Wi-Fi network designed to tackle Sundance crowds

Hollywood heavy hitters' data demands led to a Ruckus Wireless system at the film festival

When the annual Sundance Film Festival lands in Park City, Utah, the movers and shakers of Hollywood demand a lot more wireless capacity than the mountain town of 8,000 residents normally needs.

The problem came to a head at last year's festival.

"There was just an insane number of iPhones up here," said Justin Simmons, associate director of IT for the nonprofit Sundance Institute, which puts on the festival.

Users of all types of smartphones ran into a wall when they tried to do something as simple as making a call or checking their e-mail. Even worse for Sundance, visitors often couldn't use the festival iPhone app they had bought for $4.99, which included data-hungry features such as movie trailers, Simmons said. Cellular data coverage, from all service providers, just wasn't cutting it. Simmons and his team didn't have to endure any tirades by spoiled movie stars, but complaints did come in from many people in the film industry and the media, he said.

So for the 2011 festival, Sundance will be expanding its free, public Wi-Fi network from the handful of locations offered in the past few years to 12 indoor and outdoor venues. Ruckus Wireless, a Wi-Fi specialist in Sunnyvale, California, donated equipment and services for the infrastructure.

The expanded network should offer a better visitor experience while also taking pressure off cellular networks that need to carry voice calls, Simmons said. Organizers think the free Wi-Fi will be necessary even though AT&T plans to triple the capacity of its network in the town and also bring in three "cell on wheels" trucks, he said.

With as many as 40,000 festival patrons expected to pack Park City during the two-week festival, Sundance had to build a network that could handle high density. Although Sundance celebrates independent film, it has become a place to premiere some of the biggest films of the coming year, and visitors pack into certain venues for highly anticipated screenings.

For example, at the Eccles Black Box, where attendees wait in line for screenings at the 1,100-seat Eccles Center theater, Sundance often sees 600 people gathered in a room the size of a high-school gymnasium, Simmons said. To serve that space, Ruckus is setting up three access points. But the company says just using three APs wouldn't be enough by itself, because signals from the APs would interfere with each other. The Ruckus gear uses dynamic beam-forming technology, which is designed to automatically find the best transmission path for each client and steer signals around interference, said David Callisch, vice president of marketing.

The network will consist of 20 indoor and 20 outdoor IEEE 802.11n access points, as well as two long-range 802.11n point-to-point bridges for backhaul. It will be centrally managed through a Ruckus ZoneDirector 3100 so there is no need for controllers at each venue. There will be about US$110,000 worth of equipment in the network, said Jared Griffith, CEO of Cinergy Wi-Fi, Ruckus' integration partner on the project. The whole installation is expected to take five days.

The Sundance Institute insisted that the network be made free and open to everyone, Griffith said. Anyone within range will be able to get on the network by going through a terms-and-conditions splash page on a laptop or handset Web browser. The network won't cover the whole town, but users who go from one venue to another will be able to automatically get back on the network unless their IP (Internet Protocol) address has been reused, in which case they will have to go back through the splash page, he said. Though the network will be open, it will use wireless client isolation technology to keep users from probing other visitors' client devices, Griffith said.

The Ruckus management platform will allow Sundance to shut off access to the network in specific venues during certain hours, which might help to prevent visitors from using their phones during screenings. Sundance also isn't setting up access points in the theaters. But Web surfing or Facebooking during movies isn't likely to be a problem, Simmons said.

"A lot of the audiences are really respectful here," Simmons said. And with so many movies premiering at Sundance, there will also be security teams looking out for attempts at video piracy, he added. "If somebody was trying to use their phone during a screening, they'd probably get flagged and be hauled aside afterwards," he said.

In addition to the public SSID (service set identifier), there will be a dedicated SSID for official use. Sundance will take advantage of the added wireless capacity to stream live video of panel discussions, the awards ceremony and other events.

Most enterprise wireless LANs are in office settings where density isn't a big problem, but serving a lot of people in a small area is frequently a challenge at venues such as stadiums and convention centers, said Dell'Oro Group analyst Loren Shalinsky. In one well-known incident, at the launch of the Apple iPhone 4 last year, Apple CEO Steve Jobs had to repeatedly request that audience members turn off their Wi-Fi devices so he could demonstrate the phone. Most vendors have some way of addressing high-density networking, but those solutions vary widely, Shalinsky said.

When the lights go up at this year's Sundance festival, the iPhone app will be back in a new 2011 edition, joined by an Android version, Simmons said. The new apps will provide even more video than last year's. Once the festival gets going on Jan. 20 and visitors hop on, the network management platform will start to provide detailed metrics on where and when people use the network, and on which devices. The Sundance Institute will keep the network and use it at other events, and those usage reports will be fed into preparations for next year's Park City extravaganza.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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