It was lunchtime, and Taeler Jones and Breana Miller were looking for a signal.
The soon-to-be freshmen at Northwood High School ate with their phones out but weren’t able to get Internet on Saturday, July 26.
“We’ve been here for four days and the signal has gotten worse,” Jones said. “No one is able to communicate – it’s impossible.”
The Elkhart County 4-H Fair has provided free Internet for fairgoers through Comcast since 2008, but the demand for Wi-Fi exceeds coverage year after year. For patrons who want to get online, the average day is slow and spotty, and reliable only on days with smaller attendance, as a general rule. Doug Mayberry, head of maintenance, said the fair has been working to expand their network every year, but the increase in smartphone usage has meant an ongoing adjustment.
“We’ve gone from 100 users an hour to 1,000 users an hour in a five-year period,” Mayberry said. “What that means is at this point, the system is antiquated. The provider does an adequate job; it’s just access points equipment.”
While the fair has expanded access points every year to cover much of the fair’s 400 acres, and all buildings have Wi-Fi inside, an average day means a system overload. During especially busy days, when “3,000 people are trying to use Wi-Fi at once, no one gets much of anything,” said Mayberry. “And if the Verizon phone service goes dead, then we have even more trouble, with more people trying to use the system.”
Another issue is the steel and aluminum rides, which absorb radio frequencies and weaken signals.
The on-site medical clinic near the Grandstand experienced problems in filing daily medical reports, which is done electronically. Emil Broni, who has been EMS coordinator at Dr. Robert M. Abel Medical Clinic for the past 16 years, thought the connection was especially bad this year. He found that Wi-Fi was best early in the morning when there were fewer users.
“Everyone comes in here with a cell phone wanting access and there’s just way too many people using the Internet,” Broni said. “It’s not like we can’t get our work done, but the connection slows up things immensely.”
Some patrons, such as Shelley Rody, think a slower connection should just be expected. Rody is coordinator of the Elkhart General Hospital’s wellness booth at the fair and other than using 3G on her iPhone, she doesn’t seek out a connection.
“It does depend on the area you’re in,” Rody said. “But I was kind of expecting not to have strong Internet. It’s just the way it is.”
But Mayberry hopes to make “some major headway” for next year’s fair. There will be upgrades to equipment with higher productivity capability, which will allow for more range and fewer spotty areas.
“Now people expect Internet,” said Mayberry. “We’ll be stepping up to address this. All you can do is build for now and see how things change.”