Sat, Jan 01, 2011 - Page 9 News List

A signal of problems at high-tech conferences

Hawkers of technology would like you to believe that everyone will soon be linked to the Web, but attend one of their tech gadget gatherings and you’ll find you can’t even check your e-mail

By Verne Kopytoff  /  NY Times News Service, SAN FRANCISCO

ILLUSTRATION: TANIA CHOU

Internet entrepreneurs climb onto the stage at technology conferences and praise a world in which everyone is perpetually connected to the Web.

However, down in the audience, where people are busy typing and transmitting this wisdom, getting a Wi-Fi connection is often downright impossible.

“I’ve been to 50 events where the organizer gets onstage and says, ‘It will work,’” said Jason Calacanis, chief executive of Mahalo, a Web search company. “It never does.”

In November, in San Francisco at the Web 2.0 Summit, where about 1,000 people heard such luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission and Eric Schmidt of Google talk about the digital future, the Wi-Fi slowed or stalled at times.

Earlier this year, Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, had to ask the audience at his company’s developer conference to turn off their laptops and phones after his introduction of the iPhone 4 was derailed because of an overloaded Wi-Fi network.

And few of Silicon Valley’s technorati seem willing to forget one of the biggest Wi-Fi -breakdowns, on the opening day of a conference in 2008 co-hosted by the technology blog TechCrunch. It left much of the audience steaming over the lack of Internet access. The next morning, the organizers — who included Calacanis — clambered onto the stage to apologize and announce that they had fired the company that installed the Wi-Fi.

Technology conferences are like revival meetings for entrepreneurs, deal makers and the digitally obsessed. Attendees compulsively blog, e-mail, text and send photos and video from their seats.

Some go so far as to watch a Web cast of the event on their laptops rather than look up at the real thing right in front of them. Nearly all conferences make free Wi-Fi available to keep the crowd feeling connected and productive.

The problem is that Wi-Fi was never intended for large halls and thousands of people, many of them bristling with an arsenal of laptops, iPhones and iPads. Calacanis went to the extreme at the Web 2.0 Summit by bringing six devices to get online — a laptop, two smartphones and three wireless routers.

He said — while writing e-mails on his laptop — that as a chief executive and investor, he needed dependable Internet access at all times.

“You’ve still got to work,” Calacanis said.

Wi-Fi is meant for homes and other small spaces with more modest Internet demands, said Ernie Mariette, founder of Mariette Systems, which installs conference Wi-Fi. “You’re asking a technology to operate beyond its capability.”

Conference organizers and the Wi-Fi specialists they hire often fail to provide enough bandwidth. Many depend on the infrastructure that the hotels or convention centers hosting their events already have in place.

Companies that install Wi-Fi networks sometimes have only a day to set up their equipment in a hall and then test it. They must plan not only for the number of attendees, but also the size and shape of the room, along with how Wi-Fi signals reflect from walls and are absorbed by the audience.

“Every space is different and every crowd is different,” Mariette said.

What is good enough for a convention of podiatrists is woefully inadequate for Silicon Valley’s connected set.

“I’ve been to healthcare conferences where no one brings a laptop,” said Ross Mayfield, president of the business -software company Socialtext and a technology conference regular.

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