Metro Toronto Convention Centre goes wireless

In an effort to yield to the demands of conference planners and participants that are seldom without their laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs), the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) unveiled its new wireless local area network (WLAN) on Tuesday to give its clients and staff the functionality they were looking for.

The conference venue chose a large scale solution based on a routed Internet protocol (IP) architecture, which will allow the MTCC to provide continuous wireless services to over 1,000 mobile users simultaneously.

All on a single antenna infrastructure, this wireless network will enable the MTCC to provide its clients with the Internet access and networking capabilities they need, as well as eventually giving its staff access to its corporate network and wireless portable phone system, explained Chris Taylor, telecommunications manager for the MTCC.

Taylor said that although there have been other convention centres that have implemented WLAN technology before the MTCC, the Toronto centre wanted to stay off the wireless bandwagon until it was sure the technology was stable.

“We didn’t want something that wasn’t going to be able to be used in a couple of years….So, with the standards and the industry finally maturing and the end products being out there, it was time to bring the infrastructure in,” Taylor noted.

Bill McDonald, director of technology services for the MTCC, agreed that the birth of standards in wireless communication “drove our timing more than anything else,” and added that wireless allows the MTCC to provide “that much more flexibility to the events that come into this building and to the people who attend.”

To cover its enormous two million square feet of space, which spans six city blocks, the convention centre worked with the Mississauga, Ont.-based product operations division of Chantry Networks Inc., which had designed a WLAN specifically for large convention centre use.

Chantry Networks, which is headquartered in Waltham, Mass., implemented its BeaconWorks IP-routed architecture at the MTCC which, according to the company, means that the convention centre won’t have to install new switches in each wiring distribution closet across the location. The MTCC can have separate network accessibility for exhibitors, conference goers and staff all over one physical network.

The BeaconWorks IP-routed architecture is part of Chantry’s BeaconMaster family which consists of the BeaconMaster — which is available in two configurations, the BeaconMaster 100 supports 100MB ethernet up to 60 access points and the BeaconMaster 1000 series which has Gigabit ethernet (GbE) support up to 200 access points — as well as BeaconPoints, explained Tom Racca, vice-president of marketing at Chantry Networks.

The BeaconPoints are the access points that sit on the end of the network and do all the handshaking between the client and the BeaconMaster. After accessing a client, whether it be a laptop or PDA, et cetera, the BeaconPoints then tunnel back to the BeaconMaster for all the authentication, Racca added.

An advantage to using the BeaconPoints, Racca noted is that once a user, a visitor to the MTCC for example, authenticates once through the BeaconPoints to the BeaconMaster, there is no need to re-authenticate when moving from room to room or even off the premises.

“[The MTCC] has an agreement with the restaurant across the street, they put a BeaconPoint across the street. So, if you are a show attendee and you paid for Internet access, so you have Internet access on the show floor…but maybe you want to leave and get something to eat. While you are [at the restaurant] you still have that same level of access [that you do] across the street,” Racca said.

BeaconPoints can gain access to the BeaconMaster and then share access throughout its network through authentication wherever IP flows, according to Racca. Which means that if you look at local establishments in the same area as the MTCC, the convention centre wouldn’t have to run a network cable across the street to those other establishments for the BeaconPoints to work.

“[The establishments] already maybe have DSL (digital subscriber line) access or whatever access they have for Internet access and what [the MTCC] does is they tunnel that access point back to the convention centre BeaconMaster through a secure port,” Racca explained.

The MTCC has also implemented a captive portal, which allows the MTCC to decide what kind of access conference attendees and visitors to the centre, that are not paying for Internet time but are using wireless-enabled devices, will receive.

“If you walk in there with your handheld Pocket PC or Palm [and] you try to gain access to the Internet, you get brought to a captive portal, it’s a Web page where you need to authenticate,” Racca said. “Based on your authentication, you will have whatever access the MTCC wants to provide.”

MTCC’s Taylor said the conference centre choose this type of routed wireless network over the more commonly used but less easily scalable switching solution because he felt it was the next generation in wireless technology, adding that the initial technologies to come out of wireless vendors weren’t good for large areas.

“They were good for a small area because they were independent units. We have a very, very big building and I couldn’t have independent units strung out, it would be too hard to manage. The routed wireless architecture allows the whole system to work as one but over a very large area,” Taylor explained. “At the same time it’s a very easy system to expand and install, [and] the main router, because it’s intelligent, [it] helps all the pieces to fit together quickly and easily.”

For others planning to implement a similar WLAN within their organizations, Taylor advised them to do their homework and get familiar with the different products available on the market. He added that Chantry Networks’ BeaconWorks technology did in one product what many other vendors he had researched did by bundling two or three products together.

Other new technology advancements to be introduced at the MTCC this year include hotspot deployment outside of the exhibit halls for convention attendees and Internet kiosks for conference centre visitors without their own wirelessly-enabled device.

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