Opinion: Marriott & others wishing to block “personal” WiFi hotspots

Even though I’m firmly based in the UK, I’m somewhat concerned to see plans by the Marriott chain, among others in the US, applying to the FCC for permission to allow blocking of “personal wifi hotspots” in certain corporate areas of their facilities. I’m not going to go into the technicalities of how this might be done, but some articles here from The Register give some (perhaps some slightly baised) insight:

In theory, and in their defence, I can see why it might be desirable to the hotel chains and their customers. Nobody paying for a Wifi service wants it to be interrupted, and so anything that can be done to preserve it in a critical area is a Good Thing [tm]. The problem here is both in the message it sends, and also in the people it unintentionally affects, especially if there’s little or no definition that separates a “personal hotspot” (someone tethering their mobile phone to their iPad to look up Twitter feeds or similar) from a functional wifi network that a contractor might have legitimate reasons to bring along as a tool to assist them in what they’re being paid to do in that same space. Let me explain by setting a scene:

Imagine that you’re a sound or AV contractor, brought in to support an event in one of these corporate spaces. These industries being what they are now, you likely have one or more devices in your arsenal that either require or are very much more useful with Wifi, either for Internet connectivity (relatively rare still, in my experience), or for direct on-site control with a remote control application running on something like an iPad or Android tablet. And there are likely more on the way.

Such systems being what they are, you likely find with experience, as I have, that the systems only work well together when configured with one specific brand and even model of wifi access point/router, so you cable that into your rack so that wherever you go, your wifi network name and IP range is always the same, and all you perhaps need to do is change the channel to better fit those around you so you (and others) get the most reliable connection and best available throughput. 

So you rock up at one of the sites where such blocking is in place, and everything stops working, so you grab the attention of a member of staff a the hotel and see what they can do. They point you to their on-site tech-support person, in the best-case scenario that they have one, and that this person is knowledgeable and sympathetic to your cause…

“Sorry guys, I know that this is a business device,” says the harrassed-looking tech-support person, “but you’ve got caught out as it’s being seen as a ‘personal wifi hotspot’. There’s nothing we can do. You’ll either need to connect everything to our network, which is THIS brand, or get your hardware control surface and some cables out of the truck and use that instead.”

“But your brand doesn’t play nicely with my kit, even though it’s all supposed to be standards-compliant. Don’t ask me why, it just isn’t. I don’t/can’t carry that extra 60lbs/30Kg of kit, I don’t need it anywhere else. Soooo, can’t you just…”

“Nope. Sorry, rules are rules.”

Now sure, we could waste time arguing that relying on wifi, venue-provides or not, for any event-critical functions is asking for trouble. Certainly, I find there’s nothing quite like a piece of physical copper or fibre cable running between my devices for reliability. However we look at it, until the wider industry accepts that using over-saturated and effectively consumer-grade wifi is a no-go, and creates a separate radio band and maybe even a licenced protocol (much like the UK’s PMSE system) away from “consumers” to increase reliability and available bandwidth, we’re stuck with what we have – the often all-too-sucky wifi – for the foreseeable future.

Others might argue “why not just have hotels and other venues make provisions?” Okay, good start, but two points on this:

1) how much provision should they make, and how should they do it? And how do we even define and hold them to it?

2) as the owner and operator of such sound and AV kit, would you trust your show/event to someone else’s network and all the risks that can entail? I personally choose not to, not least because I don’t want to have to configure numerous devices to talk to each other over someone else’s IP schema and to inadvertently be bandwidth-restricted by someone else’s careless, callous or plain unwitting action(s) at a crucial moment. 

Let’s be clear on why this stuff is important: when I’m working on-site, both my own and my client’s reputations are at stake, so in showtime anything outside mine or my client’s direct control is a risk we’d rather not be responsible for without good clear disclaimers covering our backsides. And even then, potential reputation damage means we’d want to steer clear of that kind of risk anyways. Just like taking life and car insurance doesn’t lead a responsible person to drive everywhere 30mph faster than they otherwise would, simply because they know they’re covered if someone else runs out of talent on a critical apex and totals both cars and occupants.

So the message currently being sent seems to be “we want our clients to pay for everything, and to not have that paid service (and therefore income stream) interrupted, and consequences be damned”. Perhaps the finer details have indeed been thought through, but if nobody asks the question (I have), how do we know?

Technology is creating some amazing solutions in live events, that have real potential to not only make lives easier for those of us doing real work there, but also to save a lot of real mass being lugged in vehicles the world over when much smaller and lighter solutions can be deployed. It would be a shame to have to put the brakes on that because a few shareholders of a few large chain hotels end up changing the landscape by way of “thought leadership”, and this silly idea ends up spreading.

And besides… When was the last time anyone connected to a public wifi service actually suffered because of other wifi networks popping up around the place? It’s actually never yet happened to me, perhaps because as an events-tech I never trust my shows and equipment to such networks, precisely because I roll-my-own so I know everything plays nicely together. But what are the other modes of failure I have seen?

  • Run out of IP addresses in the DHCP pool? Sure!  Even managed to do it myself to a bunch of users when I managed to underestimate the usage that one of my own networks would actually get.  Easily fixed because I use my own network, so I saw it happen and fixed the problem immediately on-site. How many other sites can say the same, even at say, Starbucks, or similar?
  • Managed WiFi zones that can’t smoothly hand over a device from one base station to another? Plenty!
    • Granted this can be tricky to manage well, because different client devices respond differently to the management methods implemented by different zone managers. I have experience of trying to do this well across numerous platforms and have yet to find a true one-size-fits-all solution, especially one that doesn’t interrupt a significant group of client devices in some way.
  • Run out of bandwidth for the number of connected users? Yup – this is a biggie, and it happens nearly every time.
    • In the real world, I’ve given up using public wifi (paid or not), simply because the majority of the times I use it, the bandwidth available simply isn’t enough to provide for the number of client devices (and their users) connected to it. So instead I revert to tethering to 3G or 4G mobile/cellphone networks instead.
    • Even abroad, my costings from traveling around the US in 2013 suggest it’s about 10x cheaper than equivalent WiFi costs, and 10x more reliable; not to mention that I can take the cheaper mobile/cell service with me wherever I go – the WiFi only works within the confines of the hotel or campus. The same metric applied in Italy in 2012. Uuuuuh, no-brainer then.

A key thing to note here is that in none of those highlighted cases am I even considering connecting valuable event-critical tools to such networks for mission-critical tasks – here I’m only talking about personal “holiday” usage; finding out more about the immediate world around me, mailing the odd photo to friends and family, checking email to keep on top of bills and any big family news.

So please, if you’re a hotel chain and considering this kind of plan, or an IT provider for a similar corporate planning a similar exercise, don’t even talk to me about this kind of revenue-generating exercise in the world of WiFi until you get your ducks in a row on these and other much more simple provisioning issues, okay?  If I’m going to pay 10x for a service that I can get elsewhere and carry with me wherever I go, then you’d better make it worth my while. And a big hint here is that you don’t do that by blocking me from using that 0.1x cost (vs yours) service that works. You do it by making your service WORTH 10x the cost of the other one. If you can’t, then perhaps something else is wrong, and it’s time to reassess the cost-benefit analysis.

Companies making me happy

Despite how things look to anyone following my blog or Twitter/Facebook updates, there are some things that are going right. Many in fact.

So to help balance things out, I feel it fair that I should give a shout out to the guys at LMC Audio and Allen and Heath, two of the best companies I’ve yet dealt with in their fields.

LMC excelled themselves when we started investigating the possibility of purchasing our digital mixing desk. All their staff have been very helpful, and have consistently gone the extra mile to make sure we and our purchase are happy as can be. Arranging a demo of the kit was very easy, and the way they pulled out the stops to arrange a second demo at the very last minute earlier in the summer was a really good example of how things should work. JP, their head of sales i think, has been wonderful in both his honesty when things don’t go to plan, and his cheerfulness throughout. I’d highly recommend LMC to anyone looking to do the same kind of purchase and installation we’ve just done.

As for Allen & Heath… Not only do they offer great products, but their tech-support team seems very active and this shows both in the firmware updates made so regularly to add or fix features on their iLive series, and in their extremely pro-active and helpful approach to dealing with queries or requests via telephone, email or the iLive discussion boards.

Well there we have it – five gold stars to both. Other companies (regardless of their work) could learn a lot from you guys – I know I have!

Live sound: Fine-tuning channel EQ

I’ve just been unexpectedly covering sound duty for our two morning services, and took some time to really play with the EQ facilities offered by our new desk, particularly during the sermon.  Above is a picture of the EQ section for the radio-mic I was using, and it looks pretty extreme, huh?  Lots of huge cuts if the gain indicators (the red LED’s at the bottom) are anything to go by.

Now, if someone showed me their analogue desk and I saw a channel EQ with quite so much taken out as shown, I’d have taken them back on for more teaching about gain structure and microphone choice/placement among other things. On most analogue desks there’d be nothing left of the original signal. You’d end up with an EQ curve looking a bit like the yellow line shown here:

Extreme EQ, “standard” analogue desk style. Low shelf frequency is around an octave higher here than most analogue desk EQ, and high shelf around two octaves lower. The yellow line goes off the lower scale, it’s so extreme.  You’d need to add at least 12dB of gain to the fader or pre-amp to get the original signal energy level back, assuming you don’t distort the pre-amp or other areas of the desk!

On our iLive system, things are a little different, as shown in the image below. We now have the ability to notch out problem frequencies with much more precision, mostly because we now have the ability to create very narrow (in terms of the frequency range affected) EQ filters. For live sound, this means we can make deep, narrow cuts to problem (resonant) frequencies and leave the rest of the signal alone.  This means that the problem frequency bands can still be attenuated, but without losing anywhere near as much of the overall signal energy.

This allows us to run with less gain at the pre-amp stage, which makes for less background noise and less chance of distorting any audio stage in the desk, whether digital or analogue. Because I’m not having to boost the pre-amp gain, I’m not changing the gain structure in any way, which is a Good Thing™ for too many reasons to detail here.  Because I’m not boosting either overall levels or particular frequency bands, I’m not introducing new potential feedback points to my mix – again a Good Thing™.

Of course, this benefit isn’t unique to the iLive system, but I used it to illustrate the problem as a) I have one and b) I happen to like how it sounds!

Church Sound Desk Upgrade – Part 1

Allen & Heath iLive T80 and IDR48 arrive at All Souls
Allen & Heath iLive T80 and IDR48 arrive at All Souls

DEFINING THE PROBLEM AND CHOOSING THE DESK

It is always nice to spread good news, so today I would like to share some insight into an exciting project I have going on at work…

Our sound and video teams have been fighting valiantly for years to get good clean audio and video feeds into our church, with the process made quite difficult by the design of the building. In practice this has meant our sound team has been mixing in a space that’s furthest away from any speakers, and right next to the church organ. Given that this is used for much of the musical output used both for events and for church worship, the position has proved far from ideal. Meanwhile, the video and camera operators have been doing their work while facing another wall and therefore looking away from the action.

Clearly, as the musical styles have been modernised the audio systems have had to follow suit. Before this project commenced I had upgraded to bigger and better-built amplifiers (a story in itself), added a dedicated bass speaker and installed speaker management facilities to manage the sound quality, levels and timings to each speaker cabinet.

All this was not enough to prevent complaints from the congregation, however. Our distant mix position meant that we couldn’t hear the PA system clearly, leading to most sound mixers increasing levels slightly to compensate. Combined with venue acoustics that are already problematic, this lead to increased discomfort for many congregation members, as well as increased incidences of feedback. Many inexperienced operators became over-cautious in turning on speech microphones, such that they’d slowly push the fader up to the point where they could hear the speaker, or feedback occurs – thus we saw many services where someone would start talking and the congregation would miss their first words, or even complete sentences, before the gain levels and any EQ changes allowed for intelligibility.

So why not move the mixer? Until recent times, it has simply been too big and expensive a job to design a new workspace for our existing mixing desk in a new location. The space required to install our old analogue mixing desk and necessary ancillary gear would have been too great to make such a move acceptable to the congregation. Further, the analogue audio cabling required to make such a feat possible was too bulky to install in a way that is in keeping with the existing architecture.

A year ago it became clear that there are now sufficient affordable digital audio solutions that keep both the working surface size and control cable thickness to a minimum, at the same kind of expenditure (post-inflation) that bought us our current analogue desk some ten years ago.

Having agreed the necessity of the move, I arranged trials in our building with two competing digital mixing solutions/products that would have cost us around £10000 to install: the Roland M400 (with 48 channels in and 16 out), and the Allen & Heath (A&H) iLive T80 and IDR48 (offering 56 channels in and 32 out). We don’t need anything like the number of input channels offered by either system for our services, but having them available enables a great deal of flexibility, which will be covered in a later post. Having at least 16 outputs was a necessity, allowing us to drive main mix, monitor, recording and other ancillary mixes around our building. Having more than 16 outputs enables future growth and flexibilty, again to be detailed in a separate post.

During our trials I operated both systems in normal Sunday services, allowing a realistic assessment to be made as to how well each system would suit our needs. While the Roland system had some advantages in outward simplicity, it’s fair to say that the A&H system won out in terms of user interface and sound quality, despite it’s slightly more complex learning curve from an installation and deployment perspective. For me personally, the difference was subtle but important. The Roland system kept me looking at and thinking about what the desk was doing. The A&H system was allowing me to concentrate on what the musicians and the music were doing, and was otherwise immemorable from a technical operation perspective. That the prospective users from our teams perceived the A&H system as looking far easier to operate than the Roland product was a bonus, which has since paid off during training.

Needless to say then, that we purchased the A&H solution. Watch this space to find out how we’re getting on with it.

‘Til next time!

C