High-density wireless is essential to sports franchises looking to give their live audiences a compelling reason to come sit in the stands, especially NFL teams that are competing with the view from an HD TV with rich replay and commentary features, not to mention all the comforts of home on a winter day.
The IT team for Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., noticed three years ago that fans were bringing in more smartphones and mobile devices to games, where they uploaded photos to Facebook, and tweeted about their experience in real-time.
But mobile carrier networks couldn't keep up in a demanding, hyper-dense area, and the Patriots worried the lack of connectivity could degrade the fan experience, said Fred Kirsch, publisher and vice president of content at Kraft Sports Productions and the New England Patriots.
"Smartphones are now a part of sports fans' lives," he said. "We wondered what we could do to make the experience the best it can be and meet the expectations of fans that want to be connected everywhere they go."
After evaluating several networking vendors, the Patriots selected and installed a stadium-wide wireless network from Enterasys Networks, a Salem, N.H.-based networking vendor, for its fans during the 2012 NFL season.
Deployment and management of an Enterasys wireless network
Deploying a Wi-Fi network for nearly 70,000 in-stadium fans is no easy task. Human bodies absorb radio frequencies, and radio waves don't have the opportunity to bounce off walls and ceilings like they do in an office environment, said Dan Dulac, vice president of solutions engineering for Enterasys Networks.
Enterasys deployed specific antenna schemes to optimize radio frequency beaming throughout Gillette Stadium to allow for tight control over how radio waves disburse in a wide open space and move around obstacles -- like the people in the stands. "We had to be very deliberate so there wouldn't be radio frequencies bleeding into different channels, which can create a poor user experience -- like the inability to upload and download," he said.
While some vendors cope with high-density Wi-Fi by adding more access points and antennas, more wireless equipment can lead to more interference in an already highly contended space, Dulac said. And because wireless data ultimately has to hit a wire, the wired network is as important as the wireless network.
Gillette uses wired switching technology powered by Enterasys'CoreFlow packet processor technology, which provides embedded application provisioning, and quality control and optimization that is integrated directly with the stadium's 360-access point wireless system.
"Because there could be 200 users connected to one access point, the efficiency in which we can translate that data over the air to the wire is extremely important," Dulac said.
Enterasys' wireless network management platform -- the OneFabric Control Center -- with its single dashboard, lets Gillette's content streaming team tune and optimize video streaming performance across the entire wired and wireless network, as well as allows easy access to network data and statistics collected during and after a game, the Patriots' Kirsch said. His staff can see what kinds of devices were connected to the network and what applications they were using.
The management platform monitors access points, client access, performance and location services, allowing issues to be quickly resolved from the same application, Enterasys' Dulac said.
"Gillette has the ability to see every fan connected to their network through a single pane of glass, and can validate the fan experience by ensuring quality of service of the apps that an iPhone on the network might be accessing, like HD video," he said.
Enterasys wireless network: Not just for fans
Gillette has also deployed a second, private Wi-Fi network strictly for food and beverage and retail operations that can only be accessed by vendors who authenticate themselves on the network. The separate network was created to ensure Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance and to uphold the integrity of customer and financial data.
Fixed concession stands have always processed credit card payments via wired Ethernet links, but now Gillette vendors can accept payments wirelessly, giving the Patriots more room for sales opportunities for mobile vendors.
"We don't have to worry about not being able to take credit cards at a certain station anymore, and we now have the flexibility of creating a point of sale anywhere in the stadium," the Patriots' Kirsch said.
Gillette stadium: Collecting Wi-Fi usage data for planning new apps
The Patriots are using data on how fans are using their high-density wireless LAN to shape their strategy for new applications and offerings.
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"The Patriots can see what applications and media [ticket holders] are using, and they are learning a lot about their fan base," Enterasys' Dulac said. The team "can put programs in place to monetize on this information."
The Enterasys wireless network at Gillette stadium enabled two new applications last season. Ticket holders can view ESPN's Red Zone channel and receive real-time stats during games from both the New England Patriots' everyday app, and the Gillette Stadium app.
In-stadium fans have access to a new Patriots Game Day Live app, slated to be rolled out next season. The new app will offer exclusive camera angles, replays and stats that fans can only enjoy at the game, on the Wi-Fi network, Kirsch said.
The Patriots are also looking to expand its existing apps to include food and beverage, retail and ticketing features, which could allow ticket holders to order food or merchandise from their seats and pick it up when it's ready, as well as offer opportunities for in-game seat upgrades.
"All these new opportunities are being investigated and we'll be making decisions about what we are going to put in place for the future. With the new Enterasys wireless network, we can do all of those things."