Logistics:Wireless Best Practices

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Event wireless is always a crap shoot. Aspiration has run plenty of events, and internet is never really wonderful unless you have budget to bring in the pros or there is robust infrastructure already in place. Our advice is "if internet matters, INVEST if you possibly can."

Pre-event Internet and Wireless Checklist

These are good things to get answered and verified *before* signing a venue contract:

Support

  • IT staffing at event
    • Will there be a fully-permissioned IT person on site during our event?
  • What will be the process during the event if there are issues with internet?

Bandwidth and Access

  • Capacity of primary uplink: how fast is the connection?
    • ESSENTIAL: Whenever possible, test wireless and internet before the event
    • Use www.speedtest.net or equivalent to see what the "unloaded" up/down rates are when no one else is connected. That gives you empiricals to match against the bandwidth numbers I mention above, and often to call BS on claims made by the venue.
    • To elaborate, never believe what the venue tells you about built-in wireless and internet speeds unless you are talking to "the tech/IT person" (then there is a 50+% chance of truth), and always check if the network is shared with non-event users. The latter is a common failure point.
  • Nature of wireless access: is it open, WEP, etc?
    • If not open, will online access be one-size-fits all access or per-user credentials?
      • Per-user is a headache to be avoided if at all possible. If you must have per-user, make sure you know how long it takes to provision new accounts, and ask for spare accounts to be made available in advance.
  • Coverage: Where does wireless reach?
    • Will there be wireless in all meeting rooms and
    • If staying overnight, is there wireless in guest rooms?
  • Consider and model for best and worst cases:
    • What is the largest number of external online users this venue has supported at previous events?
      • Remember that the advent of smart phones and tablets effectively doubles the number of devices connecting
    • What is the backup internet plan, if any, in the event that the main connection goes down?

Security and Geeky Configuration Details

  • How strict or permissive is the firewall? What are the open ports?
    • Here's useful but incomplete Internet Ports at Events
    • In particular, find out if ports like 25 (SMTP), 21 (FTP), and various SSL (995, 465, etc) are blocked.
    • Most important one is to try and send email *from a client app like Thunderbird* via SMTP, that's the most common nightmare is when port 25 is blocked.
    • Equally important is to see if IM (Instant Messaging) and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) work.
    • Really unwisely configured firewalls also block HTTPS, and only allow HTTP. Note that the firewall in question is usually facility-level, "upstream" from the wireless device, as opposed to one and the same built-in firewall on the router.
  • Will users be able to run personal VPN's (Virtual Private Networks)?
  • What is the DHCP lease time set to? This is the amount of time before the router terminates a wireless session from the router side. The default is usually 24 hours, and that is often why routers need rebooting at events, because the max number of leases have been given out and new attempts to connect just time out until the 24 hours have transpired.
    • Ideally bring it down to 30 minutes or 1 hour.
    • Ask if it can be configured on demand
  • Is there support for specialized external access:
    • Can the network support fixed public IP addresses if those are requested?
    • Will users be able to run personal VPN's?
  • Is load-balancing provided?
    • If so, what are options for load balancing?
    • Can specific machines be given priority, such as those demo'ing internet video?
  • What is the actual make and model of wireless routers and any other gear being used?
    • Verify that it is industrial grade, not a "home use" model

At-event Internet and Wireless

Best case wireless/internet at events is a function of several things:

  • Always tell folks at the beginning of the event that internet is going to be a challenge (even if you don't think it is)
    • Set expectations low and establish a shared sense of "we're all in this together"
  • Set and monitor usage policy:
    • Tell (as opposed to ask) folks NOT to do gratuitous downloads of YouTube, ISOs, installers etc
    • Asp participants to please turn off any dropbox-synching or torrent-type software they're running that generates background traffic.
    • One of the pathologies event organizers run into with participants from internet-constrained contexts at an event is they try to do all the downloads they can't normally do, in spite of any stated policy. It's like telling a real football fan to ignore the world cup, only slower :^)
  • Have a *good* wireless router: for more than 10-15 users, the standard Linksys/Netgear home wireless router won't cut it. If you are providing the router, according to the Tomas Krag's "ultimate review site", the current retail router to get for max throughput is the Netgear RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (WNDR3700)
    • If you are "using theirs", then you have to find out what that model is and do research on what it claims to handle. And in the latter case, ask them for historical data points for similar events, and be expected for them to a) lie and say it works great or b) have no idea what you are talking about.
  • Good old bandwidth: A basic 1.5 down/512 up line can support 10-20 participants, but it is bare bones adequate and is guaranteed to get saturated at times. If you can get 6MB/1.5MB or more, that will pretty well carry larger groups doing web/email with a robust router. And bless the resource-constrained academic sector, their bandwidth can be really phat, especially at some state schools.

Other Hard-Learned Trivia

  • Linksys routers have gone to hell in the hands of Cisco. If you can find the old blue WRT54 types, they can be useful for smaller numbers of participants. New modern-looking Linksys routers seriously suck.
  • If you have administrative access to the router:
    • Make sure "DHCP Lease Time" is set to 1 hour or ideally 30 minutes.
    • If you physically control the router, be prepared to reboot it on a regular basis.
    • If you can set up two routers all the better, usually with one routing and the other as just an access point. Then it's just a matter of putting them physically apart and setting their radio channels to be spread, 6 and 11 are supposedly a good pairing.
  • If you are in a region with carriers that enable smartphones to be wireless access points without serious bandwidth charges (somewhere like, say, Heaven), it is good to know who can offer their device as an emergency backup connection when all of the above fails.