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Arena and Stadium Wi-Fi

Apr 10, 2014 11:39 AM

Creating the fan experience

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Bill Anderson, a consultant at AmpThink

What advice would you give franchise owners and venue operators that are considering adding Wi-Fi to their arena or stadium? For example, the Magic emphasized the importance of owning the network to control the data and thoroughly vetting potential contractors to ensure that they really know the nuts and bolts of Wi-Fi, such as RF engineering and capacity planning.

I have a number of thoughts, some of them echo Orlando’s comments:

In general, I agree with the Magic that it is in a venue’s best interest to own their network. I say this because unless they own the network, they could be precluded from leveraging that network to develop fan-facing applications that leverage Wi-Fi. Today, the business case for owning your own Wi-Fi is unproven. If the business case develops, and I believe it will, owning the network will ensure that the venue is positioned to reap the benefits of the installation.

With the above in mind, building and operating a high density network is expensive. Some venues may simply not be able to afford to own their Wi-Fi. If this is the case, craft the agreement with the 3rd party operator carefully. Make sure that the venues other services (concessions, ticketing, back office, etc.) can be integrated into a single Wi-Fi network. Make sure that the venue has the ability to receive reporting on who is using the data and how. Ask the operator to implement a portal that captures user data and reports that to the team for integration into their marketing efforts.

Address aesthetic requirements up front. If the install team is allowed to install without direction and the venue is unhappy with the results, there will be conflict. The two possible outcomes are both problematic. There will either be re-work (expensive) or the venue will have to settle with something they don’t like.

Make sure the RF design team is experienced and knows what they’re doing. Check references and ask to speak with other venues they have built that are being heavily used. There are a lot of stadiums with limited Wi-Fi deployments that don’t or won’t stand up to heavy use. The designer/installer needs to be able to reference more than a team that they’ve worked with or a venue they’ve installed. They need to be able to reference a venue they designed that is operating under load. Ask about the max number of concurrent connections that the installed network supports. Ask how much Wi-Fi traffic is flowing over the network. A poorly designed network will fail. People remember a bad experience long after they’ve forgotten a good experience.

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 kiosks?

Today, most venues have some form of wireless network that is in use to support internal applications (venue facing). The most important applications driving the need for venue facing networks are ticketing and concessions (including POS systems and kiosks). In general, we see digital signage deployed as a wired service. Most venues also support some level of connectivity for employee devices (laptops, smartphones, and tablets) although it may be limited to office areas.

Some venues have also implemented a guest or fan facing network. The scope of the fan facing network varies. Some venues elect to focus on premium areas (suites, clubs, party decks, and so on) as a way to differentiate that experience from the standard fan experience. Some elect to provide the network for the entire venue. Moving forward, we are expecting to see more interest in total venue networks capable of supporting all of the fans that could be in the building.

Once there is a comprehensive fan-facing network in place, there are a lot of ways to use that network. But, we’re not seeing many places where there is a mature application strategy to compliment the network. An exception would be a venue like Barclay’s where there is an in-seat video service leveraging Cisco’s Stadium Vision Mobile platform. There are others, but the list is limited.

In most venues the only widely deployed fan facing Wi-Fi app running on the network is a team app. Recently, we had the opportunity to participate in conversations around usage of team apps in venues and in particular video services at a major event. We were surprised when we heard that the app vendor expected less than 3 percent of the fans to use the video service during the game. In a number of venues we support, we consistently see 20 percent or more of the fans connect to the network and that number is growing. But we don’t see that growth being attributed to in venue apps. If you look at how fan facing networks are being used today, the dominant use is social media.

What kinds of RF surprises have you encountered 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?

Interference is always a big issue in a public venue. We spend considerable time identifying and mitigating interference sources during the design and tuning processes. Interference comes from a variety of sources:

In some venues we encounter venue owned non-Wi-Fi devices that operate in the same frequencies. These can be things like cordless phones, wireless cameras, lighting controls, pyro-technic systems, remote controls, and so on. We address these interferers through education. We explain the impact of the device on the system and help the venue understand what that will mean for their applications or for the fan experience. In general, these interferers are addressed by the venue by replacing these devices with something similar that doesn’t operate in the same frequencies that Wi-Fi uses or by switching to a Wi-Fi version of the same equipment.

In most venues, during events, we encounter broadcast or event related systems that interfere. We recommend that our clients employ someone in a frequency coordination role and that they publish their wireless use guidelines. This allows the people who will be attending in support of the event to plan to bring the right kind of equipment to prevent conflict with the Wi-Fi system. When these interferers pop up, the policy allows the venue to ask to have the offending system shutdown.

Yes, we also see hot spots. In general, the best way to address hot spots is by providing an alternative in the venue and then promoting that network. When the Wi-Fi network is properly advertised, we don’t see hot spots as an issue unless the network performs poorly. Then, hot spots will proliferate.

The biggest surprise I’ve had recently in my work in stadiums is the growth of fan content and its impact on these networks. As few as two years ago, the dominant use of the network was downloading content. At recent big events that we’ve been involved in, inbound and outbound traffic are even and at times, uploads exceed downloads. The amount of image and video content coming from fan smartphones and tablets is radically changing the way we design these networks and our thoughts on the current set of tools provided by the vendors we implement.

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? Should they consider 802.11ad? Something else?

I think the first thing the venue should do is to hire an experienced RF design team and develop the design before they go to RFP. The questions you posed are the types of issues that can be addressed in the design process and then clearly articulated in the RFP. Unfortunately, many venues are soliciting the manufacturers for the design work as part of the RFP. They don’t want to include the design work because they want a fair RFP that will give them the best system at the best price.

This approach is just wrong headed. Imagine building an RFP to develop a new stadium without a design. When you build a stadium, you hire an architect first, then you bid the building. Why do we do something else in the technology world? There are companies that can develop a design that would work for multiple manufacturers. We do it all the time and when we complete our design, the venue bids that design out. I think it is important to remember that although a design can be expensive, it is typically less than 5 percent of the total cost of the network. And, there can always be two RFPs; one for a consultant to lead the design and possibly supervise the installation and one to construct and tune the network.

Wi-Fi is evolving quickly, particularly technologies related to high density deployments. By hiring an experienced team to lead the development of that network (and possibly the RFP) before settling on the implementation details will ensure that the solution is current, cost effective, and addresses the venues needs.

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