With a snap general election called and the current political landscape in flux I wouldn’t be prepared to make any predictions on the outcome but it is safe to say that come election day town halls, sports halls and conference centres across the country will be buzzing with activity. A stream of reporters, candidates and supporters will be desperately trying to send and receive information through every media channel available.

The demand for good connectivity at election counts and associated events has mushroomed over the last ten years. We were first involved in a general election in 2010, providing services for the first televised leader debates, events which demonstrated the power and reach of Twitter in politics for the first time. Since then things have moved on with 140-character messages supplemented by live video services in the form of Periscope and Facebook Live.

Come June 8th social media channels will be pumping vast amounts of data around the UK and beyond, the difference this time is that with such short notice it will be all too easy for venues to get caught out and provide frustratingly inadequate connectivity.

For anyone tasked with running an event, be it a count, press and media centre, or political party gathering it is critical to act now and ensure you have the right communications infrastructure in place. For anything above the smallest of gatherings relying on data connections from normal mobile phone operators is a risky strategy as they are not designed to deal with the surge in demand and load at a media-centric event.

Some venues may well have an element of existing Wi-Fi infrastructure but does it have the capacity in terms of ability to support an increased number of users? Does it have the internet backhaul to support the high data volumes and video streams which today’s press and media demand? These aspects can be assessed quickly and used to drive requirements which may include additional Wi-Fi capacity and associated internet access.

Other ‘pop-up’ locations may have no existing service and require a full temporary provision. The trickiest part of this is normally the internet backhaul, which with short notice may have to be provided by satellite (not as expensive as people tend to think) or a wireless link from another location.

It is sometimes possible to provision additional ADSL and FTTC (BT Infinity) internet services at quite short notice depending on the location but these services need to be booked as soon as possible. Fibre optic services take at least three months so new services are not feasible in this scenario, however, existing services may be capable of a ‘burst’, temporarily increasing speed for a short period.

With campaigning well under way smaller pop-up gatherings often also require some additional support which may be in the form of specialised 3G/4G bonding units which can provide localised Wi-Fi coverage whilst on the road in the campaign bus.

For larger events, especially those with a big broadcast media presence, there are additional challenges in the form of interference disrupting Wi-Fi due to people bringing their own Mi-Fi devices or other broadcasting equipment. These events need centralised spectrum management, or preferably a single central provider, to ensure everyone co-exists harmoniously when it comes to connectivity.

Even with the connectivity there are other factors – security being a key one. Understanding how to control and manage a network is essential to avoid any embarrassing information leaks. Additional phones may be required which can be deployed quickly using VoIP telephony rather than traditional copper lines. It may also be important to have some printing capability available.

In the modern social media driven political landscape, ensuring the connectivity & IT works flawlessly is just as important as the tables, chairs, tea, coffee, campaign bus and printed propaganda.

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.

A well connected media centre goes a long way to keeping journalists happy at events, but all too often I see comments in blogs and on twitter about poor Wi-Fi, slow connections and network meltdown. We operate and support connectivity for many media centres during the year ranging from small rooms with only a few users to large centres catering for hundreds of simultaneous users, so I thought I would share our approach to delivering an excellent experience.

The Sky Media Centre had a main room and several breakout & broadcast rooms

One example I will drawn on is the media centre we operated for Sky News for the Election Debate Broadcast earlier this year which had some interesting requirements. It was an unusual event in that the centre was only to operate for about eight hours in total but during the peak hours around the debate it was expected that the room would be used by over 400 journalists, politicians, television and radio crews simultaneously. The brief also required that all access was to be wireless and that various ‘network throttles’ had to be used to block certain types of transfers and maintain fair usage across all users. Although this event was larger than the average media centre the same principles apply whatever the size, the main aspects of which are as follows:

1. The Right Internet Connectivity

This may sound obvious but the wrong connectivity lets down a significant number of media centres, you may have the best wireless on the planet but if the internet connectivity is not good enough the users will be frustrated. The most common problem is using a broadband/ADSL line for connectivity which for all but the smallest of centres is likely to be totally unsuitable. The usage in a media centre is different from typical internet usage in that uploading of data is more important than downloading data. Broadband/ADSL lines are designed primarily for downloading and have a very low upload speed, typically only about 400kbps. The second issue with broadband lines is that the vast majority of providers use a high contention ratio on their service, this means that even if the connection says it’s 8Mbps, at the exchange the connection typically is then shared with up to 50 other users. The busier the exchange the worse the experience becomes.

So what options are available instead? There is no straight forward answer to that as it depends on location, requirements and budget but the key thing is there are different options and with some up front planning the right solution can be put in place which can make a huge difference to the users experience. For the Sky Election Debate we had a 1Gbps fibre link with a second diverse routed failover link providing a typical wireless upload experience of 20Mbps per user (this varied based on the client device, an 802.11n client typically had 80Mbps). I’m not suggesting that all media centres need to offer that sort of speed but it shows it can be done.

2. Wi-Fi / Networking Equipment

Connect up a wireless access point, put it in the corner and off we go…which leads to a favourite Dilbert cartoon of mine.

Dilbert.com

Delivering a good wireless experience is not ‘plug and play’, but it is a lot less painful if the right approach is used. Firstly never use consumer or low-end business wireless products, they will not deal with the simultaneous usage and throughput required, it needs high-end business wireless products to deliver a good service and even then capacity planning is critical. Wi-Fi is a shared medium meaning that if your client is connected at 54Mbps (and unfortunately although 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi is promoted as having a speed of 54Mbps in reality this is closer to 20Mbps), that is a best case assuming no one else is using the network at the same time.  As soon as another user connects the available bandwidth is shared between them. Put 25 users onto one wireless access point and each user may only see 800kbps!

Providing good bandwidth to lots of users therefore requires multiple wireless access points, which can be achieved in several ways, but it requires careful planning otherwise choas results with all of the wireless access points interfering with each other. This area is complex and will make this blog way too long but a truly managed environment is the only way to deliver this successfully and that requires:

  • 2.4 GHz & 5GHz 802.11n Wireless Access Points – to maximise throughput and share load across the wireless spectrum
  • Air Time Fairness – to stop older wireless clients slowing down and hogging the network
  • Beam Forming – this is a technique that focuses wireless signals on the client that is ‘talking’ giving better performance and reducing the impact of interference.
  • Band Steering – to balance wireless clients between the available frequencies
  • Load Balancing & Roaming – to ensure wireless clients are evenly and seamlessly distributed across the wireless access points
  • User Throtling – the ability to limit the maximum speed of a client connection
  • Client Isolation – the ability to stop one wireless client ‘seeing’ another wireless client on the network

The wireless portion then needs to be backed up by good switching and routing, typically all running at gigabit speeds. For critical media centres redundancy in terms of network design and power backup also come into play. Other factors include authentication (username and password, shared key, etc) and breaking the network into mutliple ‘virtual networks’ so that different services can be offered to different user groups.

3. Network Management

Once the network is designed and implemented it would be nice if it looked after itself but in a busy media centre there are still more challenges. The most common issue is interference, particularly in the 2.4GHz frequency range (which is the most common one for wireless clients) as many other items use the Wi-Fi frequencies too – bluetooth, DECT phones, ad-hoc wireless networks, RADAR, microwave ovens (yes I’m serious, particularly industrial ones) and various pieces of broadcast equipment such as video senders. These sources of interference can wreak havoc on Wi-Fi networks. A managed Wi-Fi network can automatically deal with some interference by switching channels and power output but in a busy media centre there is often no option but to use a spectrum analyser to constantly scan and identify interference sources so that they can either be eliminated or avoided. During the Sky Election Debate 113 sources of interference were identified and dealt with!

Spot the wireless cameras - always a concern for Wi-Fi

 Active monitoring of the network is also important, this gives real-time information on the status of all the devices such as the wireless access points, the data passing through the network and how much capacity is being used. This facilitates making tweaks to the network before problems occur. It also has the benefit of providing a post event report with lots of data on usage.

4. Support

Having people to provide good technical support to users in the media centre is one of the best ways of keeping  journalists happy. For example the Sky Election Debate happened not long after the launch of the Apple iPad in the US so a number of people had imported them from the US and hadn’t got to grips with them yet, the support staff not only helped them connect to the network but also gave some basic usage assistance. That level of support is highly appreciated and tends to lead to favourable comments in the articles they write.

Delivering a good experience in a media centre is not without its challenges but those challenges can be overcome by using the right tools for the job, good planning and a technical team that know that they are doing. At the end of an event when journalists come over to specifically say “it was the best wireless experience I’ve ever had” then you know it was a job well done.