My parents have relied on phone-based modem access to the internet for years. In rural Iowa, reliable access to the web can be quite challenging. Knowing that my ability to connect to the web would be limited during a recent visit, I had planned on using my Droid X as a wifi hotspot for my connectivity needs. However, according to my dad, "the Verizon tower is really far away." I guess it literally is "one tower to rule them all" out here on an acreage surrounded by corn fields. And then my dad said something to me that was quite shocking: "We had to get 'the broadband' because your mother wanted faster internet." Broadband...at my parents house. It was like finding out that I had been trying to make fire with two sticks while my dad was nearby with a Zippo. A truly monumental occurrence. It reminded me of my experiences trying to access the web at the various Student Affairs (SA) conferences that I attend annually.
I am always pleasantly pleased when free wifi is available at SA conferences. While wifi is not necessarily "free," I do enjoy knowing that the conference planners included wifi access in their negotiations with the conference site. Most SA conference committees negotiate with hotels and/or convention centers years in advance of the actual event. Sometimes wireless access is not seen as a priority. I can empathize with SA conference planners as they try to balance registration costs with the costs associated with running a conference. All too often, hotels try to charge exorbitant amounts for wifi.
I recently asked a hotel for an internet connection in a session room. I did not want to bother the SA conference team with my request so I approached the hotel directly. I was told that the cost for an hour and a half of internet was going to be $450. I immediately asked the hotel representative if the internet was going to be gold-plated. I understand that hotels have a lot of operating costs associated with providing wifi, but they are also holding the internet hostage for a hefty ransom. Ideally, SA conference planners could negotiate a reasonable rate for "free" wifi for those of us who wish to go online. Registration fees could be slightly increased to cover the costs of wifi. Otherwise, I am going to have run a lottery to see who can access the wifi hotspot from my Droid X during SA conferences. I predict that as wifi at conferences becomes more ubiquitous that more and more SA conferences will be able to add wifi to their conference "rider." Besides, if my parents can get broadband access on a gravel road, then anything is possible!
Here are some reasons why I think that "free" conference wifi is important:
- Innovative presentations - session presenters should be able to demo web-based technologies, showcase interesting websites, and bring in (via tools like Skype) virtual co-presenters. Static presentations can be greatly enhanced with the addition of wireless internet connectivity. I really like using two screens while presenting. One screen shows my Keynote slides while the other screen displays any back channel conversations  that are taking place.
- Back Channels - participants can use Twitter to actively engage with one another via a back channel. While a lot of attendees will use their smartphones to participate, having wifi would greatly enhance back channel participation.
- Sustainability - being able to view a conference schedule via a laptop or smartphone would greatly reduce the need for printed conference guides. It would be great if registrants could select whether or not they wanted a printed schedule.
Are you a member of a SA conference planning committee? Are you planning on negotiating for "free" wifi at your SA conference? Would long term partnerships with hotels make this easier? Do you think that wifi access is a necessary SA conference amenity?
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