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.

Interesting “quick” sound system EQ tip #1

Last Friday evening I found myself again having to EQ our main sound system at work, due to a combination of what I believe to be environmental factors and physical changes to the speaker setup, namely the replacement of some faulty speaker drivers in a bass cabinet that needed taking into account – itself a blog subject for another time I’m sure!

My usual experience with setting system EQ has usually been centred around one of two things:

  1. Making the system sound as good as possible with CD-sourced playback material, in the hope that this will provide a known starting point for the sound of any mix we create on said system during a live event, or…
  2. …putting a key microphone into its usual position (such as a lectern for a church) and having someone speak into it, making their voice sound as natural as possible (without resorting to desk EQ beyond a simple high-pass-filter). Once this is done I’d then slowly turn up the gain for that microphone (keeping the fader level constant) and using some form of EQ to pull out any frequency bands that feed back.

Both methods have been “good enough” for rock-n-rolling into a venue and making something more than reasonable come out of the speakers, but neither method is terribly scientific, nor does it lead to consistent results.

More recently I’ve been playing with using pink noise and an RTA to show me what the system’s doing, then EQ’ing the system so that pink noise played out of it and measured with a flat-response microphone is shown on the RTA as being as close to the original pink noise as I can get.  This has lead to more consistent results than either of my previous methods, and has cut down the time spent on the task by something like 50-70%, but still the resulting system sound is somewhat variable to say the least.

So at a pinch on Friday evening, I happened upon what seemed to be a better method, and one I’ve not tried since my earliest days of sound mixing/system engineering:

  1. Make a CD with test-tones at a fixed level (usually -20dB), centered at the typical frequencies found on the faders of a 31-band (1/3 octave) graphic equaliser.
  2. Starting with 40Hz (the lowest audible frequency in most mixes/systems I deal with), get the tone playing through the system at about 65dB on a typical SPL meter.  A or C weighting doesn’t matter at this point – what does matter is that I get it set in my mind how “loud” that tone sounds/feels.
  3. Then go to the next tone up.
  4. Is this playing at the same perceived level as the 40Hz tone that preceded it?
  5. If yes, move on to the next tone.
  6. If no, then set the system EQ (I had both parametric and graphics to hand) to compensate.  Keep comparing and adjusting until the level sounds comparable.
  7. Repeat steps 3-4 until all frequencies that you can hear, either due to the system itself or your hearing (!), are pretty much perceptively even.
Note 1:   If you have a parametric EQ, and you find that frequencies progressively become more or less prominent than those preceding them, you can set an EQ curve centered at the point where the smallest difference occurs between adjoining tones, boosting or cutting accordingly.  The width of the filter is  roughly defined by the number of tones you find to be different.  It’s hard to explain in text, but becomes more obvious the more you play with the EQ parameters.  Using a parametric EQ here gives more precision and control over what you do to the signal, without the distortions of graphic EQ, which essentially is a chain of 31 or more audio filters run in series.
Note 2:  This is best done as an iterative process, so it’s worth playing through the test tones up and down the scale and adjusting until you feel you can’t make any more positive adjustments.
Note 3:  On our system, I was able to accurately do this up to around 16KHz, as with the combination of my hearing and our system I wasn’t able to discern anything beyond around 17KHz.  Not bad for a tired near-30-year-old engineer, working late at night on a combination of Bose 802/402/302’s!

Having applied this method to our system I played a couple of favourite songs through it from my laptop, which has a pretty good quality sound output (equivalent to most “hifi” grade CD players when fed with CD-quality content), and the system sounded immediately more musical, more involving and less “PA-like”.

Out of interest I measured the pink-noise response of our system What I found with this method was that my system curve had a notable reduction in the 2-6KHz range than would be obtained by using the pink-noise method above, which might be seen by many engineers as a significant disadvantage.

I then had a couple of our other engineers use the system in live services with this new system EQ curve, and their feedback was that the system sounded so much better than they’ve been used to.  They were making much more subtle (And arguably more accurate) changes to desk channel EQ for both speech and music, and the usual issues we have with feedback or tinny-sounding speech microphones were much reduced.

On reflection, I wonder whether part of the success story here is that my chosen reference level of 65dB (SPL, A-weighted) is pretty close to someone talking passionately to another in a quiet lounge – and given that the sensitivity of human hearing at specific frequencies changes depending on the overall sound level, this coincides quite nicely with our main material, speech reinforcement with some louder music that doesn’t often get much louder than 90dB.

I’m sure I’ve done many things wrong by working this way, but it was quick, easy and seems to have worked out well for us – our engineers are happier working with the system set up this way than they have been for a long, long time.  I’m sure I’ve missed a few crucial things out in my explanation here, so I might re-visit the topic in the future.  But meanwhile I hope this stands as a demonstration of another way of using EQ to get more out of your sound system.

As always, your mileage may vary – and your needs might be very different to ours!

“Those who can – do, and those who can’t – teach.”

Pic:  Natalie Williams and session musicians, playing at All Souls Church, 5th March 2010 (C) Chris Ferguson
Pic: Natalie Williams and session musicians, playing at All Souls Church, 5th March 2010. (C) Chris Ferguson

Cynically, I’ve always though this was a remarkably accurate quote of H L Mencken.  If I’m really honest, part of me wants to think that most of the teachers fit the description Mencken sets out.  The trouble is, as I get to know people, I realise that actually this really isn’t generally accurate.

Certainly there are bad teachers, just like there are bad police officers, bad cleaners, even bad cooks.  We all know of the PE teachers and sports coaches living their dreams vicariously throught their charges.  On the other hand, we all know the super-achieving parents who want nothing more than for the fruits of their loins to follow in their own footsteps.  We’ve suffered the condescending conversations when friends mock our taste or lack of knowledge because they do or know something better.  These things are all normal to encounter, and entirely to be expected.

But the reality in my life has been quite the opposite.  Many of the teachers I’ve known or been taught by have shown an exemplary passion for their subject that is rarely seen outside of the realms of teaching.  Their passion has inspired me – not necessarily to get to the top of the tree in either their own or my own fields, but certainly to find the passions that really bring me alive.

I’ve been rather quiet here of late – this much is true.  And family members and friends will have noticed their phones quieter lately than any of us would like.  For that I am sorry, and I’ll try to make an effort to reconnect this week.

Meanwhile I have had cause and time to reflect on what has been a busy and contradictory few weeks.  The long Winter’s nights and the daily grind have got me down and my energy levels have suffered terribly, as has my attitude.  But then, out of nowhere my passions have been able to be indulged and I feel like I’ve come alive again for a short while.

This week I’ve been preparing to teach two newcomers to the world of sound engineering.  And what a week it’s been.  The preparation phase was a battle of distractions whether important or not, and the day itself ran nothing like I had planned.  But what I saw through it all was the passion for what I do taking over the apparent drudgery of preparation and anxieties about how I would deal with meeting and teaching new people, for whom English isn’t their first language.

The night before the course I lead, I found myself doing live sound for a masquerade ball at church.  It was planned to be an enjoyable enough evening and I had been looking forward to it.  On the night, we ended up with a band that was quite unexpectedly good, quite unexpectedly passionate and quite unexpectedly loud.  And we all had a wonderful time.

100 or so people danced in the church and the band played for a very happy hour or so before we all had to head home.

And so at the end of the week on a quiet, cold and sunny Sunday, I’m reflecting on the time that’s been – I can see that I’ve been given the unique opportunity to both DO and TEACH.  And for that I am very thankful.

God is good™.