Wi-Fi checklist for unconference or hack-day organisers

Do you want to see your event branded a #WiFi #FAIL on Twitter?

In the last couple of years, I’ve been to or worked at a lot of unconferences, hack-days, social media cafes, social media surgeries, “tweet-ups” and similar events. I’ve had great fun, speaking at several, organising HyperWM & BrewCamp and facilitating ShropCamp. Unfortunately, at some of the events I’ve attended, the provision of Wi-Fi has been, shall we say, problematic. By which I mean awful. That’s frustrating for attendees and a right pain in the proverbial for those seen as responsible.

Frustration (was: threesixtyfive | day 244)

For some reason, the public sector (with honourable exceptions) don’t seem as capable of providing usable Wi-Fi as the private sector. If small independent coffee shops can get this right, then councils and colleges should be able to.

So here, for people organising hack-days, unconferences, and similar happenings, is a Wi-Fi checklist, based on the problems I’ve encountered as an event organiser and as a participant:


  • Make sure the staff at the venue know in advance that you will be needing Wi-Fi, and that your event depends on it working properly. If you’re paying for the venue, make it part of the deal, and have your requirements, in writing, signed off.
  • Check that the Wi-Fi is secure. If it isn’t, will your audience be prepared to use it? Will you?
  • Make sure your contact at the venue knows how the Wi-Fi works, what passwords are required and whether guest accounts need to be set up, and what the passwords and account IDs are.
  • Explain that your audience will need access to sites the venue may have blocked, such as Twitter, You Tube, WordPress.com, Google Docs and so on. And yes, I’ve known public sector organisations where all of those were blocked.
  • Before the event, test the Wi-Fi yourself, making sure you visit such sites.
  • Test the Wi-Fi on multiple devices, including non-Windows laptops and smart phones — one venue I visited had Wi-Fi that would only work on Windows devices.
  • If you’re providing each participant with a guest account, make sure it will work on multiple devices simultaneously; or provide spare accounts. I went to one event where I needed to use two devices, but my guest account would only support a single log-in.
  • Check that the Wi-Fi works where you will be meeting, including any breakout rooms — I’ve been to one event where people wanting to use Wi-Fi had to leave the meeting room and work in a stairwell.
  • Check the bandwidth. 4Mbps download and 500 Kbps upload may be adequate at home, but with dozens of people downloading — and hopefully uploading media —  at once, it will soon start to feel like a dial-up connection.
  • Know who to contact, and where to get hold of them, if the Wi-Fi goes down during the event. Make sure they don’t plan to be away for part of the day, and get a second contact if you can.
  • Have a 3G dongle on hand, equally tested (can you get a signal in your rural basement meeting room?), for any live presentations.
  • Plan how you will run things if the Wi-Fi (or the dongle) does die. Have archived copies of any websites you want to demonstrate, or video of live interactions, on a local hard drive. Have a spare speaker in the room, or a later speaker prepared to move up the running order at short notice (or at least learn some good jokes), in case a planned video-conference speaker disappears into the ether.
  • Provide ample power sockets and extension leads. It’s no use having Wi-Fi if people’s devices are dead by mid-afternoon.
  • On the day of the event, arrive in ample time and check that the Wi-Fi is on and working properly.
  • Relax and enjoy your event!

What other Wi-Fi related tips do you suggest?

One of the things I’ll be doing as part of my new freelance career is helping organisations to plan and run events; and live-blogging them. How can I help with yours?

15 thoughts on “Wi-Fi checklist for unconference or hack-day organisers

  1. Documentally

    Just a login and password is fine. Don’t mess about with some fancy login page advertising something.

    Also ensure that once you are logged in you stay logged in. There is nothing worse than having to log into the same hotspot 20 times during the same conference!

  2. John Popham

    Excellent, post, Andy,

    An issue dear to my heart.

    I recently struggled with a wifi connection over which I was supposed to be delivering a live video stream. It took 3 hours for a technician to visit after I complained, and, when he eventually arrived he said “No one has every asked about upload speeds before, there’s nothing I can do”.

    I have also been at tech conferences in venues where there was not only no accessible wifi, but 3G signals could not penetrate the building

  3. Clare Lovell

    How conferences disemminate the wifi password is important too, including it in the delegate pack is favourite. If it’s going on a flipchart in the room somewhere then the writing should be big enough that people can read it from their seats. You wouldn’t think it’d need specifying that providing the password online is incredibly unhelpful, but I’ve seen that happen before now.

  4. Simon

    I suggest a leaf out of Colly’s book from the New Adventures in Web Design Conference back in January in Nottingham.

    No wi-fi!

    People can bring their 3G dongles if they must or else just disconnect from your ‘grid’ and take in the goodness of the speakers and presentations (obviously you might need internet connectivity for your speakers but that’s a bit different to providing it for the whole audience)…

    Obviously it depends on the type of event – a hackday is very different to a conference 🙂

  5. Dan W

    Common problems I’ve encountered from running event wifi:

    * port blocking. Make sure the ports you might need aren’t blocked. Email, IRC, git, etc
    * DHCP pool exhaustion. Make sure the pool of possible IP addresses is large enough. Especially a problem with the way iPads/iPhones behave on DHCP
    * NAT Table exhaustion. Similar to DHCP.

  6. Ben Proctor

    Great post Andy.

    As you know I was the organiser of Shropcamp and I was really gutted by the wifi problems. For me the most annoying thing is that I could have gone there to check but I never quite got round to it. Something I have vowed I will always do in the future…

    The only thing I would add is that it’s got to be worth checking every os: I have known venues where windows and linux had no problems but Mac OS fell over. And we also should check blackberry, ios, android and windows mobile.

  7. Julian Burgess

    Good post, just wanted to add that WiFi security is pretty worthless when everyone is on the same network, as Firesheep proves. You’re responsible for your own security, use https.

  8. Tim Morley

    At an event last year, we had adequate bandwidth, but a *really* poor router that fell over when more than 3 or 4 devices connected to it. The day was saved by a couple of Apple Airport Express units that people had brought along, which we were able to plug into the router to act as APs.

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  11. cyberdoyle

    We turned up for a conference where the venue assured us they had great broadband. They only had adsl, with 2meg down and 0.38 up like most adsl customers have in rural areas. We brought in two satellite connections, and even then it couldn’t cope with livestreaming.
    It is a serious issue, and one which is going to get worse, so do check yourself well in advance and if you have to – change the venue. Or choose the venue after you have tested the connectivity.

  12. Pauline Roche

    Hi Andy

    RAWM recently used an excellent venue in Shropshire, recommended by the very helpful @watfordgap, having had to look for a new venue because of lack of Wi-Fi at the original one. We considered using a mobile satellite connection but, having read what @cyberdoyle said above about this, I’m glad we just changed venue.

    We livestreamed and tweeted the West Mercia PCC hustings. Our ace camera person @cpritch kept a close eye on the upload speeds and it all worked well.

    Happy to give details of venue if anyone wants more info.

    Pauline Roche


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