In the Bay Area, at least, we take wifi for granted. It is everywhere, almost. When I go to a conference, I just expect it to work. This expectation is a triumph of hope over experience, because it almost never does.
Last week's Startup Lessons Learned conference was the latest example. It was held at the Westin Market Street in SF, where they ought to have a decent tech crew. Apparently, they were not prepared to have the number of devices trying to connect vastly outnumber the number of attendees. Welcome to the brave new world! I tried to connect 3 devices--iPhone (because AT&T sucks), iPad and laptop.
So, we brought the network to a crawl. To make matters worse, it would not actually let my iPad or iPhone log onto the network, because their authentication page does not support Mobile Safari. Ahem! Did you read the memo, guys? iPhones are a bit popular. I hear they sold a few iPads too in SF. To make matters worse, it is common for attendees to watch the livestream of the conference while they are sitting in the audience, so they are sucking bandwidth and air.
I have been going to tech conferences for years, and the wifi has always been a challenge. At TechCrunch40 3 years ago, it compeletely fell apart. The next year, it was not much better, so they worked all night to drag ethernet cables to most of the seats. This last one, they finally got it right--and it cost them a lot of money to do so. But, there is now apparently a vendor who knows what they are doing.
At the Future of Money conference today, the wifi, provided by Sonic.net, is solid. The crowd here is not as bandwidth intensive as the more geeky conferences, but so far connections are stable, fast, and easy. There is a 20MB symmetric pipe for the conference, with no encryption or authentication required.
It seems like this is a problem that should have gone away a long time ago. I personally solved it by carrying a Verizon MiFi, which is a credit card sized device that connects to the 3G cellular data network and creates a mini wifi hotspot.
Conferences should be willing to pay the extra tax to get the network right, because having people twitter and blog during the conference is a value add to the organizers.