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Arena and Stadium Wi-Fi

Apr 10, 2014 11:39 AM

Creating the fan experience

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Chuck Lukaszewski, Sr. Director of Engineering, Aruba Networks

Are most arenas and stadiums using Wi-Fi to enhance the fan experience? Or do they also use the network to support internal applications, such as getting content to digital signage and connectivity for point-of-sale terminals? What are the pros and cons of piggybacking internal applications on the Wi-Fi network?

Fans want an immersive experience, whether they are viewing at the stadium or at home and the availability (or not) of this impacts where they will watch the game. Most recent Aruba stadium and arena deployments are using the Wi-Fi primarily to enhance the fan experience and improve the retention of fans to live events to compete more effectively with the home viewing experience and deliver the best live experience. They are leveraging stable Wi-Fi networks to deliver video to the fans in their seat so that they can access on-demand instant replays or other in-game footage as well as look up relevant statistics on the teams and players. Mobile engagement apps that integrate with the Wi-Fi systems and enable location-based notifications and directions are being deployed and made available for fans to be able to place concessions orders from the comfort of their seat as well as for locating facilities such as the nearest restrooms, exits and fan club stores. This enables the facility operators to deliver a better experience for the fan while also being able to attract higher revenues from attendees. Mobile engagement and stable Wi-Fi have become critical to getting fans to attend live events, rather than watch from home.

Most stadiums/arenas also use the network to simultaneously support internal applications including point-of-sale and stadium operations (ticket scanning, communications, press photo transfer). This approach can result in significant cost savings as it eliminates the need to deploy and support two networks. The challenge with this approach is that the network and equipment must be designed and configured to ensure security as well as deliver Quality of Service (QoS) for business-critical applications.

Therefore, when our partners work with stadium/arena customers to design their networks, one of the key considerations is identifying the user roles (fan, press, business-operations), then applying the appropriate security policies and segregating the traffic, based on those roles. The IT organizations configure their Wi-Fi systems to deliver QoS priority to the most business-critical applications such as point-of-sale and communications.

What kinds of RF issues are there in arenas and stadiums? For example, are there unexpected sources of interference, such as the personal Wi-Fi hotspots that some fans bring to games, or microwaves in the concession areas? How do you deal with those? What about extending coverage to the middle of the playing surface for times when the facility is used for concerts, tradeshows, and other non-game events?

Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed frequencies in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz band. Because the bands are unlicensed, anyone can use them so they are popular for delivering many types of services from video cameras to Bluetooth headsets to coach communication systems to wireless microphones used in concerts. These are non-Wi-Fi sources. And individuals with smartphones that forget to disable their Wi-Fi hotspot mode also contribute to interference to a degree.

Stadiums continuously monitor the air with spectrum analyzers, either dedicated analyzers or select Wi-Fi AP’s that have built-in spectrum analysis to identify non-Wi-Fi interfering sources and work to eliminate them. This can be relatively simple, as in the case of a fixed wireless continuously transmitting camera where it can be moved to a better channel. Or it can be difficult for mobile sources that do not transmit on a regular basis. It’s a constant effort requiring continuous surveillance and remediation. Fortunately, some Wi-Fi management systems have integrated spectrum, reporting capabilities that can proactively inform the administrators of new interference sources so they don’t need to perform continuous manual checks.

Mi-Fi device interference varies by night. In general there is very little that can be done to mitigate it from the Wi-Fi infrastructure. The long-term solution here is for carriers to work with their handset vendors to come up with ways to disable Mi-Fi functionality when they are inside a high-density environment being served by a cellular DAS and a controller-based Wi-Fi infrastructure.

Regarding extending coverage to the middle of the playing surface for times when the facility is used for concerts, tradeshows and other non-game events, this is typically done with specially located APs at the field wall for an outdoor venue, or from overhead catwalks in indoor arenas.

If a venue operator or franchise is getting ready to implement facility-wide Wi-Fi, what could or should it put in the RFP to make the infrastructure as flexible and future-proof as possible? For example, should they deploy 802.11ac?

In general, all new stadium Wi-Fi networks should be leveraging the latest AP models including 802.11ac. One of the most important reasons for this is the increased CPU and memory capacity of next-generation APs. This actually allows them to handle more non-11ac traffic than previous generations. So even if client populations are not yet 11ac, a venue owner can realize an immediate performance gain with current devices. In the future, as the market transitions to 11ac devices, having 11ac APs in place allows each device to complete data transfers more quickly. This allows the network to support more users and provide more overall capacity.

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