Why "Over the Counter" Hotspots Crash and Burn at Trade Shows

August 31, 2013

Let me start by saying personal wireless mobile hotspots from the major cellular carriers like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint are an incredible resource. Whether as a stand-alone product like a MiFi or as a feature of a smartphone, setting up a mobile hotspot can be an easy, convenient, and cost-effective way of creating your own WiFi network to get all of your devices online just about anywhere. That said, be forewarned if you plan to use this strategy at a trade show.

To understand why personal hotspots are often unreliable at trade shows, it is important to know a little bit about how WiFi works. There are two different spectrum bands on which WiFi signals can be broadcast: the “older” 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) spectrum band and the “newer” 5 GHz spectrum band.

The overwhelming majority of personal hotspot devices available today broadcast on the “older” 2.4 GHz band. When used in coffee shops parks, and other low-WiFi-density locations, these do-it-yourself solutions work sufficiently well. You are able to broadcast a WiFi signal, connect your laptop and tablet, and maintain decent speeds. However, when you move into a WiFi-dense location like a trade show, the 2.4 GHz band can be easily overloaded since it is limited to 3 non-overlapping channels.

What does that mean? I like to think of the 2.4 GHz band as a three lane highway. This sized road is plenty sufficient for a low traffic area. The problem is that being at a trade show is like being on a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. The spectrum gets jam packed with people and grinds to a halt. So what is a WiFi road warrior to do? Take the nearest off-ramp and instead get on the 5 GHz band – a newly paved WiFi superhighway with 21 non-overlapping channels. Speeds are faster and people can spread out to alleviate congestion.

If the answer is so clear, you may be asking yourself, “Why don’t mobile hotspot manufacturers incorporate a 5 GHz radio into their devices?” In order for your corresponding laptop, smartphone, or tablet to “see” a 5 GHz WiFi signal, your device needs to have the proper WiFi chipset. For many older devices in the marketplace, this is simply not the case.

Therefore, a mobile hotspot that broadcasts WiFi on the 5 GHz band would leave these 2.4 GHz-only legacy devices without any way to connect. Taking a lowest-common-denominator approach allows mobile hotspot manufacturers to reach an acceptable compromise: support all 2.4 GHz WiFi devices without incurring the additional cost and complexity of adding a 5 GHz radio. Consumers appreciate the lower cost hotspots and generally find the 2.4 GHz-only WiFi compromise acceptable (except when they show up at a trade show).

What is the solution? If you will be relying upon WiFi at your booth for an upcoming trade show, there are a few best-practices I recommend. First, verify the WiFi-enabled devices you plan to bring support 5 GHz (802.11 a/n). If your device is not 5 GHz capable, you can buy or rent a 5 GHz USB adapter to temporarily upgrade your device (as long as it has a USB port). Second, confirm that the wireless access point or mobile hotspot you’ll be relying upon broadcasts on the 5 GHz band (802.11 a/n). If you plan to purchase WiFi access (from the venue’s in-house supplier or a third party), make sure you are no further than 60 feet from the WiFi access point to maintain a strong signal.

For a good resource on how to verify whether your laptops are 5 GHz compatible, please check out the links below:

Windows PC

Mac

Planning a winning WiFi strategy for your trade show booth can be stressful. Armed with the knowledge of how WiFi works at events, you’ll be able to steer clear of the potholes and avoid a major WiFi disaster.

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