Fast Break

Almost two years ago, this column looked at how wireless networking would change meetings. Back then, the idea was being put into practice in just a handful of places. Today, though, wi-fi (a.k.a. 802.11 technology) provides meetings with wireless networking and high-speed Internet access at facilities from Long Island's stately Garden City Hotel to the humongous Las Vegas Convention Center.

Wireless networks have many advantages, including an end to searching for phone jacks, and to laying unsightly and dangerous cables across carpets. It also affords the freedom to roam the venue without losing a connection. Wi-fi provides bandwidth of up to 11 mbps between a user's device and a venue's access points, and often lets you access the network and Internet connection from guest rooms, meeting rooms, restaurants, bars, and even by the pool.

Opened in 1874, the 288-room Garden City Hotel has leapt into the 21st century with its wireless network. David Martinez, the hotel's IT director, says wireless Web access is available throughout meeting rooms on the first floor. In addition to allowing wireless registration desks, exhibitor Web access, and user-to-user networking, attendees can use laptops in the lounge, restaurant, and bar to check e-mail or surf the Net via the hotel's server - the intermediary between the wireless access points and the hotel's 1.5-mbps T1 line. "We'll provide PC cards to anyone who wants wireless access; installation takes ten minutes," says Martinez. "Once your card is installed and you open you laptop's browser, it finds the nearest access point in the hotel and bounces out to your home page."

Emmanuella Severin, operations manager at WCBS-AM radio, used the Garden City's wireless setup at her 650-person event. "Our exhibitors requested it - it's faster, easier to use, and no wires," says Severin. And an exhibiting financial institution did live, crash-free Internet demos throughout the show. "It was a bit more expensive than wired access, but not as much as I thought it would be," says Severin. "Our clients were excited, and the hotel made it work easily."

As for larger venues, the Las Vegas Convention Center offers wireless networking throughout, says Jim Pickering, director of facilities. "We're even upgrading the parking lot, so you'll get wireless Internet access if you're exhibiting in a tent outside." The Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee, FL, has set up a wireless network using Cisco's Mobile Office. Tim Fielding, technology solutions manager, says clients can also bring in their own wireless network and access the hotel's 45-mbps T3 "pipeline" to the Internet. "And we can fill break areas with beanbag chairs to create wireless lounges; when they fill up, people will even sprawl out on the floor, happily reading their e-mail," he adds. What's more, the hotel can securely support several temporary virtual networks (VLANs).

Among venues, planners should look for one that "has a good reputation, with an IT person who can walk you through what they're talking about and who'll be there for you to put your mind at ease," says Severin.

By Michael Goldstein