WiFi Everywhere in Sports Is Not an Easy Project

WiFi connectivity in sports venues is like indoor plumbing: it has gone from luxury option to expected amenity to absolute necessity. However, getting it into existing venues often isn’t easy, according to Verizon, services provider for MetLife Stadium, Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, Sports Authority Field (Denver Broncos), and Petco Park (San Diego Padres).

“The two big challenges [for existing venues] are the physical architecture of the building, where materials like concrete and aluminum can interfere with signals, and, in the largest venues, the density of the network that you need to manage all those endpoints,” explains Rick Capstraw, who runs Verizon’s strategic team for media and entertainment verticals.

He cites the WiFi retrofit at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, home to the L.A. Lakers and Kings, now under way, as an example of the former. “We had already done a lot of work on cellular-antenna distribution there and found there was a lot of aluminum used in its construction, which just does not work well with WiFi. It causes all kinds of weird reflections.”

He adds that fan interactivity via mobile devices is going to become an expected service at all levels of sports venues in the near future. Various dedicated apps are already being developed for this purpose, and the sports and wireless industries are coming together to address the issue. This is seen as a key strategy to reverse some declines in attendance and revenue that some leagues — most notably, the NFL — are experiencing as the home-broadcast experience continues to improve with enhanced audio and video.

But adding to the challenge of retrofitting WiFi into large, densely built structures are the costs of doing so. Capstraw estimates that it costs between $3 million and $5 million to outfit a typical stadium for WiFi. That may not seem like a lot in a multibillion-dollar sports industry, but it becomes just that when multiplied by hundreds of major- and minor-league parks, stadiums and arenas, and collegiate venues.

“The problem is, the ROI for all of this is not very well defined yet,” says Capstraw. “How does the team owner or league justify the costs when they’re not sure what the business model is going to be to generate revenue from it?”

Various models are being looked at in the industry, including paid access to WiFi, paid apps to access in-venue premium content, and ad-supported connectivity, including merchandise sales within the venue. It’s an issue that’s also being faced by the hospitality industry, with hotels finding that guests expect high-speed broadband connectivity, often for free, on which they will access their own entertainment options, reducing hotel revenue from lost PPV-content delivery.

(In fact, Verizon partnered with iBAHN — which provides Internet Protocol-based information services for the hospitality, meeting, conference. and retail industries — to build and install the AU Guest WiFi network at Auburn last year, which is paid for via user subscription fees. Verizon is providing the connectivity and backhaul to the public Internet, and iBAHN is helping process payments and provide customer support, as it does for thousands of hotel customers.)

Spectrum Issues
Verizon and other WiFi providers are also running into spectrum issues. With the 2.4 GHz frequency already crowded with consumer devices, says JT Timmons, VP of strategy for Verizon enterprise solutions, WiFi has to move further into the 5 GHz range. Higher frequencies usually require a larger distributed-antenna system inside large facilities since they’re more vulnerable to being blocked by concrete and steel. And the number of consumer devices in the 5 GHz range is growing as well.

He says the response is to use the edge channels of the 11-channel band: “Those are less congested, and we can also use high-gain directional antennas to increase coverage.”

The problem, says Capstraw, is that, even when devices aren’t in active use, phones and tablets with their WiFi activated are constantly pinging the wireless systems’ access points, straining them. What’s remarkable, he adds, is that, once sufficient coverage has been achieved in a venue, even very large loads can be managed. He cites the temporary WiFi system put into place at the Staples Center for this year’s Grammy Awards event (the current WiFi project Verizon is installing there is a permanent system), which was able to handle about 22,000 devices in and around the arena. Auburn’s stadium routinely handles as many as 10,000 devices during a game.

“It’s not about bandwidth, necessarily; it’s about how many connections are made between access points and endpoints,” he states. “The equation is population [at the event] divided by the number of access points.” However, even with the 1-GB networks being installed now, bandwidth will eventually become an issue as more fans in the stands start watching HD video of multiple games.

WiFi in sports venues is still a relative rarity, but it won’t stay that way long. Timmons calls it an “exploding market but still in its infancy.” Some ways to address the costs of retrofitting venues include leveraging the proliferation of the LTE standard (adopted by Verizon and Sprint in the U.S.) and the use of IP-based networks. However these WiFi networks are funded and charged, it’s clear that fans want them for entertainment and information, and venues need them for revenue and attendance. Those two massive forces guarantee that some kind of solution will be found.

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