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Event Wi-Fi Face Off: Rent or Own?

­Every event organizer faces this question at some point: Should I provide wifi at my event? Since the desire is almost always there, and usually budget will make the decision. Let’s assume the answer is yes. So, you’ll put in wifi. Your attendees will love you. But now you face the real tough issue of infrastructure. Your choice is pretty clear. Either you will pay the venue to piggy-back upon its wifi capability, or you will buy and install your own.

Though the options are clear, the choice is a bit murkier. There are a ton of issues to consider, and price isn’t even the beginning. Well, EM is here to help. We asked John O’Gara, group manger of technology for events at Microsoft, to lend us his wisdom and experience.

Event Marketer: What are some of the big factors to consider before making a choice?
John O’Gara: Look at the scale of what you’re doing, and what your venue is capable of accommodating. Hotels and dedicated meeting space will almost always have some limited capacity to provide wireless for you, but non-traditional spaces like galleries, restaurants and so on probably won’t, so you’ll have to deploy your own gear.
Convention halls and conference spaces are different. With these venues, you have to look a little deeper. Look at what the house has in place for wireless and what capacity needs that tech was designed to meet. For most Microsoft events and those of similar size, we almost always have to augment or replace the existing infrastructure because the venue just cannot afford to buy enough infrastructure to support us. So, check the bandwidth and frequencies carefully, and know what your needs are likely to be.

EM: Here’s the thing. Most of us are not brilliant wifi gurus. How can we be sure of what were getting into? How can we know what we’ll need?
JO: You’ve got to have an expert advisor, someone you hire who is well-versed enough to ask the right questions, and get accurate answers. The [venue] salespeople are going to tell you the place can do and handle anything you throw at it. You need to have someone from their IT department talk to your expert and figure out the needs of your event versus the capacity of the venue.

EM: Got it. So… what kinds of coverage are there?
JO: Basically, there are two types: high-density at a frequency of 5 gigahertz and general coverage at 2.4 gigahertz. In general, the general coverage will be sufficient. Session rooms, for example, won’t usually need more that that. But keynote and exhibit halls are a different story. These are places where many [thousands] of users will be trying to get onto the network simultaneously, and a 2.4 ghz system won’t be able to handle it. Most venues have 2.4 ghz systems in place for common areas and don’t have high-density capability because it’s just not cost-effective for them.

EM: Here’s something that drives us nuts. Why is it so damn expensive to rent?
JO: Well, there’s a transition on the horizon for venues with respect to charging for wifi. Think of this: a hotel doesn’t charge additional money to turn on the lights or keep the rooms heated, but they do charge for internet. They haven’t yet realized that the lights need to be on and the attendees need to be warm, and there needs to be wireless there. As long as they see internet as a source of revenue rather than a necessity, they will continue to want a 30 to 40 percent markup on it. Remember, you can buy internet yourself for about $12 per megabyte of data wholesale, and venues can charge upwards of $1,000 per megabyte. But not forever.
Right now, renters are helping venues defray the cost of infrastucture that goes obsolete every five years or so. It’s very expensive to put in, so you’re paying that cost. Buying your own stuff and bringing it in is much more cost-effective if you do enough events.

EM: Right, now back to the question at hand. Which is better, buying your own or renting?
JO: There’s no easy answer. Smaller events in convention halls and hotels can probably get by with the house systems, but for large-scale events like the ones we do, their infrastructure just couldn’t handle it. For us, because we have the budget to own our own infrastructure, we always bring our own systems, even for small events. Eventually, though, the question will solve itself. We are on the cusp of the end of this debate. In just a few years, cellular data will get to be fast and efficient enough to do anything wifi can do, up to downloads of a gigabyte or more. Once that happens the whole debate will be moot.

EM: We can’t wait.

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