Etherlive, what's it all about?
September 2011 Issue 145
Paul Watson talked to Etherlive Co-Founder and Director Tom McInerney about the technology trends that have emerged recently in the live music sector. He explained how his company’s innovations could help shape the industry for years to come.
Tell us about Etherlive...
We’re a technology company that identified an inflection point in the live music industry. There was a lot of demand for telephone systems and normal stuff that you need to keep a production company running – but there are now things from the attendee side, such as sponsored WiFi networks, interactive content delivery through mobile phones, and cash payments; and we think we’re well positioned to service that market. We’re not an IT company trying to do IT, we’re a technology company focused on the events industry.
But your background is in IT?
Yes, the core of the company is from Intel many years ago, so we had a lot of exposure to wireless technologies. We have taken that and brought in a lot of events expertise. But there are a couple of technologies that I think are going to be really big.
Well let’s look at 3G offload - that’s a really interesting thing. The concept sounds complicated, but it’s really not. We’ve got a load of mobile telecoms these days and they pay a certain amount for this wireless kit, but they can’t make any more money on you in terms of data space as people are on limited tariffs, so when you go to an environment where you have, say, 10,000 people in a small area, for them to be able to service that market is very expensive. We’re talking £50,000 for a tower, and you’d need four or five of them, so that’s a lot of money – and a waste of money.
Therefore what they’re looking at is: ‘OK, Etherlive is already on site and they’ve got a network, so why can’t Etherlive carry the data requirement and we’ll just pay them per-gigabyte for their usage?’ And that’s what’s happening.
What’s interesting about that is it’s a very good way for the organisers to generate revenue, so if O2 comes back and says ‘OK, we’ll pay you a pound per-gigabyte for all the data that’s moving on the site’, we might say ‘OK, but we’re obviously providing some production services off the back of that so you’d get a cutback in cash of whatever revenue we generate.’
Essentially then, everyone is happy?
Yes. Mobile phone operators get their coverage, the organiser gets less complaints because people can actually use their phones on site, and they can generate some revenue at the same time. We’re in discussions with O2 at the moment, as certainly for things like the Olympics, GSM technology isn’t designed to work in very dense environments.
Are there any limitations?
Not in terms of what you could do with it. The only limitation really is how dense we could really get the coverage. A stage is very difficult as it really is a very packed area.
You’re doing WOMAD festival this summer...
Yes we are - and that’s a 300-acre site; we’ll be covering all of that. We’re not doing as much 3G offload there, but we’re proving that we can cope with something like this with WiFi actually quite easily. What we’re really waiting for is the telecoms companies to say ‘OK great idea, let’s go with it’ instead of them having to put a tower here and there and trying to make it work - and it never does.
The problem they also get is they’ll put one in place on wheels and back-haul it off of the local town. If the town is big, you will get signal, but you still can’t process any calls, because there’s not enough capacity. They’re just not set up for it; they know it, they just have to come round to it still!
Are there many other companies trying to do this at the moment?
I know most of the telecoms companies have their own internal focus on it, but we are the only company in the outdoor spaces providing mesh coverage. We will do the whole thing, where some just cover the ticket office, box office, and do point-to-points in between.
Do you feel as though you’ve already proven yourselves to a certain extent?
Yeah. With WOMAD, we’ve invested in the site a lot. People tend to invest a lot in drainage, but our philosophy would be ‘actually when you’re putting in drainage, why not put in fibre at the same time?’ So we’ve put in a whole ring of fibre, so the core is a gigabyte around the site and it’s perfect. If you’re lifting the ground, chuck it in! Why not? It’s only a couple of quid a metre and it makes perfect sense, because – and it doesn’t have to be us – somebody can then come and work with it. Wireless is great, but if you’ve got the cable there, use a bit of cable.
Is there more to come?
I think 3G offload will be a grower. The industry’s still at a stage where there is a basic requirement for production, so you’ll always get your production manager who needs 10 phones and access for 50 yards and that’s all he’s interested in, but what we’re waiting for is the break point when the marketing guys start saying ‘hold on a minute, if you’ve got WiFi on site, can I do a full WiFi for my VIPs?’ And actually we did something like that at Magic Summer Live for Elton John at Hatfield House recently. BT was a big part of the presence; it was us who enabled them to have that presence, as they needed WiFi access. We put in two networks: one for production and one for the punters.
Can you explain more about the radio frequency ID technology (RFID)?
That’s an interesting one. What we’ve been trying to do is identify what else can use that technology. For example, in WOMAD we’re using it for catering. It means we know who’s having meals - they just swipe a card - and it means we can manage the waste in more detail. It’s all about efficiency really.
You can also use it to see how often things are used – it’s all very easy to see, whereas if it’s all in folders everybody would be signing in and out and there’d be a lot of paperwork. There’s a lot of stuff for RFID on the site office side, and on the attendee side it’s about linking it with social networking, gaining an online community. It’s about waiting for somebody to crack that side of it.
Mastercard has been investing in pay passes; what that means to me, and it sounds selfish, is that there’ll simply be more requirements for reliable and robust onsite networks, as unless these terminals are connected in each of the bars, you can’t do it.
Can money be saved?
Not as such, but it reduces the frustration of the audience. Let’s take the Isle of Wight festival: they’re buying tokens for cash – that’s a waste of time. This gives promoters total visibility: they can see where their peak figures are and where the busy bars are – and more importantly, they have customer information, which is priceless in today’s industry. In terms of cost savings, it’s about generating more revenue as opposed to saving.
Another venture you’re exploring is Mobile VoIP.
Yes, production managers like it as it’s essentially free national and internal calls. Some people understandably say, ‘well what’s wrong with a radio?’ - and I agree that a radio is fine, but if you’re discussing takings or lost children or security, you want to be able to have a phone conversation.
Good point. What about Apps – how much can they affect live events?
A huge amount. Artists have a real challenge as you can’t make real revenue anymore with album sales – it’s all about live. What we’ll start to see is bands launching songs at gigs, and you’ll be able to take a recording away there and then. Another one we looked at was how your tablet could be part of the event, such as the lighting show. You as an attendee could physically control bits of the show. There is a lot of attractive stuff you can do. The key is designing apps that are happy with the environment where you may lose connectivity for a short space of time, where as a lot of the Apps these days are not designed for an environment where that happens. Whatever you decide to do, you must think of the network on the other side.
We are about to provide 7,000 people with WiFi access at Eddie Izzard’s Laughs In The Park, and there’ll be live Twitter on the huge screens – what’s clever is you see the interaction, but Twitter is also totally visible to punters that didn’t get tickets.
You’re constantly working on big events - how far can Etherlive go?
We’re positioned now to say ‘OK we can do it – yes, we are pretty new to it – we’ve only been around since 2008 - but we can actually help you’. Really, Etherlive is about providing a good temporary network – that’s what we know. Other stuff we do is really to enable that. We’re not developers, but if you want 10,000 people to be able to use your App, for example, we’ll provide a network for you and it’ll work efficiently.
People are now coming to you. That’s where you want to be...
Exactly. We want to become the premier provider: if you want the job to be done properly then come to us!