Setting up a wireless network for an event, temporary office, or other use? Check out these expert tips for SMBs.
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Try holding an event these days without offering reliable wireless access and see how many people show up. Whether it's a business meeting, marketing splash, customer event, or other occasion, the digital age demands reliable, fast connectivity--not just for PCs but for the ever-widening range of mobile devices.
"But I have the iPad 3G," you might say. Do you want to trust the telecom networks when your company's reputation is on the line?
Luis Alvarez didn't--in fact, he couldn't. His 19-person firm, Alvarez Technology Group, recently set up a temporary Wi-Fi network for the three-day Monterey Jazz Festival. The network had to support 35,000 attendees, staff, and performers--and each of those groups had different needs. Moreover, the conference's location presented a basic challenge: Poor wireless connectivity to the big mobile carriers.
"Where the festival is held has always been a problem for patrons with [mobile] devices because of problems with traditional carriers, Verizon and AT&T in particular," Alvarez said in an interview.
So Alvarez and his team went to work. The company had set up and managed wireless networks for a variety of residential complexes in the past, but never for a short-term event like this one. Here's what they learned--and what Alvarez advises other small and midsize businesses (SMBs) to keep in mind when deploying their own event-driven networks.
1. Understand Your Venue. Step one in a successful deployment, Alvarez said, is to know the venue inside and out--and to consider things like where people will be sitting and accessing the network. This can help anticipate dead spots and prevent issues before they happen.
"What is the area of coverage you want to provide? Make sure that whatever devices you have can do that." Alvarez said. His firm used Meraki's MR16 indoor access point and MR58 outdoor access point.
"Walk the area ... and do some testing in advance," Alvavez said. In fact, he learned a key lesson about venue planning from the Monterey deployment that may be particularly prudent for outdoor events.
"Access points need to be located as high as possible in a campus or event environment like this," Alvarez said. "You never know what can all of a sudden appear in front of it."
The jazz festival initially had some access points installed roughly 13 or 14 feet above-ground--only to have 20-foot panel trucks park right next to them, causing a minor scramble for Alvarez and company.
2. Safety First. It would be unwise to simply set up an unsecured network and turn it loose for anyone to do with it what they please. Even at a musical event like the jazz festival, Alvarez said it's crucial to create a safe network environment.
"We didn't want them going on porn sites or using the free Wi-Fi network to upload viruses," Alvarez said. Because they used Meraki's cloud-managed devices, they used its Web-based security controls as well. Still, Alvarez noted there's a balance to be struck between security and usability so that "those security elements aren't so intrusive that they turn people off."
So while they did protect against malware and restrict certain types of content--the aforementioned porn sites, for example--they took care to limit the virtual security presence. There was no login required, for instance--just a quick check of the terms and conditions box. The good rule of thumb: Users should only be aware of security controls if they run afoul of the rules. Otherwise, security should remain invisible.
3. Actively Manage Bandwidth. Once the network is live and the event underway, it's important to actively monitor and adjust bandwidth as needed. There were more than 6,000 people on the grounds of the jazz festival at any given time.
"If a significant portion of them decide to make use of this free Wi-Fi, it can be a drain," Alvarez said. "We were monitoring bandwidth utilization and making adjustments after the first day, after we realized that we had throttled it back too much."
The jazz festival hit a maximum of 900 devices--mostly smartphones and tablets--on the network at any single point. Active management was particularly important because the network had to support three distinct user groups: Attendees, staff, and performers. Alvarez's team allocated a certain amount of bandwidth to each and adjusted based on actual activity. They realized, for example, that they were underserving the attendees and redistributed accordingly.
4. Know Your Crowd. Alvarez, who sits on the jazz festival's board of directors, said the event has always attracted a technology-savvy audience. His team anticipated a heavy dose of iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. That's important when assessing your equipment and bandwidth needs, which will differ depending on hardware and user behavior. In the case of the jazz festival and its heavy lean toward mobile devices, that made a big difference in equipment planning.
"Because we knew that was the kind of device they were going to be using, we knew that ease of use and compatibility were going to be a big deal," Alvarez said. "You'd be surprised at how many wireless access devices out there aren't as compatible as you'd think with every mobile device."
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