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Cricket Communications launched the indoor wireless network by ExteNet Systems, Inc., that covers Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center.
ECN File Photo

Tradeshow venues are notorious for poor wireless access and are convenient excuses for not picking up when the boss calls; Chicago’s McCormick Place has put a stop to that.

Cricket Communications launched a new indoor wireless network by ExteNet Systems, Inc., that covers Chicago’s famed McCormick Place Convention Center.

“This was a complex installation that got great cooperation from Cricket’s team and needed our joint design, procurement and network deployment expertise,” said Jon Davis, ExteNet’s vice president of in-building solutions. “We had an aggressive timeline that met the needs of Cricket’s launch in Chicago. Now that the indoor distributed antenna system (DAS) network is operational, we are meeting all the key metrics that were established during the design phase.”

The 2.6 million square foot convention center spans across four buildings and has numerous meeting rooms, theaters and ballrooms, all serving more than three million annual convention goers. With those attendees come millions of phones that are data-hungry.

“The popularity of social media and the need for quick business access has become very important,” said Tormod Larsen, vice president and chief technology officer for ExteNet.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the tradeshow industry, with business people wanting to stay connected with a myriad of phone applications, exhibitors needing to pull up information in real-time, such as product details, and attendees reporting the latest developments back to their company executives.

“Business people like to stay connected, and wireless is obviously their method of choice,” Larsen added.

According to the latest figures released by wireless industry advocacy group, CTIA, the U.S. is increasingly dependent on wireless network access, with more than 285 million wireless devices using over 2.3 trillion minutes, and 22 percent of U.S. households only using wireless for their telecommunications access. The most watched growth is in wireless data streams, with that part of the market bringing in more than $41 billion in annual revenue industry-wide in 2009.

“The discussion about rate plans will move in our industry from how many minutes you get,” said Dan Hesse, Sprint Nextel CEO, during the International CTIA Wireless 2010 technology show held in March in Las Vegas. “The real distinction of different rate plan levels will be how many gigabytes you get in your bucket.”

Comments like this are indicative of the need for remedying the often sub-par data flow inside large buildings, such as conventions. The problem is in the cost; however the cost increase has been off-set by increased business which also allows McCormick Place to be highly competitive.

The typical solution is to install large networks inside those centers. Fiber optic cables are funneled throughout the ceilings, dozens of nodes are strategically positioned, and hundreds of smoke-detector-sized antennas have to be evenly spaced throughout the building to ensure proper coverage. If a cell phone goes too far from a node, or has too many walls in between, the signal becomes very weak, calls can be dropped and internet access slows to a crawl.

“We’re proud to say you will not have coverage issues here,” said Ellen Barry, chief information officer for Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

“In a typical installation about 20 to 30 percent of your cost is associated with equipment,” Larsen said, “but the rest is almost all in your labor.”

To put all of the fibers in and all of the equipment it takes time, and often daily building operations get disrupted during the installation process. That’s where ExteNet’s patented iDuct technology comes in by removing key portions of the equipment that’s needed and thereby eliminated the majority of the labor involved. Instead of wiring the entire building, the company uses a proprietary wireless-over-heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) technology. The system uses the metal HVAC ducts for guiding the waves and vents as the antennas.

“This is a great cost savings for a company,” Larsen said. “On average you are paying $1 to $2 per square foot covered in a building, but this reduces it much less, sometimes half the cost, and sometimes even less. For a place like McCormick that has millions of square feet, that is a significant cost savings.”

Even though the cost is often passed on to show associations for wi-fi service, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Show associations do pay for wireless, but often buy out the whole space rather than paying on an exhibitor-by-exhibitor basis. It seems to be a welcome practice in order for attendees to obtain the type of blanket coverage needed during the show. That’s good news for convention center executives looking to save some money and bring more productivity to their attendees; bad news for those who want to avoid their boss for a few days.

Natalie Relf, Exhibit City News editorial assistant, contributed to this article.

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