Political conventions will be abuzz with wireless data

U.S. presidential nominating conventions used to be criticized as "smoke-filled rooms" because of the cigars that party politicians smoked while they decided on a candidate. Now the delegates are toting Blackberries instead of Cohibas, and the air is thick with radio signals.

Gather about 20,000 of the most talkative people in the world in one giant room, add support staff, then invite dozens of TV broadcasters and countless radio, newspaper and online news operations, and you have a recipe for wireless havoc. Reining it in is the job of Louis Libin, a telecommunications and broadcasting engineer who has helped set up networks at conventions dating all the way back to 1988.

As he does every four years, Libin this year is working on both the Democratic National Convention beginning Aug. 25 in Denver and the Republican National Convention next month in Minneapolis. In both cities, planners have been working for nearly a year to get ready. Setting up the wired networks is mostly a matter of logistics, he said, so wireless takes up most of his time. Meanwhile, Libin is also CEO of unified communications vendor PhoneFusion.

"When we have to begin to take a spectrum that's already crowded and now overlay all new services on top of that, that is the big unknown," Libin said. "The wireless side is the biggest deal, because there's no script you could read from."

For example, the Pepsi Center, where the Democratic convention will take place, can hold about 21,000 people. Libin estimated half the convention-goers will be carrying two cell phones. There will also be 3,000 to 4,000 walkie-talkies, hundreds of wireless microphones, and wireless cameras for as many as 50 TV outlets, he estimated. Plus, about thirty government agencies will be there and need to communicate. In addition to setting aside frequencies for all those, the spectrum plan can't interfere with existing applications such as TV and local public safety, he explained.

The volume of calls at the Pepsi Center could be five to 10 times that of an average hockey game, estimated John Niedermaier, vice president and general manager of ADC's in-building wireless solutions division. And use of cellular data, a mainstream application for the first time at this year's conventions, could add significantly to the demand, he said. To prevent poor reception and dropped calls, ADC is supplying additional in-building devices in all the Denver venues, plus at Denver International Airport.

The biggest danger is interference among various wireless devices, according to Libin. For example, if the wrong user ended up on the frequency set aside for a TV crew, it could suddenly shut down a live news report from the floor. Many of the microphones and cameras will be wireless, and most are designed to use the same radio bands, Libin said. Although a microphone may only have to reach a camera ten feet away, it will broadcast to its full range anyway, all across the hall. Meanwhile, as government officials and their staffs converge on the site from around the country, each with their own walkie-talkies, their transmissions could clash.

So Libin's team applies for a Special Temporary Authorization (STA) from the FCC to get licenses for spectrum bands that each of these groups can use. Within the venues, they even assign channels within unlicensed bands.

Much of the 5.8GHz band commonly available for Wi-Fi will be assigned to various other types of devices, though official staff will have a private IEEE 802.11n network.

Finally, there will be one unregulated band: the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum often used for Wi-Fi. Groups attending the event are allowed to set up WLANs in this band, Libin said. But given the nature of the event, he doubts attendees will find any open WLANs to jump on.

For bloggers and electronic journalists who need to post reports, there will be at least one refuge at the Denver event, albeit more than a quarter mile away. The Big Tent press facility, being set up at the Alliance Center, will be covered by a Wi-Fi mesh from Meru Networks that uses the two main Wi-Fi bands and supports IEEE 802.11n.

Egos can clash when you're dividing all this up among government agencies, politicians and media conglomerates, Libin said.

"Everybody involved with the political conventions is important -- very important. You just have to ask them," Libin said.

But once the convention starts, it all comes down to stickers that the staff hands out after testing all wireless devices together in advance of the event. The stickers even have anti-counterfeit features, Libin said.

"Credits will be pulled if anyone actually comes onto the venue with equipment they shouldn't use, and they use it," he said. If that does happen, it won't be the first time, he said.

One of the more unexpected enforcement actions took place during the Democratic convention in Atlanta in 1988. Both party officials and crews from a TV network reported interference on their radio networks, Libin said. Investigators searched out the unauthorized users, finally going to the top of the tallest building in the city to trace the signals. About thirty miles outside the city, an out-of-town radio station covering the visiting team at a Little League game was using the frequency to relay a signal to its main broadcast facility. As the convention crew pulled up to the sports field, the broadcasters "got very nervous," Libin said. But the team persuaded them to get off the channel, sweetening the deal with some convention tickets.

Those who are organizing wireless communications at the events work under tight time constraints, rushing in to prepare once the venues are made available. This week Libin's team has been testing and troubleshooting the setup in Denver. Next Thursday, the last day of the Democratic convention, an advance team will head to Minneapolis to begin tests for the Republican event, which begins Sept. 1. A few days before each convention, the sites are locked down by the U.S. Secret Service.

This year's Democratic convention posed a special challenge when, in July, organizers announced that presumptive nominee Barack Obama would give his acceptance speech at 75,000-seat Invesco Field at Mile High instead of the main venue. Both Libin and Niedermaier said their teams had to scramble to put together spectrum plans and networks for the new site. Some of the frequencies to be utilized at Pepsi Center simply couldn't be used at Invesco, Libin said.

"That posed a new kind of challenge that hasn't been seen before," Libin said.

Adding to the burden for 2008 is the fact that, for the first and only time, all the TV broadcasters in the host cities are operating both digital and analog channels, taking up multiple frequencies in the air. By 2012, the analog TV channels will have been re-allocated to other uses.

But experts such as Libin are called back every four years because they build up knowledge from one convention to the next and know the officials they have to deal with at the FCC and other agencies, Libin said. Likewise, the rival political parties use much of the same staff and share knowledge because they know that a problem solved at one convention may be a problem averted at the other. Though the parties are known for their rancor, they meet jointly to plan networks for their conventions.

"It's a very, very noncompetitive back and forth," Libin said.

Unfortunately, while the conventions have been slammed in recent years for being publicity stunts with predetermined outcomes -- unlike those unpredictable smoke-filled rooms of yore -- they haven't gotten uneventful for those who handle the airwaves.

"We always thought it was going to get easier because we always hear these rumors that less people watch the political conventions, but the reality of actually producing the political conventions are that since there are more and more news outlets, the production has not gotten easier at all," Libin said. "You have to satisfy everyone, even if they're watching it over the Web."

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