Monday, November 09, 2009

Is It Too Much To Expect Wi-Fi at a Conference in the Year 2009?

Sitting in a local coffee house three blocks from the Baltimore Convention Center.

Reason? Well, hot coffee and free Wi-Fi, of course.

And because only one of those things was offered at the convention center.


Had a talk over there with one of the organizers about the failure to provide access during the ed conference today. And she agreed wholeheartedly that there was indeed great irony in the fact that none of us bloggers or Twitterers could connect during the morning presentation on social networks.

I'm not going to throw around blame; a lot goes into the planning and production of any conference and there will be successes and failures along the way. But I am going to ask three questions of both conference organizers and the sites that offer services to them.

First to the organizers:
1. Do you understand why a Wi-Fi connection is not a luxury, but an empowering and enhancing vehicle for driving meaningful discussion at your conference?

2. Do you understand that teachers are now partaking in professional development on a daily and individualized basis via Twitter and online media, and therefore expect to be able to tap into, share, and dialogue with their personal learning networks the worth and value present in your conference rooms?

3. Do you understand that by failing to provide free Wi-Fi to your conference-goers, you are closing off your conference from any meaningful real-time discussion with the broader education community -- a discussion with the potential to dramatically increase the value of your conference for participants and therefore increase their desire to actively take part in future editions?

Now, to the conference site:

1. What are the physical costs associated with opening up your network to your conference goers? From what I noticed, the network at Baltimore's convention center was in place -- in other words, all that was needed was a password. So, is there a real cost to opening access, or are conference goers just expected to pay a gatekeeper fee?

2. Do you understand the value inherent in having your site associated with free access; and do you understand the future implications of being designated as a site opposed to free access?

3. Do you really believe that you are the only game in town? (That was harsh... what I really meant to say was: Do you see it as a smart business plan to bilk your clients out of every last dime?) Or are there real roadblocks to your technological capacity as a site and you are actually not presently equipped to provide authentic access to a 21st century conference-going crowd?

Conferences are changing. People are paying attention to the access and associated value on a site-by-site and conference-by-conference basis. Furthermore, the folks most likely to provide value at a conference are the folks who can bring outside networks into the fold of the discussion.

Conference organizers and conference sites ignore this at their peril.


  1. The other day I took my car in to be serviced, and to pass the time, I took along my iPod Touch. Not only was there not an open signal in the waiting room, there were no signals at all. It's astounding to me that there's still areas of the U.S. that are untouched by wifi.

  2. I agree completely. I was recently at a Wi-Fi free conference and I was disturbed by two observations: 1. There was no Wi-Fi. 2. The other 200 participants seemed to have no problem with the lack of Wi-Fi.

    I look forward to the day when the average teacher/participant feels "impaired" without a Wi-Fi connection at a conference.

  3. I expect "free" WiFi everywhere, and if it is not provided, I go next door and tell 'em why. I don't pay extra for lighting or heat - what's the difference?

  4. "Joel on Software" had a recent post about why this is not an easy thing: http://www.joelonsoftware.come/items/2009/10/08.html

    Wifi technology is not really designed to handle the number of users and level of traffic that a conference requires. However, conference organizers could be doing more than they typically do.

  5. Unfortunately, this is a technological issue these days because of the amount of people trying to use that single WiFi access point all at the same time.

    I never assume that I will be able to access WiFi or even my broadband cellular system so that I am never disappointed. I make sure that anything web-based that I would need has been downloaded to my laptop or smart phone first.

    It would be nice if they could offer WiFi to everyone, but there are limitations to the bandwidth and network addresses that can be assigned. Until that is fixed, you will run into this problem.

    I know that many people are using their computers to take notes, view the presentation on their screen, or Tweet about the presentation. But, I've looked at many laptop screens during conferences and seen people playing games, emailing, surfing the web, or other things not related to the session they are in.

    This is a complicated issue. It will be great when it gets fixed, but it will take time (and money).

  6. Wifi is very useful now and again at a conference, but I go there primarily to get information from the people at the conference, not to give instant opinions on it to the outside world.

    I'm also not entirely sure of the value of the comments coming into the conference from the outside world - it seems mostly to be used by the organisers to claim that they are "global".

    A conference should stand and fall on the qualities of its attendees and speakers, not on wifi provision.

  7. @Andy

    I will always err on the side of access to more information rather than access to less information.

    Connectivity at conferences provides a level of communication, peer review, and critical mass unparalleled by the closed door method.

    Furthermore, when I go to a conference, I'm not going to see a show; I'm going to take part in the furthering of the discussion through debate and dialogue with the presenters and my peers (where-ever they may be in the world).

    And I'm not there to give out 'instant opinions' (that's the job of the comic book guy from the Simpsons); rather, I see myself and my fellow teachers as globally connected professional educators and I like to think that we're at the conference to engage in ideas in a globally connected way.

    I sort of thought that's what the Internet was all about.

    thanks for the comment,
    - Shelly

  8. Part of my job is as meeting planner for a not-for-profit student organization. Last month, we paid for Internet Access in several workshops at the tune of $100 per day, per meeting room. This was in a hotel where the sleeping rooms have free wi-fi, but not in the meeting room space. At some hotels, the cost will be even higher. For smaller organizations, this means passing this cost along through registration fees. Larger organizations and groups of professionals (not students) may be able to more readily absorb and justify these costs.

    As a consumer/attendee I also want this access in the meeting room space. When I inquired about it at a meeting last year, I was told that if the host organization had not purchased the service, then my only other option was to purchase a "pass" at the rate of about $100. I chose to tweet from my phone and blog about the workshops in the evening back in the hotel room.

    Thank you to the hotels that provide wi-fi access throughout their entire facility.

  9. Conferences held in hotels are hindered by exorbitant fees charged by the hotels. Hundred(s) of dollars per room, per day to provide wifi for presentation rooms. If lucky, the hotel lobby and public space has free wifi, but the hotel I was in last week in HI had NO wifi anywhere in the hotel!!

  10. Without wifi opportunities to learn, share, connect, and spread information are restricted, so, if the conference goal is elite control of information, there is no need for wifi.

    But if the goal is learning, sharing, and dissemination, wifi is a must. We know the advantages of the digital backchannel, of the bringing in of physically-disconnected people, of the distribution of conference information globally, so why would we not do everything possible to encourage those things?

    As for me, I'm done with non-wifi conferences. I ask before I pay. I want to be part of the world, not aloof from it.

    -Ira Socol

  11. The idea of a conference is to get people together to share and focus on ideas in a way that really wouldn't be possible remotely. If the conference offers more benefit than you would have gotten from just working with everyone online, then I think the conference can get away with not offering wifi. However, a lot of conferences simply aren't good enough. That's when wifi empowers attendees to do more than sit and twiddle their thumbs.

    If your conference is disappointing, your attendees can still build an excellent learning experience if you give them the tools to do so. (wifi)

  12. Don't know Dave, from the American Museum Association (todaysmeet for every session) on up and down, really interested learners know what that outside contact adds, from ability to look things up, to ability to connect those distant.

    The "conference" itself is largely an idea based in scarcity of communications technologies. "We don't see each other, or talk, so we must travel to communicate in real time." Outside of education, the world has passed those circumstances by.

    - Ira Socol

  13. If conferences plan to survive in this age, they would need to figure out how to provide free internet.

    I think the majority expect internet access.

  14. This weekend my daughter and I drove past a decrepit hotel, still open for business (barely), that had a sign out front advertising "Color TV." In a tone that teenagers have patented, she mocked, "Color TV. Really. You want me to stay here because you have Color TV."

    At the Baltimore Convention Center today, I know how she felt. I have no doubt that nimbler businesses that can offer something as basic as wifi without charging exorbitant fees will prosper. If a coffee shop can do it, why can't a big-city convention center?

  15. I'm at a boarding school, Shelly, as you know. And here at school, we can't even guarantee wifi for our students, much less for faculty.

    I have much better wifi access than most of my colleagues; I pay a substantial fee each month for my own wifi port and my own ISP access... I consider it a cost of the kind of life i wish to lead.

    Yet today, I fixed a paper jam in one of the printers in our building for a colleague — and the printer is in her classroom, and has been four four years. She still hasn't learned how to disassemble it and remove a jammed sheet herself.

    Ironically, it's the printer that's just down the hall from me... and like you, I don't have printer privileges to it. I can't figure out how to get them, either. And the tech department is so busy... and I'm so wired, I'm a little embarrassed to ask them what to do... and it's so much easier to do the work online, anyway...

  16. At AVID Summer Institute last summer, the convention hotel had an extensive wireless network. I picked u a strong signal all over. There was only one signal that was free, by the tiny coffee shop. The rest of the grounds was pay only. My only saving grace was that my break out session was on the edge of the complex and I was able to pick up another hotel's free signal.

    I think that my break out sessions were the best part of the conference. It was all about networking, sharing and learning from each other with minimal guidance from the the instructor. Exactly the same thing I was doing with blogs and Twitter during the session.

    I think that wireless access is a necessity. Even if it's just so that I can use Google Docs for note taking during sessions.

  17. I presented a session on Web 2.0 tools at a principal's conference in Texas without the internet--which I found rather ironic, but the conference couldn't afford to pay the fees that the convention center charged for access.

    So as much as it is really annoying to me as an attendee, it's even more limiting to the presenters!

    But I agree with you wholeheartedly--I like to blog sessions as I listen to them, and store my notes that way, which becomes impossible if you can't have access.

  18. I brought my netbook to a session I attended at a rather nice hotel in King of Prussia, PA this past September. When I saw that there was no free Wi-Fi access (password restricted, and I didn't have a password), I walked out to the main hallway and flagged down an employee to ask if there was some way of accessing the Internet in our room, thinking maybe she'd give me the password for the room's access point.

    Her response, as close to verbatim as I can recall: "Oh, no, there's no Internet in ther today. I think they want you to pay attention to the speaker today."

  19. Was the coffee good, at least?

    I'm giving a talk in a month and I haven't checked to see if there will be WiFi. I'll look into it.

  20. This drives me crazy, too, not just at conference sessions, either. I attend a lot of committee meetings, focus groups, etc., in offices of library vendors or conference rooms of various library organizations. There is often no wireless, or if there is, it's really meant for their own staff and it's a big production to try to get access. And yes, it's especially ironic when these meetings are about social networking, etc., and you know you'd have fine wireless access just down the street at the local coffee shop!

  21. I am at a conference this weekend with no internet. I did a presentation on free ed tech web tools ... with no Internet.

    I had to record the entire presentation prior, edit and produce it, and then try to add a live sound layer to the recording (while playing the recording) during the session. Ay yi yi.

    Not ONE presenter room had Internet.

    To add insult to injury, the conference also does not give a break to presenters. They pay the full conference attendance fee. For that fee, they could have paid for Internet in that room.


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