Fans attending a music festival in the national capital this month won’t be singing the blues as they use their wireless devices during concerts. Rather, Cisco Systems Inc. hopes, they’ll be singing praises over the wireless network the company has set up.

The lead sponsor of the annual 12 day Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest, which began Tuesday, has for the first time set up a Wi-Fi network blanketing the one-square kilometre festival grounds so the expected 250,000 attendees can set up concert schedules, find bios of their favourite artists, tweet friends and upload photos to social network sites.

In addition to the public wireless network, there are also private Wi-Fi networks for the festival’s staff and for performers.

The networking equipment manufacture has also set up a separate wired network linking seven of the company’s large flat panel monitors set up around the park where the festival is being held where festival updates can be flashed along side live concert feeds. 

It’s partly a display of the company’s prowess in a city where Cisco has a research lab, good publicity for the outdoor wireless and digital media products its sells, and it helps generate vibe for the festival.

But Greg Lane, Cisco Canada’s regional sales manager, says there’s also a practical side – with information being pushed to handsets, there ough to be less of a need for paper programs. “We’re hoping it cuts down on litter,” he said optimistically.

According to Dany Breton, a Cisco wireless specialist, there was nothing special to setting up the outdoor mesh network: 30 of the company’s Aironet outdoor 1524 access points and dual-band 3500 indoor Aps are being used that can handle a combined 6,000 users at a time. The AP’s are managed by a WLC 5508 wireless controller through Cisco’s Wireless Control System. An ASR 1000 gateway router provides the connection to the Internet that offers up to 50 Megabits per second bandwidth.

Breton said security on the publicly-available network is maintained through a number of techniques including an online entry Web site where users have to agree to comply with certain rules. The system can detect the IP addresses of each user and knock them offline if there’s any abuse. Similarly, to ensure free down/uploading isn’t abused the system can limit users to 1 Mbps.

Security on the smaller private Wi-Fi networks is easier because they are segmented from the public network and can have their services prioritized as well as password-protected.

The technology is standard, said Breton, although Cisco does boast about the self-healing and optimizing abilities of the mesh. “It’s all about the design,” Breton said, “having the right coverage, the right [signal] pattern, the right antennas.”

“This is increasingly common for events,” observed Mark Tauschek, lead analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research. Even five years ago it would have been hard to set up a temporary Wi-Fi network, he said. But today access points are sophisticated enough to make it easier.

On the other hand, he’s not sure a public network can be “highly secure,” as a Cisco press release says.

Analysts have said for years that public Wi-Fi networks shouldn’t be used for online banking.

Michael Rozender, a Grimsby, Ont.-based telecommunications consultant, says the spread within the last two years of the 802.11n standard – which offers more throughput than the earlier a/b/g standards – has given Wi-Fi hotspots a boost. “Part of it is you can put a lot more channels and information on 802.11n,” he said, and security is enhanced if the 5.8 Ghz channels are used.

Often, he added, the drivers are “applications that will make the event sizzle” – for example, online coupons for event-related goods or products sold by event sponsors.

But he also acknowledged that the network has to be robust enough for all eventualities. He recalled that at the launch of Apple Corp.’s iPad, CEO Steve Jobs had to insist on the crowd before him get off the local Wi-Fi network so he could demonstrate widely-anticipated product.

Cisco is betting it won’t have a similar problem in Ottawa.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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