor and that’s just unacceptable for an event app.

The Event Production Show 2011

Having spent a couple of days last week at the Event Production Show talking to existing and potential customers it’s interesting to note down some of the common themes we are hearing and challenges people are facing around technology.

Underpinning many of the discussions I had was an increased focus on the importance of event connectivity. It has moved from a nice to have, through must have, to critical as more and more services rely on it. With that more organisers now understand some of the challenges in terms of capacity and performance and, for example, weaknesses such as ‘upload’ performance on ADSL and the problem with latency on satellite, which renders VPN and VoIP services nearly unusable. We are not locked to a single provider or service and can offer everything from BT lines through to satellite, WiMAX and fibre, depending on requirements, budget and time.  Understanding what capacity is really required is a critical step in the process.

The cost of connectivity remains a concern but there are a few ways to keep cost under control, firstly book early! The shorter the notice the less options there are, and at short notice services often need to be expedited leading to significant extra charges. Secondly consolidate, reduce the number of lines by using VoIP and use a proper managed network to share and control bandwidth effectively. Lastly look at longer term options – if you are going to be using the same site for several years it is often cheaper to install permanent connectivity rather than temporary services as the main cost is the installation, with the annual rental often much lower than the cost of reinstalling each year. We now do this for a number of customers and manage all the technical and paperwork aspects so that the service is available when needed.

Another common comment was ‘we tried to use 3G but it was a disaster’. Running event connectivity on 3G is a highly risky strategy, at best it is likely to give poor and intermittent performance and more commonly during an event it is completely unusable, even when additional mobile towers have been placed on site. If an event needs connectivity then it needs managed connectivity, not ‘cross your fingers and hope’. The difference in cost between using a 3G approach and a basic professional set-up is not as large as people often think and there are many benefits.

Over the last couple of years the interest in site-wide attendee Wi-Fi has increased significantly and that trend continued this year. Alongside the general desire to allow people to stay connected the other big driver is the use of smartphone apps. Providing an application at an event with no additional connectivity generally results in unfavourable reviews as the performance is poor. The good news is that in many cases extending Wi-Fi internet coverage to the public is not as big a problem as it may seem, provided it is done correctly using appropriate hardware and managed networks with features such as traffic shaping. There are various models for cost recovery including ‘hotspot’ type charging or advertising and branding.

Integration of services is another key issue with production, ticketing, merchandise, bars and catering, security, etc. all having their own specific needs. Bringing all this together successfully requires experience and extensive IT knowledge. Making sure everyone is talking and sharing requirements is part of the service we provide so that you do not need to worry about the fact that the ticketing company require an onsite SQL database and a site-to-site VPN connection to a hosting centre you have never heard of!

Event IT is it’s own specialist area, you wouldn’t dream of letting any old person run your sound system, provide power, operate ticketing or put up marquees, and the same is true of event IT if want a dependable service which meets your needs.

The Etherlive stand saw a steady stream of enquiries for dependable event IT services

The issue of wireless encryption ‘cracking’ has been in the news again recently thanks to Thomas Roth and his claim to be able crack WPA-PSK passwords in a matter of minutes. The basic methods used are nothing new, primarily a hybrid brute force and dictionary attack, which essentially is like you sitting at a computer and trying every word you can think of as the password. What was different in this case is the use of cloud computing to harness enormous processing power – enough to try 400,000 passwords per second bringing the time to guessing the password down considerably. This all sounds rather concerning, but is it really?

If you fit the best lock money can buy to your front door and then you leave it on the latch, can you really complain when someone opens the door and burgles your house? The important thing with encryption is the complexity of the password as the time it takes to crack a password depends very significantly upon the password strength. Roth himself said “If  [the password is] in a dictionary it’ll be very fast, but if you have to brute force it and it’s longer than eight characters and its complexity is okay, it’ll take a very long time.” By ‘long time’ he means years and years, and the longer the password the longer it takes, in fact exponentially longer.

Security Officer

Security is only as strong as the weakest link

So, nothing to worry about then?…well not quite when you consider the way WPA-PSK is often used. The clue is in the name – PSK stands for Pre-Shared Key – and as it suggests the key is shared between all users. If you take a typical event site where organisers, press and crew require a ‘secure’ wireless network often WPA-PSK will be used, but it’s often not as secure as intended for two reasons.

Firstly, the password or key is being given to many people and it only takes one person to release the password into the wild and the whole network is compromised. Once compromised the only way to secure the network again is to change the shared password which means all users need to be notified of the new key, not very practical in the middle of an event.

The second issue is that because the password is being shared between many people generally a short, easy to remember one is used, opening up the network to the type of attack described above. Visit many media centres, event HQ’s etc. and you will see the network password printed on A4 pieces of paper stuck to the wall.

Network security is often seen as a hassle, along with the “it won’t happen to us” mentality but there are more and more reasons to take it seriously. Prior to the news about the WPA-PSK crack there was also news about a plugin for the Firefox browser that could ‘listen’ to other users’ data on a wireless network (either an open network or one where the key is known). Increasingly at events more and more data is transmitted across the network and much of it is sensitive. Yes there are secondary mechanisms such as VPN and SSL that are used to protect some data but often you will find file shares, websites and other data all unencrypted and open to see on the network.

We do take network security very seriously and have been offering individual user names and passwords for network access for several years which gives us access control with a much better level of granularity, along with the ability to provide a full audit of users. For 2011 we are going a step further and at the Event Production Show in February we will be launching an additional service known as DPSK or Dynamic Pre-Shared Key. Using this service once a user logs onto the network they are transparently given a dynamic, unique encryption key. This means that all users have a different (and very strong) encryption key, ensuring all data transmitted is well protected and users do not need to know the key or share it with anyone. All the user needs to know is their username and password (which stills needs to be ‘strong’) but if that user’s details are compromised the only impact is to that user and that user’s account can be quickly blocked.

We understand that every event has different needs and aspects such as network security are a balance between risk and complexity so we have developed a range of solutions to meet those different needs. If you are concerned about the security of your IT systems at events then drop in for a chat at the Event Production Show or contact us for a discussion.

Last week in the news much was made of a dedicated satellite launch for broadband Internet access (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11846237). Satellite Internet access is nothing new and varying levels of service are available today but this launch, along with a couple of others that are planned, do bring additional bandwidth and some improved services. With this in mind I thought it would be useful to cover the good and bad of satellite Internet and whether it can help at your event.  At a high level the pros and cons are as follows:

Pros

  • Relatively quick to deploy at short notice
  • No requirement for any physical wired infrastructure to the site
  • Relatively high bandwidth (primarily download) can be purchased compared to low-end broadband

Cons

  • Requires line of sight (roughly to southern horizon and an associated Fresnel zone area)
  • Requires alignment (although automatic motorised systems are now available)
  • Very high latency (delay)  impacts usability for some applications
  • Can suffer weather impacts such as rain fade
  • Higher bandwidth tends to require a larger dish
  • Tends to work out very costly for longer duration events

For an event organiser some of these points are very important, for example the high latency makes the use of most VPNs virtually impossible which is a real problem if for example you need to run a ticketing system connected via VPN. VoIP services also suffer with high latency meaning delays and ‘Darlek’ effects. There are some improvements with the latest generation services but the simple fact is that satellites are a long way away and will always suffer high latency. It is also important to not assume a satellite dish will have line of sight – there are many situations where getting visibility to the southern horizon is harder than expected and it is also import to factor in the Fresnel zone, this effect means that a small gap between two buildings or trees may not work as expected.

Not all satellite services are the same. Different satellites have different ‘footprints’ meaning they cover different parts of Europe. Many providers also use contention ratios on satellite services too in a similar way to wired ADSL/Broadband services. There are a range of speed options ranging from consumer type services up to more business/professional levels, some services are also optimised for digital video links rather than web browsing.

So, in summary, when should you use satellite? When there really are no other options. We can, and do use satellite from time to time but it is the last resort and requires careful planning to ensure the service delivered meets the requirements. We always work with customers to review all options and recommend the most appropriate solution.

Spent the day at the UK Festival Conference yesterday, very interesting day with all the key players from across the industry together. A two minute summary/key points list around the different sessions below:

The Crime Busters

  • Partnership between festival organisers, security teams and the police is working very well with lots of up front intelligence.
  • Online ticket scams remain an issue, educate the ticket buyers
  • Festivals are very safe with much lower crime rates than typical towns and cities
  • One area of concern is organised criminals targeting smaller festivals now that the big festivals have well developed crime prevention

Non-Ticketed Events Should Be Banned

  • Overall opinion was heavily in favour of ‘No’ but with some strong points (below)
  • They must be organised by professional, experienced event management companies
  • Understanding the environment, location, draw, capacity, contingency factors are all paramount
  • Licence granters must not be the organisers

Best Practice for Leveraging Brand Activity at Festivals Without Selling Out

  • Expect another year of reducing budgets
  • Move is much more towards ‘experiential’ (hate that word) i.e. tangible benefit to attendees
  • It’s now more than just the attendees, it’s the whole position of the event within the market (especially online) with an appreciation of the broader number of followers
  • Looking for year round association, not just the few days of the event

UK Festival Market Report 2010

  • Market still growing, although exact data hard to define (approx 700 festivals)
  • PRS, Government Policy & Policing costs all possible issues
  • Average age of festival goers 31, average age of ‘first timer’ 18
  • Average spend £363 (inc ticket)
  • Average attendance 2.1 festivals pa
  • Biggest ‘downers’ – bands that clash, cost of food and drink
  • Reasons for choosing – line-up, being with friends, organisation
  • More of – cashless payment, Wi-Fi, festival information and of course toilets.

Making Your Festival More Profitable

  • Big variance and issue around policing costs, no easy answer
  • Focus on the bottom line from day 1!
  • Build and grow in a controlled fashion – you will not get 50,000 people in year 1!
  • Build partnerships and trust with suppliers, who grow with your festival

Battle of the Bands

  • Promoters want the cost of bands to come down, agencies want then to go up!
  • Market is changing now that a bands primary income is touring/festivals rather than album sales
  • Many bands are on the road continuously leading to a ‘staleness’, hence more reunion bands as they are attractive as they haven’t been on the road for a few years
  • It’s not all about the headliners, increasingly it’s about the whole festival experience and ‘like minded’ attendees

Dispatches from the Field

  • It isn’t easy getting to the top, there is no quick route other than a lot of hard work and a true passion for festivals!

As the outdoor events season quietens down a bit and focus moves to planning for 2011, I thought it would be useful to list out some of the trends we have seen during 2010 which can help with 2011 planning when it comes to IT and communications at event sites. Although focused on outdoor events most of the topics below apply equally to indoor events. So here we go:

  1. Plan and Book early – Connectivity providers have a few terms they love to use to push up costs – survey and expedite being two common ones. These costs mount rapidly and can generally be avoided by early engagement and planning. Last minute installations can end up being 2 or 3 times the cost of a normal installation. Other things to watch for include the ‘miscellaneous labour charges’, which often appear if a provider has to run cables around a site. This can be minimised by agreeing ‘demarcation’ at a suitable location and then cables being run by the event itself (we do this at most event sites and it can save £1,000s for larger deployments)
  2. PDQ / Payment Systems – In 2010 we have seen a significant rise in the number of events reporting problems with GPRS (mobile phone) PDQ machines – these are the credit/debit card machines used for merchandise, box offices, traders, etc. The problem stems from the fact that at events the mobile networks (Vodaphone, O2, Orange, etc) cannot handle the amount of data that users are trying to pull over the network, and with all the network congestion the PDQ machines cannot process transactions. The reason the problem is getting worse relates to the increase in smartphones using more data and also some reluctance by operators to put in temporary masts due to their high cost. However it is important to note that just because a temporary mast is installed is does not necessary mean that data services will be any better as most temporary masts are more for the benefit of voice calls. The alternative to GPRS PDQs are Wi-Fi PDQs – exactly the same machines but using a Wi-Fi network instead. Obviously this requires a Wi-Fi network to be in place but it means the network is fully controlled and transactions on the machines are much faster. There are options to rent Wi-Fi PDQs (we offer this service) but 2-3 weeks notice is required as the machines have to be configured with the relevant banking merchant id.
  3. VPN for Ticketing Systems – VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are a method for creating a secure connection between two locations such as an event site and a central database somewhere. They are often used by ticketing and stock systems which are increasingly being used from event sites. There are two things to watch for, firstly VPNs require good network connectivity, especially upload, which means basic broadband will not support it very well. The second area is that VPNs often require special firewall configuration, particularly if multiple VPNs are to be used.
  4. Wireless Spectrum Management – The use of wireless equipment on event sites continues to grow at a pace – general Wi-Fi, CCTV, ticket scanning, sound systems, audio and video links, etc. all make use of wireless solutions, many of which operate in the same frequency range. Harmony and reliable operation can only be achieved if everyone works together and early communication and coordination is key to ensure there is no interference.
  5. Smartphone Hunting – The rapid increase in smartphone devices with Wi-Fi creates new challenges for onsite networks, even when the event network is not intended for public access. The issue is that smartphones will continually ‘hunt’ for Wi-Fi networks and when they find one they try to connect. This creates a small load on the network whilst they negotiate a connection (which will eventually fail if the network is secure) and with enough devices trying to connect this load builds up to the point where it impacts real users. The solution involves using wireless equipment designed for larger loads coupled with proper network management as low end Wi-Fi routers are not designed to deal with large numbers of users.
  6. VoIP Phones – The use of VoIP phones at events is now commonplace and demand is growing as more people become frustrated with mobile networks at events. Use of VoIP is the best way to avoid having multiple BT lines and the only way to have a flexible solution allowing last minute deployment of additional phones.
  7. Smartphone Apps – More and more events are now commissioning their own apps for use at events but few events are considering the full picture which is critical for success. Most of these applications (certainly the more useful ones) require connectivity at the event to get updates. Typically the mobile networks struggle with demand at events and so the user gets a poor experience and rates the app badly. Many users also turn up at the event expecting to download the app which creates further (significant) demand. One way around this is to provide a locally controlled Wi-Fi network for use by the app. This can then also be used to deliver local content direct from the site.
  8. Public Wi-Fi Access – The increase in smartphones coupled with the massive expansion of publicly available Wi-Fi leads to more and more expectation that events will have Wi-Fi access. The costs of expanding an existing network being provided to site production, technical production, crew etc is not as high as people initially think and opens new avenues for sponsorship, advertising and rich content delivery.

As always, whether you a run a small event or a large event, we are always happy to provide advice, support and services to your event to ensure technology does not get in the way of delivering a great experience.

There’s plenty of press coverage of the recent, much anticipated, announcement of the approval of the Wi-Fi Direct standard. On the surface non-technical folks would be unlikely to give it a second thought but if you rely on Wi-Fi networks at events then Wi-Fi Direct could be a cause for concern. So what exactly is it and why the concern?

In simple terms think of Bluetooth but using a Wi-Fi standard i.e. device to device communication without the use of a ‘Wireless Access Point’. OK , but we have Bluetooth so why bother? Potentially better range, better performance and a single wireless standard across devices. Also factor in that Bluetooth has never really made it big in the US whereas Wi-Fi has.

But the more technical folks already know how to do ‘ad hoc’ wireless networks today using laptops and wireless adapters so what’s the difference? Not a lot, other than making it simpler and giving it a standard so that a wider range of devices can be certified. Sounds great, so I can connect my laptop directly to my wireless printer? Yes, and any other device that becomes ‘Wi-Fi Direct Certified’.

On one level Wi-Fi Direct is potentially a great addition to the connectivity tool-set, not a replacement for Bluetooth but a complimentary offering, a sort of next level up from a Personal Area Network (PAN), however there is a downside.

The downside is two fold, firstly imagine what happens when you put hundreds of users in a small space all firing up Wi-Fi Direct. Remember what used to happen in a room full of laptops with infrared connectivity and the constant ‘whoosh’ noise as they all kept finding one another and tried to establish a connection! Imagine that over a much wider area with all types of devices.

Today we are still seeing issues at events with the virus which creates an ad hoc network on an infected computer (using a very similar approach to Wi-Fi Direct) called ‘Free Public Wi-Fi’. Unsuspecting users connect to this and then become infected themselves. This virus has been around for some time but has recently gained more press coverage, thankfully it is easy to resolve but it is a nuisance at events where we often see dozens of infected computers.

The second issue is one of interference. The 2.4GHz frequency range that the majority of current Wi-Fi devices use is highly congested. Everything from microwave ovens to Bluetooth devices emit radiation around this frequency, all of which appears as interference to Wi-Fi devices and reduces performance. Now add in hundreds of Wi-Fi Direct networks all emitting in the same frequency range and chaos results. Recent large launches such as the iPhone 4 were hampered by interference caused by hundreds of MiFi devices; Wi-Fi Direct will add a whole new level of interference.

So how bleak is the situation? Hopefully the Wi-Fi Direct standard will address these concerns but details are hard to find at present. Also many of these aspects exist in one form or another today and hence already have to be managed at event sites but it does place increased pressure on the professional network. Two major factors which come into play and can assist are the use of the 5GHz frequency range for critical services where currently there is far less interference (although that is changing). The second factor is to use equipment designed for difficult environments, features such as interference rejection (using aspects such as beam-forming) and automatic channel management become highly important in maintaining a usable network.

The picture may become clearer as more details are made available around the Wi-Fi Direct standard but for any organiser planning on the use of Wi-Fi at an event, especially where there is likely to be a high density of users such as a media centre, it is critical they engage a professional team who have the right tools, equipment and experience to minimise the risk and deliver a quality network.

Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID as it is more commonly known, is not particularly new, having been around in various forms for a number of years. It suffered in the early days being seen as a technology looking for a problem to solve which, coupled with the high cost of deployment and issues around reliability, has seen it struggle to make an impact in the events industry.

Technology always takes a while to mature (I owned my first handheld smart device in about 1999 and it was hopeless by today’s standards!) As it matures the price comes down, the reliability and features improve and, most importantly, people have a chance to understand where it can used effectively.

RFID is in that position now. You do not think twice about using an Oyster card which is a great example of effective RFID use.  The  cost of RFID cards, stickers, wristbands etc has been falling fast and the reader technology is now widely available, positioning RFID nicely for an explosion in use.

Back to basics first though, what exactly is RFID? In simple terms it is a small ‘chip’ embedded into a card, sticker, wristband or other object which can transmit, receive and store small amounts of information when placed close to a special reader. It is this ability to store information on the chip which differentiates modern RFID with older systems such as those used in retail stores on high value items, and from where the term ‘smartcard’ comes. The second key feature of RFID is that the card or tag does not need to be inserted into a reader it can just be held close to a reader, making it ideal for rapid transactions.

Recently there have been a few announcements of exhibition venues, seen as a significant potential market for RFID,  moving towards an RFID based solution for tracking visitors and over time I think this will increase but it probably will not be a rapid transition as there are already fairly good systems in place using bar codes and scanners. The real opportunity lies in other areas such as festivals and big shows where RFID offers real promise of solving a number of challenges.

Take music festivals for example, the holy grail maybe for every attendee to have an RFID enabled wristband that is used for access to the event and as a means of cashless payment but that will take a few years yet to become mainstream. More immediately RFID can be used to assist in the management of crew and equipment. Crew catering is a pain for many organisers, a hassle to manage and often a black hole of cost. Using an RFID ‘smart card’ for each crew member pre-programmed with their meal allocations, coupled with an RFID reader at the catering location and now meals are processed quickly and efficiently. That’s only part of it though as now the organiser has real-time information as to how many meals are being consumed, what the forecast is for tomorrow, even what the peak times are. These data points seem trivial but actually provide cost saving information when you discover for example that on average the crew are only consuming 70% of the meals allocated (and paid for).

Expand the ‘catering card’ to be the ID card (as it already has information such as name and contractor company programmed onto it) and it could be used for checking in and out equipment such as radios, plant and cabin keys. Away go endless pieces of paper replaced by a real-time screen showing who has what. Go one step further and program qualifications into the system and then the cherry picker or manitou can only be checked out by a crew card which has the correct accreditation. The same system then extends to authorisation for restricted areas, providing the ability to ‘cancel’ a card centrally if it is lost.

So what’s holding back wide-scale use of RFID? Cost was a problem but now the price point is much more attractive. Reliable networks at events is often cited but these days the networks at events are expected to be like an office network and a correctly designed RFID system has built in tolerance (for example Oyster readers process most information locally and then send updates to the central system later). The biggest barrier is probably the concern over the change to processes that are required when any new system is implemented. The solution to this is not to use a ‘big bang’ approach but a 2-3 year strategy that will reap long term rewards. The lessons learnt along the way will ensure the holy grail of full attendee RFID is a much smoother affair.