The past-its-prime Wi-Fi system at the Indiana Convention Center could get a big boost in 2020, as its owner looks to make a series of upgrades to the venue as part of next year’s budget.
Wi-Fi and digital connectivity became issues in 2018 when organizers of Gen Con, one of the largest annual convention events that Indianapolis hosts, complained to tourism officials about technological shortcomings at the center.
The Marion County Capital Improvement Board—which also owns Lucas Oil Stadium, Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Victory Field—expects to spend around $5.7 million to enhance the convention center’s wireless infrastructure, the 13,500-square-foot 500 Ballroom, and lighting fixtures in its exhibition halls.
It also plans to install new carpeting in the convention center in the next few years.
The upgrades are among $46 million in capital improvements and maintenance slated for the CIB’s facilities, as part of the quasi-government agency’s proposed $179 million budget for 2020. The budget still needs approval from the Indianapolis City-County-Council.
Among the budget items, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, on tap to receive a $360 million overhaul through the next three years, has been allotted $20 million; Victory Field, which is adding a new homeplate club, would receive $2.9 million; and Lucas Oil Stadium is expecting $1.6 million for improvements.
Andy Mallon, executive director of the CIB, said updating the convention center’s Wi-Fi has been on the board’s list for the past few years, but other improvements have taken precedent.
The new Wi-Fi system—which has not yet been put out for bid—is expected to feature the latest in wireless technology, commonly called Wi-Fi 6.
The system would be akin to the one implemented at Lucas Oil Stadium earlier this summer, as part of a $7 million partnership between the CIB, the Colts and Verizon, which IBJ first reported in March.
Mallon noted the needs of the venues are “much different.”
Wi-Fi is a source of revenue for the convention center. The convention center offers free Wi-Fi at its food court and a few other selected areas, but, outside of that, attendees and exhibitors have to pay for Wi-Fi service. The stadium’s Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is free to all attending events there, including Colts and Indy Eleven games.
Installed in 2011, the current Wi-Fi system is “at the end of its useful life,” said Tom Boyle, director of operations for the convention center. He said the new system will utilize existing wiring in the building, but components like wireless access points, antennas and controllers will be fully replaced. The cost of the project is expected to be about $3 million.
David Hoppe, president of Gen Con, wrote in an email to IBJ he was pleased with the CIB’s efforts to upgrade its wireless technology, noting it “has been good recently, yet we need it to be excellent.” Gen Con brings in about 70,000 people annually.
Hoppe has previously expressed concerns about the convention center’s wireless performance, particularly as the convention looks to implement new strategies for engaging with event goers.
“Excellent connectivity is essential for us as we roll forward with several key initiatives including electronic ticketing and event live streams,” Hoppe said. “Even though Gen Con is a tabletop convention, this technology is super important for us and for our attendees who increasingly want to stay connected throughout the four days of our show.”
The CIB has invested about $2.5 million in technology since 2016 to increase the convention center’s internet bandwidth, replace network equipment and lay additional fiber. It also has a long-term agreement with Wi-Fi service provider Smart City, which Mallon said will not be negatively affected by the upgrades.
In addition to Wi-Fi, the CIB also plans to give a cosmetic upgrade to the 500 Ballroom. The $500,000 project is expected to focus mostly on aesthetics, according to Boyle. The ballroom will receive a fresh coat of paint, and new carpeting, lighting and finishes.
Exhibit halls will also receive upgrades to their theatrical lighting systems, including new dimmer racks to change the ambiance of the halls for different shows and events.
The CIB is also planning to spend about $5 million over the next three years to replace carpeting throughout the convention center.
“We’re still evaluating that. We’re going to evaluate a lot of the meeting room carpet,” Boyle said. “Some of that may not need to be replaced at this point, and we can push that back a year or two.”
Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, said the tourism group supports the CIB’s efforts to upgrade its technology and other parts of the convention center.
“There’s a lot of wear and tear that happens inside the Indiana Convention Center, so we are ultimately very appreciative of the [CIB] and convention center team for keeping the building in such pristine condition,” he said. “Keeping it updated from a tech perspective ultimately allows us to have a competitive edge and positions the city for major conventions.”
The CIB’s budget was adopted by the Municipal Corporations Committee of City-County Council on Wednesday, and is pending approval by the full council.