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Arena and Stadium Wi-Fi

Apr 10, 2014 11:39 AM

Creating the fan experience

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Bruce Miller, VP of Product Marketing at Xirrus

What kinds of companies are franchise owners and venue operators using when they decide to add public Wi-Fi to their arena or stadium? For example, the American Airlines Center chose AT&T, while the Orlando Magic chose AmpThink, so it seems to be quite a variety.

As suggested, there are a variety of different companies involved in deploying and operating stadium Wi-Fi. Carriers, as suggested, are involved in many of them, as well as large integrators and smaller companies that specialize in the business. DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) are sometimes installed as part of the same project. The design and implementation of wireless in high-density venues like these is challenging, so dedicated resources specializing in wireless within these organizations are typically driving the projects. Customized installation is typically involved, as these types of venues have a wide variety of physical attributes and layouts. Once installed, the operation of the wireless network is usually run as a managed service rather than by a local IT team.

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?

It is increasingly the case that Wi-Fi is being used to enhance the experience and keep people coming back to games. In many cases, they are competing with the 65in. LCD and La-Z-Boy. A wide variety of services can be run over the wireless to interact with fans as well as drive revenue. Examples include video replay, game/player statistics, concession and merchandise ordering, wayfinding within the facility, betting, and social media. Revenue can be driven through advertising, sponsorships, and retail transactions. In addition, these networks are commonly used for internal purposes such as ticketing, POS, signage, and communications.

Multi-radio, multi-use infrastructure, such as that supplied by Xirrus, can be segmented to enable simultaneous operation of different services over the same infrastructure. But special care must be taken to design the network with sufficient capacity and separation to allow this. RF spectrum is at a premium in highly dense environments such as stadiums, so the up-front design must be done to accommodate all the planned use cases.

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?

The biggest challenge is how to support the sheer numbers of devices that are accessing the network with the limited amount of Wi-Fi spectrum available. There are only 24 Wi-Fi channels available in the US, and Wi-Fi is ultimately a shared medium – multiple users per channel. So care must be taken in designing the layout of the Wi-Fi equipment such that channels can be re-used repeatedly throughout the facility. Physical isolation of access points from each other is key to this, ideally from walls, beams, or other barriers within the building structure itself. Interference is another big challenge and can come from a number of sources. Personal Wi-Fi hotspots are increasingly popular, though we see more of these in convention/conference centers than we do in stadiums.

Other sources include other wireless systems (Zigbee, Bluetooth, etc.) in use, microwaves as mentioned, and other non-controlled Wi-Fi systems. In addition, the smartphones people carry with them can cause issues. Those not connected to the Wi-Fi network will periodically send out requests to connect, filling up the RF spectrum with extraneous transmissions that reduce the bandwidth available for valid communications. Xirrus has a product feature called Honeypot that automatically connects these smartphones to a dead-end network, at which point they stop sending out connection requests and therefore free up spectrum usage. Interference mitigation can be done with directional antennas (pointing away from the interference), careful RF planning/tuning, and robust wireless IDS/IPS, which can detect and potentially mitigate issues. Regarding extension of coverage to the playing surface, temporary equipment, such as the Xirrus Rapid Deployment Kit (RDK), can be easily set up using tripods to accommodate the wireless gear.

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?

The flexibility and capability of the infrastructure equipment is the most important consideration. The latest, greatest wireless technologies such as 802.11ac may help somewhat, but are far from the most important considerations. Most devices being used on the Wi-Fi in these venues (smartphones) do not operate anywhere near the maximum rates of 11ac or 11n.

Some important considerations for an RFP would include:

  • Multi-radio solutions – high-radio-count equipment to increase user density per AP and reduce the number of APs (and associated infrastructure) required
  • Broad product family – a range of different types of products is typically needed to deploy a robust wireless network, e.g., both indoor and outdoor gear, low- and high-radio-density APs, and a variety of antennas
  • Upgradability – software programmability and/or hardware modularity to ensure that the infrastructure can be adapted to handle changing/growing requirements
  • Traffic control – ability to filter unwanted traffic, control multicast, and rate-limit traffic
  • RF optimization – granular control to fine-tune the RF to optimize performance, e.g., 1) RF tuning flexibility – ability to tune transmit power very low to increase isolation and tune receive sensitivity to reduce effective cell sizes; 2) features such as Honeypot to help clean the RF spectrum; 3) Directional antennas to control RF coverage patterns and reduce interference between Aps
  • Integrated diagnostics – built-in tools to test and troubleshoot the wireless network when there are issues

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