For several months each year, dozens of flight cases are being shipped and driven between cities, packed to the brim with specialised IT gear comprising routers, cameras, phones and hardy networking equipment.
Upon touch down, they’ll be deployed, set up and configured in a matter of hours, all in preparation for the thousands of people expected to storm the area that day. Once the day has ended, the gear will go in reverse order: Packed up and shipped to the next location. This process will be repeated at least five times over the space of two weeks, travelling from Perth to the Australian east coast and then back to Adelaide.
It may sound like a drill for the Reserve Forces but, apart from the odd news chopper, there are no aircraft and, if all goes according to plan, no guns either.
This isn’t the army, this is a glimpse at what it takes to run the annual music festival, Parklife. Between 26 September and 4 October this year, 35 international and local artists will travel around the five capital cities over eight days to deliver dance music to upwards of 100,000 people with 40,000 attendees in Sydney’s Moore Park alone.
Staff at organisers Fuzzy have been preparing for the festival since the 2009 event wrapped up last year. They have been physically at the grounds for the greater part of two weeks leading up to the event, but the gear required to run it all often lags behind, shipped at the last moment from its previous home to be deployed and configured. At best, consultants and engineers get a total of four days to set up mobile offices and required communications gear in the middle of the park, during which time they have to resolve any issues.
For those working in the industry, the differences between deploying communications here and in the armed forces isn’t too stark. According to the technical consultant who supplies technology for some of Australia’s largest festivals, the best workers are those who cut their teeth in the army, utilising the creativity the forces demand to get the job done. “Just here, there’s no one shooting at them,” Jeremy Rollinson says.
For those who are willing to take up the opportunity, consulting and deploying IT for music festivals often involves long stretches of preparation and many sleepless nights as one tries to solve the complexity of outdoor wireless networks, temporary internet connectivity and all the crowd management and safety procedures required to see an event become successful.
Is this thing on?
Fuzzy production manager, Josh Chapman, reminisces of the time the company’s email server went down for two days, backlogging 500 to 600 emails. For him, it may have been a breather not to receive dozens of panicked emails, but it came as a revelation about the role technology has to play in mission-critical situations.
“It made us think about how we can get to a point where, if it does go down again, we can still move forward, still communicate, still share files and run autonomously,” he says.
Most of those involved agree IT investment is growing in festivals - Rollinson, who looks after the IT four music festivals among other annual events, has seen business grow steadily as organisers turn to IT more and more to guarantee a smooth flowing event.
It’s all about the planning. The last thing you want is issues on the day; you can’t stop the festivals running.
But the pitfalls of technology makes organisers uneasy. After all, it’s not just about providing Facebook and Twitter functionality to the resident social media guru. Most events see staff practically relocate on-site for days prior to the festival. In Parklife's case, that means ensuring staff have access to servers back at the office, shared files as well as the website and ticketing systems through a VPN. On the Sydney site, one temporary ADSL2 lines from Telstra deliver all of that, with another dedicated solely to providing Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony.
Not much redundancy is planned here, but Chapman ensures all staff revert to 2G GSM phone networks to maintain contact just in case.
IT requirements extend beyond the office staff to the security, police, fire and ambulance workers who are there on-site on the day for emergency situations and crowd management. For them, communications obviously becomes a critical issue, and once all lines are cut, Chapman says “two-way radios are what we’re down to.”
Parklife runs up to ten closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras to monitor crowd control and safety, as well as individual sound meter boxes designed to gauge regulated sound limits. An outdoor 802.11a wireless network blanketing the event grounds - a specialty of Rollinson’s - transmit data back and forth between all of these and the on-site office where it’s monitored for discrepancies. It’s an elaborate system, but one that Fuzzy’s Chapman doesn’t want to make or break the show.
“Over the years the technology of phones not working, communications being down; we’d hope that a fixed line ADSL2 link would be fairly secure but we don’t hedge our bets I guess,” he says.
For Rollinson, the biggest difficulty becomes how those communications are laid. His company, Total View Solutions, effectively becomes the middle man between event organisers and Telstra, who is required to install the temporary ADSL and other communications lines. But for any large telco whose main business is permanent telecomms, the temporary requirements of a one or two-day festival requires Rollinson to dip into his “deep wells of patience”.
“It’s not their thing, they’re not very good at it and they’re very painful to deal with,” he says.
The telco does have its own contingency plans. Anthony Goonan, director of network and commercial planning at Telstra, says the mobile networks are designed for the highest possible capacity and in urban areas where many of the touring festivals are held, the blanket coverage of the towers can often handle the sudden influx of attendees. For those situations where the network’s coverage is doubted though, temporary mobile cells fed by either fibre optic, microwave or satellite are rolled in to boost 2G and 3G coverage in a given area.
For those involved, it’s clear the days of turning up and hoping everything works are long gone. Instead, the relatively small Australian music industry has begun to share best practice, and often consultants, to ensure the expertise gained in one area isn’t lost on another.