How Meraki & Fiber Optics Saved the Gun Show

by | Apr 26, 2023

Have you ever been to a convention? Perhaps the Home & Garden Show, or the Gem and Mineral show. Maybe you love the Gun Show, or a collector’s showcase or, like me, you attend IT conventions for work and fun.

If you’ve ever seen a convention center in full swing, you know it’s a massive undertaking, a huge, coordinated effort of dizzying organization, collaboration, meticulous planning, and a little bit of prayer that it all goes smoothly. And yet, all the hard work and preparation in the world won’t compensate for poor internet when the crowds flood in.

That’s exactly the frustration that the Hickory Convention Center was facing when we got the call. They hold large and wildly successful events each month, but the one hitch in their well-oiled operation was a wireless system that just couldn’t hack it.

Think about it – hundreds of vendors on the floor are hooking up to the internet to demonstrate their products, run their signage, and offer interactive displays to visitors. Breakout sessions are running slideshow presentations or video content, and eager listeners are taking notes on Google docs. Perhaps the convention designed an app specially for the event to help direct people to various sessions and activities.

And, of course, it’s not just the businesses and vendors who are relying on a fast and faultless connection. Up to 5,000 people who turned up to the event are wiping out their phones to take pictures, find a vendor’s website, or browse online while they wait for the next event to begin. Those same 5,000 people are also overloading nearby cell towers, so they can’t rely on 4G when the internal system fails.

And at Hickory, it was failing. Worse still, like all convention centers the vendors were charged an internet fee regardless of whether the system was functioning under the strain or not. Something had to give.

The Hickory Convention Center called HitsTech, and we came over to run a full site discovery. It didn’t take us long to realize what was going wrong. They were still stuck on DSL at 10 megabytes — not nearly enough for a center of that size. Their access points were also improperly placed, the vestiges of an older system. Perhaps worst of all, their in house IT staff didn’t have any way to look inside the system. They were charged with an impossible task, on call to keep an insufficient network running when they themselves were in the dark without any real insight about what was happening inside the system.

This was a job for fiber optics, and for Meraki.

We installed a Meraki system which diagnoses the network on the cloud in real time. Now, when the system isn’t performing, the IT staff is more than equipped to respond, thanks to a system that gives them immediate access to see internet speeds, let’s them see where on the network people are congregating, and alerts them when there’s a system outage. In short, Meraki demystifies the Center’s own network, ensuring that once we’ve done our work well it’ll run smoothly without us for years to come.

The fiber optic cable gave them lightning fast connection speeds and, for the first time, enough bandwidth to handle the massive demand of thousands of engaged convention-goers with ease.

We also took great care to create a system that could respond to the challenges of the environment. In a convention center with thousands of people, it’s difficult to predict the interference you might receive. Access points have to be placed strategically so that they aren’t so close together as to interfere with each other’s signals, nor so far away that you lose signal when roaming between them.

They need to be able to resist unexpected obstructions —  a truck driver outside with a CV radio, or microwaves running on the same frequency your smartphone uses to connect. Perfectly placed access points will be able to accept the interference of cordless phones, for instance, which run on the same wireless spectrum as your data.

Finally, we also installed a firewall with heavy-duty hardware capable of interfacing with the new fiber optic speeds. Without adequate hardware in this last puzzle piece, you can end up with a 100 megabyte connection that is entirely useless, bottlenecked in 50 megabyte hardware.

The new firewall secures the perimeter of the Convention Center, as well as serving as a doorway for people inside the network to access the outside, providing a seamless surfing experience for the user.

Now, I know I’ve gone into some detail here, but there’s a fairly simple takeaway. With a brand new Meraki system, the Hickory Convention Center is finally able to live up to it’s promise of fantastic events, month after month, for its enthusiastic guests. Vendors are guaranteed to get their money’s worth, and convention-goers can expect a fantastic, frustration-free experience, every time.