Fixing the wifi situation at academic conferences

January 19, 2014, 11:00 am

WIFIMy innocuous remark about scarce wifi at the Joint Mathematics Meetings yesterday struck a chord with a bunch of people on Twitter. Apparently and unsurprisingly this sort of thing happens at every conference, not just math conferences. So rather than just whine about it, I’d like to propose a solution.

Let’s start with some facts.

1. Wireless internet is not a luxury at an academic conference. Presenters need to be able to access files stored in online repositories like Dropbox. Sometimes internet access is crucial to the presentation itself (like for me on Saturday when I needed to show an example I put on a course website). Most people simply want to be able to access email on their laptops, get work done remotely during downtime, or Skype home to their families at night. This is not something just for screwing around on reddit.

2. Wireless internet enables conferences to become more awesome. Conference hashtags become meaningful because access extends beyond smartphone owners. People attending talks can blog and tweet about what they are learning and seeing, which conveys the quality of the conference to those who aren’t there and creates community among those who are. It builds buzz. It makes more people want to attend the conference next year. This is a win for conference organizers.

3. Wireless internet is expensive and risky. I think we all get the fact that bandwidth doesn’t come for free, and most people realize that a free, open wifi network can encourage misuse. So nobody is seriously agitating for free wifi at conferences. It’s understood that cost and care are involved.

4. But at the same time, it’s dumb to operate on the scarcity model of technology and pretend that computers and internet access are rarities that only a few attendees at academic conferences have available. How do you know when your conference center operates on a scarcity model? Count the number of electrical outlets per linear foot of walls. If it’s fewer than 1 outlet every ten feet, you’re dealing with a scarcity model. (Building codes for residential homes require electrical outlets every 6 feet.) You can also just count the number of people squatting on the floor in awkward places charging up their computers because that’s the only place where there’s a plug.

With these in mind, here’s what I propose.

1. Add $10 to the registration fee for the conference, specifically designated for providing wifi to registered conference attendees. This money would be used to pay for bandwidth. At the Joint Math Meetings this year, an additional $10 to the registration fee would have generated over $60,000 to be used exclusively on wireless internet access. I would think that would be plenty. If there’s a network person out there who disagrees, please leave a comment and let’s figure out what the fee should be.

That $10 surcharge would apply to everyone, and the cost would be absorbed by the institutions funding the conference attendees (since the institutions typically fund faculty travel). Even if individuals pay the $10 fee, though, I think most conference attendees would gladly fork that over, if it meant unlimited access to decent wifi throughout the conference. I would.

2. When conference attendees arrive, give them a unique username and password for the conference wifi. Make them 30 characters long each to discourage random sharing of passwords. Change the username and password every day and require attendees to update every day.  Step 2 is only necessary if you are worried about other people stealing access to the network. Otherwise, skip it.

3. Enjoy your wifi and use it productively. You paid a minimal fee (less than half the cost of lunch in Baltimore!) and now have robust, universally-accessible internet throughout the conference center and throughout the duration of the conference. Tweet about how awesome your conference is for doing this. Build the buzz.

There’s another side to this wifi thing as well. I have not yet been to an “official” conference hotel that did not charge for wifi. Here at the Baltimore Hilton, which has been a nice place to stay, it’s $6.95 for an hour of wifi and $11.95 for a 24-hour period, for the “basic” (read: low bandwidth) access. Again, I get that wifi isn’t cheap. But is it also really this expensive? Conference organizers should start being proactive about making the “official” conference hotels those that offer free, or at least cheap, wifi to customers, even if they aren’t directly connected to the conference center.

Can you imagine how this would play out? “Hello, Big Conference Hotel? Yeah, Joint Math Meetings organizer here. We decided we’re not going to use you guys for our hotel because you price-gouge on wifi. So we’re going with the Holiday Inn Express instead. Plus they have free cinnamon rolls.

Who’s with me?

Serious arguments for or against all this are welcome in the comments. Snarky arguments as well.

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