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Summary:

The folks at the Sundance Film Festival are fighting physics as they add a public Wi-Fi network and boost cellular coverage in order to deliver decent mobile broadband to the 50,000 expected attendees. Here’s their plan of attack, and why it may not work.

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The Sundance Film Festival is a showcase that draws about 50,000 people to Park City, Utah — all toting cell phones, tablets and computers, and all expecting to use them without any trouble. The sense of tech entitlement (remember the outrage at AT&T after South by Southwest in 2009 when folks couldn’t use their iPhones?) is only getting worse. For example, it’s becoming more common at large conferences and product launches for presenters to ask reporters or folks in the audience to turn off their personal hotspots or pause their video streaming in order to cut down on glitchy demonstrations or so people can share the connections responsibly.

A recent study by Root Wireless showed that at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the influx of people created huge congestion problems that resulted in less reliability and slower speeds, especially during afternoon hours when everyone was likely to be online (see chart, showing performance).

The problem is simple: Wireless — whether cellular or Wi-Fi — uses the airwaves, and one can only cram so many bits into a single megahertz of bandwidth. So if you have enough people in a small space trying to get their bits through, their connection slows or stops. New technologies are always trying to boost the amount of data a given chunk of spectrum can hold, but to think that you can cram a few thousand people into a small area and serve them all perfect 10 Mbps or even 1 Mbps connections is like expecting gravity to suddenly stop working so we can all fly.

The IT folks at Sundance know this, so they did three things to boost connectivity for the attendees at the film festival. First, they brought in about a dozen Comcast business lines, ranging from 100 Mbps to 22 Mbps, to provide about 300 Mbps of total backhaul capacity. They also bullied AT&T into trucking in extra cellular capacity in the form of COWs (Cellular on Wheels) or COLTs (Cellular on Light Trucks), and they got 45 Wi-Fi access points from Ruckus Wireless to create a monster hot-spot.

The end result is that the excess cellular equipment provides more spectrum for those who want to make phone calls and send texts, while the Ruckus access points handle interference and sharing the airwaves for the myriads hopping on Wi-Fi. Justin Simmons, associate director of IT at Sundance Institute, said he’s already seeing 40 gigabytes sent in a 24-hour period over the network, and the festival hasn’t even started yet. He’s convinced that people will still tap out the network as the demand for connectivity is pretty much infinite, but at least this year, people will be able to use the Sundance apps created for iPhone and Android devices.

“The last couple of years, cell service got worse and worse, and last year was even more so,” said Simmons. “We had an iPhone app, and it didn’t work because the 3G network didn’t work, and we didn’t have public Wi-Fi.” In a wrap up meeting to discuss the festival, the lack of connectivity was a huge problem. “People expect connectivity, and when they come to the festival, they need to have it here and it affects their customer experience,” said Simmons. “Plus when we push an iPhone app playing video that doesn’t work, it makes us look pretty bad.”

Unfortunately, it’s likely that even with the efforts taken to improve the situation, there will still be complaints over speeds that IT can’t solve today. It’s just a sobering reality about wireless broadband and crowds. Convenience comes at a price, and generally, the price is slower speeds and more uncertain connections.

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  1. This is funny. Last year I couldn’t make a cell call (ATT) for almost 2 weeks during Sundance. ATT sucks. Their commercials about speed and reliability are satire.

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  2. Wow, I was there this year and can say I saw WiFi in many places that didn’t exist last year. The only issue was connecting and staying connected.

    I lost my connection no less than 1/2 dozen times! I got connected and wasn’t able to pass any data at least as many times.

    The only thing worse than no WiFi is bad WiFi!

    Who’s was responsible for the network? Whoever it was, stay away from them!

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