|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 25, 2012--In an effort to stay competitive and keep up with consumer demand, metro Atlanta convention centers are investing millions from capital expenditure funds to update Wi-Fi and access to the Internet.
The behemoth Georgia World Congress Center, the fourth largest meeting facility in the country, is spending $1.5 million to upgrade its fiber-optic cables over the next six months while the Gwinnett Center plans to add another $250,000 in improvements to its network next year.
Cobb Galleria Centre officials said they have increased the bandwidth of their network tenfold in the past two years to address increased demand and are currently working out future strategies.
It's a race the facilities know they can't afford to lose, even as the equipment installed becomes obsolete more and more quickly because of the fast pace of technological changes.
At Microsoft's 2010 meeting at the GWCC, for instance, attendees used about 70 megabytes of data, GWCCA authorities said. Two years later, that average jumped to 500 megabytes and is expected to be about 700 megabytes at the company's gathering next year. One megabyte can hold enough data for a small novel.
Jim Wulfekuhle, a spokesman for the International Woodworking Fair, one of the GWCC's biggest annual meetings, said it's imperative that metro convention centers get it right. Product demonstrations are the lifeblood of events, and they are increasingly done by using technology.
"In our case, people are trying to pull very large files from the Internet for demonstrations," he said. "There's nothing more frustrating than trying to do a presentation that is slowed because there is not enough bandwidth."
The authority's plan also calls for spending $125,000 to expand free Wi-Fi in Centennial Olympic Park, which is part of its downtown campus. Free Wi-Fi is already available at the convention center and the nearby Georgia Dome.
"Technology may not be the reason a client chooses us, but it sure could be a reason they leave," Sherrie Spinks, the GWCCA's chief financial officer, said recently.
The Gwinnett Center also has seen demand double over the past few years, but can't afford to offer free Wi-Fi because of the cost, said Joseph Dennis, the Gwinnett Center's general manager. Leaders are considering whether to seek sponsors to underwrite the costs so the facility can catch up with competitors in that area.
"We're spending $100,000 a year just on maintenance, such as replacing servers and upgrading work stations," he said. "The equipment is very expensive and only has a life span of three or four years."
Metro Atlanta is not alone. The GWCC's biggest competitors -- New Orleans, Orlando and Chicago -- have all updated their networks, including offering free Wi-Fi. Las Vegas, which runs the data-heavy Consumer Electronics Show, led the way in the expansion because of the needs of that annual event.
Educating the customer about bandwidth needs is becoming a more and more important part of negotiating rent, said Karen Caro, marketing manager for Cobb Galleria. As technology advances, the specifics of what a convention wants to do -- stream live video, operate machines wirelessly or download multiple applications simultaneously -- are important to know in meeting customer needs.
"It's a continuous evolution," she said.
(c)2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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