A massive revamp of internet infrastructure in the House chamber and press galleries ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union was born out of chaos in preceding years and aimed to facilitate improved media coverage of the speech, spin and surrounding pomp and circumstance.
It seemed to make a difference Tuesday, allowing reporters to fire off tweets and file story updates during the speech from inside the chamber. That hasn’t been the case in previous years and was a pleasant surprise for those in the chamber.
I'm here in the House chamber tonight for @thedailybeast. The lights are bright, the wifi is surprisingly good and the mingling on the floor is out of controlwill be posting thru the #SOTU — Sam Brodey (@sambrodey) February 5, 2020
Richard Martins, the director of network engineering and operations for the House, was on hand in 2019 when the Wi-Fi went in and out during the State of the Union, and he witnessed the frustration of reporters and saw the potential impact on news coverage of the event.
Unlike the Senate, where electronic devices are banned in the chamber, the House allows reporters to use laptops and smartphones to cover events in real time. But a laptop or cell phone is of little use to reporters without reliable internet.
On Tuesday night, the internet didn’t seem to go out or slow to the point of uselessness even once. Lawmakers were even able to tweet out selfies from the floor.
Rockin our all-white outfits at #SOTU for two reasons:☝️Honoring the 20th Century Suffragettes who coined the all white look. ✌️Reminding you that you can’t ignore the force that is women in Congress. pic.twitter.com/StKM2JcsjS — Rep. Susie Lee (@RepSusieLee) February 5, 2020
On big news days, the Wi-Fi in the House chamber has been unreliable. More than 90 reporters inside the chamber and dozens more in the gallery office space trying to file stories, tweet, feed updates and message their editors all at once created bottlenecks. Lawmakers and their guests trying to shoot off their own tweets and posts all use the same network, creating an oversaturation that resulted in massive slowness or complete disconnection from the internet.
Reporters in the past have resorted to using their phones as Wi-Fi hot spots or relying on cell service, but that had a side effect of further squeezing bandwidth. This year, no personal hot spots were allowed during the State of the Union.
Martins led the team that implemented the technology upgrades in the weeks leading up to the State of the Union. The effort included the addition of 200 hardwired Ethernet connections inside the House chamber for journalists to use and boosted Wi-Fi bandwidth for inside the chamber and the adjacent office space in the press gallery.
A contractor and construction team were brought in to make the additions and run all the new wiring, often starting at 5 a.m. to get the work done without disrupting business in the chamber.
Martins and his team assisted reporters in the chamber before the speech began to connect with the provided Ethernet cables and disconnect from the Wi-Fi. It served the dual purpose of providing reliable access and also redirected a swath of reporters who would otherwise be clogging the Wi-Fi to not have to rely on it.
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