Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

August 24 2015

Why The FCC Is Fighting Wi-Fi Wars In The Convention Industry

By David McMillin

In today’s constantly-connected world, meeting planners have to eat, sleep and breathe Wi-Fi. How much bandwidth will attendees use? What about exhibitors? Can the venue’s network manage to keep up with a swarm of people armed with Apple Watches, iPads, laptops and a range of other devices?

Meeting planners aren’t the only ones who are concerned with connectivity. The Federal Communications Commission has meetings and conventions at the top of its agenda, too. Last week, the FCC announced a $750,000 settlement with Smart City for blocking Wi-Fi at convention centers around the US. The telecommunications company operates in more than 35 convention and meeting venues around the country. This particular FCC complaint involves convention centers in Cincinnati, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; Orlando, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona.

A statement from the FCC reveals support for attendees and exhibitors who want to set up their own personal Wi-Fi networks.

“It is unacceptable for any company to charge consumers exorbitant fees to access the Internet while at the same time blocking them from using their own personal Wi-Fi hotspots to access the Internet,” Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, said.

LeBlanc sent a message to any other telecom company looking to disrupt personal Wi-Fi service, too.

“All companies who seek to use technologies that block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections are on notice that such practices are patently unlawful,” LeBlanc said.

This isn’t the first time the FCC has targeted Wi-Fi blocking in the meetings industry. In 2014,  the commission fined Marriott $600,000 for the same type of activity at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville.

SEE ALSO: Wi-Fi — Who’s Paying For What?

Maybe Some New Networks Are Necessary

For many attendees and exhibitors, the Wi-Fi wars in the convention industry may seem like a veiled attempt by venues to continue charging participants for Internet access. Venues, on the other hand, will often argue that personal Wi-Fi networks could be used to launch an attack on the conference’s network. However, there is another reason that some new, even bigger, Wi-Fi networks may be necessary tools: venues aren’t ready to handle the surge in usage.

When I wrote about some of the key trends impacting convention centers late last year, PCMA member Bill Reed pointed out that the coverage had missed the fact that many centers are facing challenges when it comes to connectivity.

“The traditional model at convention centers is built upon outdated behavior models, and the infrastructure is not in place to support highly connected attendees,” Reed commented.

While some individual attendees are using personal networks, it appears that some planners are stepping outside the venue networks, too.

“More organizers are bringing their own network in order to get a flexible design of access point locations rather than the fixed locations built in to the current convention center model for Wi-Fi,” Reed continued. “Many organizations, including mine, now travel with a Wi-Fi vendor from city to city much like we do with AV, expo, housing registration and shuttle vendors because attendees expect a consistent experience.”

Are you seeing more attendees and exhibitors set up their own Wi-Fi networks at your conventions and trade shows? Or have you experienced issues with the venue’s network? Share your thoughts on the future of the costs of connectivity in the comments below.

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