‘Good news travels fast, bad news travels faster’ has never been a truer saying in the social world of retweets and ‘likes’. I wasn’t at Mobile World Congress this week but I did follow the stream of tweets originating from there. Amongst those tweets were comments about poor Wi-Fi coverage, I have no idea whether the Wi-Fi was poor or not but with a few negative comments bouncing around the ether it can quickly lead to the perception that another large conference has not taken it’s audiences desire to use mobile technology seriously – particularly damaging  when it’s a mobile technology conference!

The chances are it was a few people having localised problems with their devices but its another example of the damage that can be inflicted very quickly when attendees feel they are experiencing a poor service. Both Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer have also experienced the pain of poor launch event Wi-Fi in the last year, with hundreds of press watching and commenting, and the result that the issues became a bigger headline than the product itself. So, what can you do to avoid the issues at your conference or launch?

1) Know your audience – What type of press is attending? What’s the demographic of the audience? You might think only tech events need technical services but many launches these days need high quality internet, for example London’s Fashion week had a huge amount of live blogging along with video streaming, posting of images and tweeting. Understanding these aspects is the starting point for working out what level of service is required.

2) Be realistic about capacity – Poor Wi-Fi will frustrate people more than no Wi-Fi, and good Wi-Fi with no sensible internet capacity is just as bad. Mobile data demand is growing exponentially but far too often the capacity required is under called. Budgets may be a challenge but often the problem is exasperated with last minute bookings which have a higher cost. Internet bandwidth is not something that should be an afterthought, it should be up towards the top of the requirements.

3) Work with social media – Working on the assumption that people who are tweeting and blogging will look after themselves is missing the opportunity to engage with a huge audience. People will tweet regardless so it is critical to get involved  to address comments. For example if someone tweets the Wi-Fi is bad, wouldn’t it be great to send a support engineer over to check everything is OK with their system? They are then far more likely to post a positive comment.

4) Offer a variety of options – Although Wi-Fi is great there will always be someone who has a problem getting connected, having somewhere for people to go and plug a cable in as a fall back creates a great impression. Couple that with support staff who understand the common issues around firewalls, VPNs, connection agents and drivers and the press will feel they are being catered for.

5) Partner with the venue – Don’t just accept that the venue provided Wi-Fi will work for you and your customers’ requirements, in the vast majority of cases this is not the case. Check they have dealt with a similar scale of event, understand how they intend to support users, question their capacity. High capacity Wi-Fi is a very different game to a typical casual usage Wi-Fi installation and many common wireless products are just not up to the job.

It may be a cliche that we ‘live in a connected world’ but we do, which is both powerful and dangerous, and most importantly is something that cannot be ignored if you want to maximise good exposure.

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.

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.