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Personal Telco is not really an events wifi company

The Personal Telco Projects builds networks. But we are also a volunteer-based organization with a finite capacity. When we build networks, it is generally with the idea that they benefit the community and that they’ll stay operational for a while, where we get some community benefit bang for our volunteer buck.

Yesterday, May 31, I got a call from one of our nodes. Their venue is being used to host a conference on June 4, three days away. They were asking if we would install a key on the wifi so that they could limit access to the network. They are expecting hundreds of people to descend. The conference organizers wanted their speakers to have access to the network, exclusively, and think it’s likely that with hundreds of people there, our modest network is likely to melt, leaving everyone unhappy. I said no. I said putting a key on the network would violate our Node Standards, which it would. The network might very well collapse with hundreds of people, but we are a best-effort organization. We rely on the capacity we are provided. We make no guarantees.

Sometimes, we are able to accomodate conference-type events. We built a network for an early BarCamp in Portland for an event, when someone else arranged to provide the bandwidth. Advanced warning is desirable. If you are a conference organizer and relying on a network being available, it behooves you to pay attention to that requirement and make advanced arrangements. Conference wifi is notoriously bad. There is no excuse for letting that well-established fact sneak up on you. The primary reasons conference wifi sucks are (in descending order): the RF environment in congested circumstances; limited upstream bandwidth; inadequate DHCP provisioning.

This same venue hosted Bar Camp Portland 5 a couple weeks ago. The first I heard about them relying on the Personal Telco node there was at the social event the night before. I attended the event on Saturday, and although it was a little hard to get on at first, I did successfully connect. During the event, about 150 unique devices connected to the network. According to our usage graphs, upstream bandwidth never saturated, and DHCP leases were adequate. The primary problem appears to have been the capacity of the RF environment and the access points. As far as our sparse data suggest, we peaked at about 90 simultaneous users on two access points. Had we been given more warning, we could have provided additional access points (operating at lower power to try to limit their range) and dispersed them at finer grain throughout the building. Open Source Bridge is going to be using this same venue in a few weeks time. I understand that Stephouse Networks is going to be building their own network for the event, bringing in a fixed-wireless connection to the roof at something like 50Mbps, and dispersing a dozen or more access points through the building.

In a perfect world, with infinite resources, the Personal Telco Project could help more people build wifi networks for short-term events. Sadly, until that day arrives, conference organizers are going to need to take the primary responsibility for making sure their networks are adequate.