In an era when digital and hybrid events are on the rise, the importance of events being connected is greater than ever. Access meets some of the industry’s leading event WiFi suppliers, and finds out how they’re adapting to the challenges of Covid-19.
Good WiFi is like oxygen: you only notice it when it isn’t there. The ability to post videos on social media, connect quickly to PDQs for paying at the bar, and check the lineup online are all things we take for granted at modern events. You might not think twice about being able to connect to the internet in a field that is miles from the nearest city, but you’ll certainly notice if you can’t.
Event WiFi, then, is a lucrative business. Or at least, it was until Covid-19 wiped out an entire summer’s worth of events from the calendar. The suppliers which provide the digital backbone to our events have had to adapt, shifting their focus to the growing number of hybrid and virtual events that have taken place in the last six months.
Thankfully, this is a pivot many of them were already prepared for: companies such as Hertfordshire-based Attend2IT were already providing virtual event services before Covid-19 struck. “Like most live event companies, we have seen our live work all but dry up,” says managing director Dominic Hampton. “It’s a pretty bleak landscape for that sector, however we have been streaming for years and have seen massive growth in this area.”
Hampton says that his company, which also provides WiFi and ticketing services, has actually expanded in 2020: “We have expanded our virtual offering to cater for this [rise in] demand, and actually increased our staff numbers this year. That said, it is hard work as everybody tries to work out how best to turn their event online – or even if they should.”
“We have expanded our virtual offering to cater for demand, and actually increased our staff numbers this year.”
Rob Watson, business development executive at Max WiFi, says that a good connection is top of the shopping list of any virtual or hybrid event, for obvious reasons: “Hybrid events rely on strong connectivity as they require high upload speeds – without it your stream will lag and be unreliable. Your virtual guests may not experience anything if the stream cannot be broadcast.”
High quality video isn’t the only reason a good connection is important. Nick Taylor, MD of Noba Event Wi-Fi, adds: “Live streaming will also ensure that attendees have the ability to interact live with the event, improving overall engagement.” In a time when many events are lacking the crucial face-to-face interaction prohibited by social distancing, this becomes essential.
While the rise in virtual events has certainly provided the event WiFi sector with some crucial business during a difficult period for suppliers, Watson says the change won’t be a permanent one. “We don’t believe digital or hybrid events will ever replace live events,” he says. “The experience of being physically present at an event is so much more engaging than being sat behind a computer screen, unable to properly interact with performers or other attendees.”
5G and event WiFi
The topic of internet connectivity is one that has been in the public consciousness quite a bit recently, as 5G has become a political hot potato. Adam Steadman, CEO of Rugby and North London-based Event WiFi, is keen to distinguish between WiFi and 5G.
Says Steadman, “They’re complementary technologies. We have already done our first events using 5G, and will use 5G as well as other connections for our main internet feed, then share this out to users as WiFi.”
Steadman points out, as do many of the other companies, that 5G is unlikely to revolutionise connectivity at events because it is much less durable: “If somebody burns down the 5G mast near you, which has happened quite a bit during this pandemic, then you have lost that connectivity until it is repaired. This is why it is important to have multiple redundancies. To do that with WiFi is easy enough because we have control of that system, but with 5G you are reliant on just one ISP.”
“If somebody burns down the 5G mast near you, then you have lost that connectivity until it is repaired.”
Noba’s Nick Taylor agrees: “5G will never replace quality internet and WiFi in the live event space. There is no control over it. Who do you phone when the Vodafone mast fails mid keynote and you are relying on 5G to stream the event and also for journalists to upload content? It may have a place in lower budget events where connectivity is a ‘nice to have’ rather than critical to the event success, but it would be very foolish to replace enterprise grade connectivity with 5G.”
While 5G might not revolutionise event connectivity, there are other new technologies on the horizon that have the possibility to. WiFi 6 is the latest generation of WiFi technology, with a theoretical maximum speed limit of 9.6 GB/s, up from 3.5GB/s on current WiFi 5 technology. However, WiFi 6’s biggest selling point isn’t its speed but the way it can improve connections when accessed by a large number of devices at once – something that will massively benefit outdoor events.
Max WiFi’s Rob Watson says: “WiFi 6 provides new technology that allows simultaneous use of wireless airtime and will hopefully reduce interference between access points utilising the same wireless channel. Until now only one device [has been] attached to an access point, or the access point itself is able to broadcast at one time, which creates a bottleneck as you add more and more devices to an environment.
“This development would allow us to provide a more robust wireless deployment and support a greater number of clients in a space than we are able to do today, with the likelihood of also providing a greater cumulative bandwidth to those users.”
Change of plans
Lockdown has dramatically changed the working days of those in the WiFi sector. Before the virus, a typical day would usually be on site, troubleshooting and monitoring connections to make sure events can run smoothly.
Event WiFi’s Rob Watson walks us through a typical day, pre-Covid: “Our Engineers are split into two teams: Cable Engineers and Network Engineers. The Network Engineers spend their time on site configuring the access points, switches and routers while the cable team run cat5 and fibre cables around the site to ensure everything is connected.
“They are no strangers to working 8am-8pm, crawling under marquees or up in a cherry picker. During a show, our engineers are constantly monitoring the performance of the network to optimise the quality of the WiFi and they are always on stand-by to troubleshoot issues that may occur.”
Noba Event WiFi’s Nick Taylor points to how things have changed: “Pre-Covid we were delivering up to 10 events on a single day! Now most work we have been involved in has been virtual/hybrid so there is less of a need for a physical onsite staff presence.”
While a typical day looks very different now than it did six months ago for the event WiFi sector, these companies have proven resilient in the face of massive upheaval. And with new technologies over the horizon, there might just be some positive signs to look forward to.