RNC: Organizers shun wireless for GOP convention network

The IT planners began working 18 months ago, evaluating the buildings that would contain 4,800 delegates and twice as many journalists at this week's Republican National Convention in New York. From the start, they agreed on one major infrastructure issue: No wireless.

"If people have trouble with wireless, what's the first thing they say?" asks David Shatzkes, whose company is managing the convention's technology operations. "They say, 'There's something wrong with the network.' Those are the words we absolutely do not want to hear."

Shatzkes is vice president of government services for Computer Horizons Corp., a Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, IT services company that's worked with a variety of New York City agencies for nearly a decade. After the Sept. 11 attacks -- and again, two months later, when American Airlines flight 587 crashed in Queens -- Computer Horizons was one of the contractors city officials summoned for emergency assistance. The company's history of handling New York City's technology needs made it a likely candidate for convention work, and the convention's host committee called Computer Horizons in soon after the Republican National Committee selected New York.

Shatzkes said Computer Horizon's primary goal in building the convention infrastructure was stability. It isn't interested in trying out cutting-edge technologies; simplicity was a priority. The VOIP (voice over IP) network is as next-generation as the IT infrastructure gets, and there, the decision to combine voice and data networks was an easy one, Shatzkes said: "Why build two networks when you can build one?"

Simplicity is the reason organizers decided to avoid wireless networking. Security wasn't a major concern, according to Shatzkes, who said the available technology for securing wireless networks is as good as that for securing traditional ones. But all of the vendors involved in the decision, he said, agreed that the available wireless networking options weren't robust enough to meet reliability goals -- especially given the convention's location, on Manhattan's skyscraper-stuffed western edge, a notorious connectivity vortex for wireless devices.

Like all the major IT vendors involved in the convention, Computer Horizons is donating a large portion of its services, though Shatzkes said there's also some paid contract work involved. While Computer Horizons is coordinating the convention's IT, key components come from other vendors.

Verizon Communications Inc. ran thousands of miles of cable to build a VOIP network in Madison Square Garden and the nearby Farley Post Office Building, which houses the convention's press contingent. Cisco Systems Inc. supplied the networking equipment, IBM Corp. donated PCs and servers, and Microsoft Corp. provided desktop and systems software.

Some vendors are playing on both sides of the political divide. IBM contributed 350 desktops and several dozen laptops for the Republican delegates, along with printers and several servers. It donated a similar package to last month's Democratic convention.

"This is the first time we've been involved in the conventions," said spokesman Clint Roswell. "We see it as an extension of the community-minded stuff we do already. It came about because we have a strong presence in both cities." After the convention, IBM plans to recycle the equipment, which Roswell valued at $2 million per convention, by donating it to local schools and nonprofit organizations.

The Republican host committee did not return several calls seeking comment on the convention's IT infrastructure and vendor selection.

Computer Horizons is aiming for 24/7 uptime throughout the convention, and so far, floor staffers say operations are proceeding smoothly. "If we do our job right, if everything goes off without a hitch, then nobody will know we're here," Shatzkes said.

His team will be there for quite a while after the convention finishes its four-day run. The IT project that began more than a year ago will continue through September, as contractors work to dismantle the infrastructure and ready Madison Square Garden for the return of its regular occupants. The New York Liberty women's basketball team will be playing its games at Radio City Music Hall until mid-September, as it waits for the temporary podiums, banners and multimillion dollar technology systems to vacate its home venue.

"We were the first ones in," Shatzkes said, "and we'll be the last out."

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