Backstage with the Wireless Stones

By Gerry Blackwell

July 30, 2003

The Rolling Stones and their promoters and staff on the Forty Licks World Tour are using a traveling 3Com Wi-Fi WLAN to stay in touch with family, to do business, and for pleasure.

Imagine if you will, the aging rock legend relaxing before the evening's gig.

In this case it's the star-studded July 30 "Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto" concert in Canada. The crowd outside, packed into an abandoned air field, is estimated at just under a half million. It disappears over the horizon.

There he sits, back stage in the green room, His Satanic Majesty, the 60-year-old icon of rock mayhem, hunched over his laptop, pounding out e-mails to friends and family back home. Curiously, no wires lead from the computer...

Yep, Mick and the boys have gone Wi-Fi.

Clear Channel Entertainment, the international promoter of the Rolling Stones' Forty Licks World Tour, has been using a unique traveling wireless network from 3Com Corp. since the start of the tour. Currently in Europe, the tour took a special detour to Toronto to help the city celebrate its release from the grip of SARS. The Stones, natch, are the all-day show's headliners.

The WLAN, making its public debut at this stop, has been a huge hit with both staff and talent, says Rolling Stones IT specialist Todd Griffith. "Mick especially uses it quite a bit, [lead guitarist] Keith [Richards] and [drummer] Charlie [Watts] occasionally. Other band members use it quite a lot, too."

The musicians had no trouble learning how to use the technology. "They are surprisingly knowledgeable about the network," Griffith says. He calls Jagger "a fairly heavy computer user." Most of the time he uses it for e-mail and Web surfing, but when the band was in Singapore earlier this year, a high-speed Internet connection helped Mick out of tight spot.

Jagger is a fanatical sports fan, Griffith explains, and the World Cup of Cricket was on at the time the Stones were in Singapore. Mick and Charlie were desperate to watch it, but couldn't find a terrestrial or satellite TV feed anywhere. Finally, Griffith found a Web site that streamed video of the cricket matches over the Net, for a fee.

He brought a high-speed Internet feed into Jagger's hotel room -- not wireless in this case, but it could be wireless another time, he says. He hooked it up to Mick's laptop and then ran video out to a 55-inch Panasonic big-screen TV the band had wangled from the manufacturer as part of a promotion.

"It looked phenomenal," Griffith says. "The video quality totally blew me away. It was almost like watching TV. Mick and Charlie were both very pleased."

The traveling WLAN was not primarily intended to aid in entertaining the talent, of course. It was intended to improve the efficiency of the scores of employees who work at the concert sites -- Rolling Stones and Clear Channel staff, press, and employees of local promoters.

Just being constantly in touch by e-mail with their home offices and with local promoters and venues coming up on the tour is a big benefit. In the past, tour workers would have to scramble to deal with e-mail at the beginning or the end of each day at their hotels, often using slow dial-up lines. When they were on site they were effectively incommunicado.

"Now they have 24/7 high-speed access," says Brent Nixon, 3Com's wireless product line manager. "That makes them a lot more efficient."

Tour planners and designers in particular have benefited enormously. They are often planning ahead to the next venue even while setting up and managing the current tour stop. It has happened more than once that a local promoter has e-mailed with news of a last-minute change to the lay-out of an upcoming concert venue.

When that happens, Griffith explains, tour organizers need to get detailed CAD drawings so they figure out how to make needed changes to the configuration of the Stones' elaborate stage sets.

"They can't wait four or five hours for a large file like that to download [over a dial-up connection]," he points out. "[The WLAN] has not only saved us money, it's also saved a lot of headaches and situations where we arrive and they're pulling their hair out saying, 'This isn't what we expected!'"

For the most part, when the music starts, activity on the WLAN tails off and the focus is all on the event. On a couple of occasions, though, backstage workers have found glitches in electronic instruments or lighting units mid-show and been able to download drivers from the Internet to fix the problem.

"That's maybe happened two or three times in 90 shows," Griffith says.

A nice side benefit of the WLAN is that workers traveling with the tour don't feel as cut off from family and friends anymore because they can take odd moments to e-mail or chat. It's an important morale booster, Griffith says, and Clear Channel has recognized that.

In fact, it may be difficult for Clear Channel and other concert promoters to not provide WLANs on concert tours in future. This is not even the first use of Wi-Fi in the rock world, Griffith points out. The Dave Matthews Band has used it extensively and an earlier Clear Channel-marketed U2 tour used Wi-Fi, though not to the same extent as on Forty Licks.

It's not just staff who will insist on WLANs either. "A lot of bands are now going to include it in their [contract] riders," Griffith suggests. "Clear Channel is going to have to deal with that. 3Com, by breaking ground along with Clear Channel, is making a nice clear path for others to follow."

The traveling WLAN kit Clear Channel is using is a more elaborate one than what the company might have purchased on its own if 3Com wasn't bearing some of the cost, Nixon concedes. Now, however, the company is sold on the technology it's using, he says.

The Forty Licks set-up includes 3Com Access Point 8000s, outdoor 11Mbps Wireless LAN Building-to-Building Bridges, gateways and xJack client cards with retractable antennas. The big pieces get packed up along with the guitars and drums and lights and shipped from one venue to the next.

It takes Griffith and his team about an hour and a half to set it up. At most sites, he has one DSL line to the Internet which feeds into a 3Com gateway that handles the minimal security and authentication in place and distribution of the Internet bandwidth.

The gateway feeds into one or more point-to-point wireless bridges which connect different parts of the site -- backstage, front of stage, a VIP area, press conference room, and so on. Sometimes multiple access points branch off of each point-to-point connection to get the coverage needed, which is usually about half to three-quarters of the venue.

"It works incredibly well," Griffith says. "Once we figured out the architecture, it was basically pull it out of the box and it works -- with the odd exception because of the odd shape of a venue."

If the tour can't get a DSL or, at minimum, ISDN line -- which has sometimes happened -- it does have a back-up. The Stones travel with a PanAmSat portable satellite dish, which gives Griffith access to a 2-Mbps satellite Internet service.

The Toronto site is a little different. In keeping with the concert's charitable theme, Bell Canada, the local telephone company, donated multiple DSL drops, so there is little need for the point-to-point bridges. "For somebody like me, it was like Santa Claus coming," Griffith says.

By the time the evening part of the Molson Rocks concert begins, he was expecting as many as 200 users on the WLAN -- not just employees, but also press, local promoters and even fans will use the network.

Yes, that's right, fans.

Griffith admits security on the network is lax. He points out that there is no central server where hackers could go rooting around for files, and all file sharing is turned off on employee laptops. "Probably a lot of security guys would cringe," he says. "But given the venues and the business we're in, security is just not that big an imperative."

The Stones opened the network up because it was easier to do that than be bothered authenticating and training legitimate ad hoc users such as press and local promoters' personnel.

The Stones don't publicize the fact that fans can log in to the Forty Licks WLAN, Griffith says. "But I'm sure there will be kids -- or adults -- there with handhelds who will find the network and browse it and go to the Internet." They're welcome, he says.

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