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Keep Austin wired: How the city powers its bandwidth blowout

The annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, has become the see-and-be-seen meeting place for early adopters, trend spotters, thought leaders and entrepreneurs – in music, film, education, government and technology. Supporting the accompanying tidal wave of technology have been the city, the Austin Convention Center (ACC) and SXSW LLC, the festival organizer that manages network traffic for performers and attendees across more than 100 venues.

From year to year, technology challenges in managing the meet-up have come from unexpected places. In 2008, for example, there was so much Twitter traffic from attendees at the convention center that the festival’s organizers “had to coordinate with the operations people there to say, ‘No, all this traffic coming from the ACC is not a denial of service attack; it is real traffic,’ ” said Scott Wilcox, director of technology for SXSW LLC.

The 72,000 registrants and artists attending in 2014, which took place March 7–16, streamed into Austin each carrying between two and three IP-enabled devices and expecting a wireless infrastructure to support not just the festival presentations, but also the attendees’ apps, Internet access and sharing of files, images and video of the festival. As a showcase for the city’s innovation-based economy, the festival and its public and private technology partners had to deliver a vision of the future that was not hampered by bandwidth limits of the past.

That goal was bolstered when Austin was named earlier this year as a recipient of an upcoming Google Fiber build-out, a “fiber-to-the premise” service that will be rolled out to an additional 34 cities. But, connectivity has long been part of the foundation of many Austin partnerships and high-traffic environments. The city government has been recognized repeatedly for its push toward an open-data, community-engagement, cross-agency IT framework.

ACC, nestled downtown in the city’s original municipal grid, plays host to numerous annual events, but the relationship with SXSW in particular serves as an example of how a city facility and private-sector forum have stepped up their game in terms of fortifying bandwidth available for data-rich activities.

Wired from the ground up

The ACC was designed for big crowds from the start, having been pre-wired during construction in the late 1980s with jacks every 30 feet. As it stands today, the center is a Gigabit-rated building -- moving toward being 10 Gigabit. The miles and miles of single-mode fiber, multi-mode fiber and Category 6 cable connecting the core, edges and clients provide bandwidth services through fiber from the University of Texas and carrier-grade provider Alpheus Communications.

In 2006 Austin was chosen as the host city for the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT). In concert with that event, the city began positioning itself as a technology hub and test bed, diversifying beyond its roots in microprocessor production. In doing so, city officials saw the value to economic development in free wireless access.

This strategy has often been a  business stimulus, so the 11-person ACC IT team has continually updated the nodes on its backbone. The move was especially important following the 2007 release of the iPhone, the advent of the smartphone age and the start of the rapid crowding of the 2.4 GHz spectrum. While registration/workstations may still be hardwired, most people will be putting pressure on mobile devices, now slowly transitioning to the more interference-resistant 5 GHz and 802.11a/c standards.

Max headroom

More than 50,000 unique devices were logged in the ACC throughout the SXSW 2013 proceedings, according to SXSW’s Wilcox, so preparing for 2014 meant rolling out a network architecture that was congestion-free and with enough headroom capable of simultaneous peak usage in the thousands.

“We have 185 static Wi-Fi points throughout the Austin Convention Center and the Palmer Events Center [an associated venue located directly across the river], with another 190 on hand to deploy as needed,” said Greg Davis, LAN/WAN integrator at the ACC. “We have strong infrastructure in place so no one has to worry much about deploying their own services within the facility.”

Cliff Skolnick is director and network architect at RightRound LLC, SXSW’s IT project management partner, and he remembers that just prior to WCIT he helped provide vendors and exhibitors wireless access by bringing in as many routers as would fit in two suitcases. While it was WCIT that prompted development of ACC’s in-house wireless infrastructure, it was SXSW that quickly showed the trajectory of access expectations and drove the upgrade timeline.

“Wireless data is one of those profound, big changes you can’t figure out how you functioned without, something that has really changed your life as a person,” Skolnick reflected. “The more we can get Wi-Fi in public spaces the more unique things we’ll see created to take advantage of it. We’re moving from worrying about whether we have enough bandwidth to worrying that people can be connected no matter where they are.”

Skolnick consults with the ACC team to analyze bandwidth requirements and audit quality control and to determine where the highest traffic might congregate. Outside of the ACC, RightRound, Alpheus and Alpha Omega Wireless and other networking providers arrange the equipment for the throughput SXSW needs in nontraditional venues for administration, for attendees and for sponsors and performers who stream live events.

Using an array of point-to-point microwave connections on rented rooftop real estate, the partners form a ring that allows all SXSW sites seamless access within no more than two hops using various radio technologies. That can support both a 140-character tweet and a 140-character tweet with a link to a 1MB image in it, plus all those app demonstrations and simultaneous video clip uploading.

In 2014 the non-ACC SXSW data circuit increased from 1GB to 2GB, and it is sure to rise yearly as videoconferencing to thousands watching on multiple screens becomes more common. This year, both WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and NSA leaker Edward Snowden spoke via Skype and had their live feed Q&As streamed out (though technical issues did reportedly affect moderating).

As for the well-outfitted Austin Convention Center, it will continue to highlight reliability and up-to-date technologies, driven by a SXSW vision that wireless networking should be “… like electricity and just be there and work with no extra costs or strings, as it’s an essential utility for our attendees,” Wilcox said. “Our general approach has always been: let’s work together to be successful.” 

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