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The National Football League hasn't made positive headlines recently. To add to its troubles, the private stadium Wi-Fi network used on the sidelines by football teams and their coaches during game day has been riding the bench.
Bill Belichick, head coach for the New England Patriots, recently complained about the spotty Wi-Fi connection on the sidelines, and he said that NFL coaches have voiced the same frustrations with the unreliable wireless experience. In a statement to SearchNetworking, Cisco admitted to being the wireless LAN infrastructure provider for the spotty sideline network.
"Cisco works on a variety of projects with the NFL, such as [the] Super Bowl. ... The new sideline Wi-Fi was an initial proof of concept in the pre-season where adjustments have been made by the NFL now that the season is underway. [Those adjustments have] resulted in significant improvements," Cisco said.
Cisco provides the equipment -- both the hardware and software -- for the network infrastructure on the sidelines at each NFL stadium. In conjunction with the new wireless LAN, the NFL also recently inked a $400 million sponsorship with Microsoft Corp. last year that provides coaches with Surface tablets to use on the sidelines for designing plays and in-game planning.
In the interest of fairness, in-house IT staff at each NFL stadium do not have visibility into this Cisco-based sideline Wi-Fi network. The network is managed by the NFL and tablet use falls under the league’s new pilot program -- the Sideline Viewing System (SVS) – which allows teams to use the Surface tablets for game planning, according to a Microsoft spokesperson. However, each team is free to operate its own stadium Wi-Fi network for fans. Several teams use infrastructure from Extreme Networks, which also supplies wireless network analytics to the league.
The NFL's decision to have two separate teams operate two Wi-Fi networks in the same venue may be partly to blame for poor performance.
"The hodgepodge approach seems like it could mean more headaches for the NFL than it's worth," said Andre Kindness, senior analyst for Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass. "If one IT team is managing the stadium, as well as the field, then you're going to have much better results." With two teams operating Wi-Fi, one team doesn't know what the other is doing, which could lead to crowded wireless spectrums and interference, he said.
Stadium Wi-Fi: Prioritize coaches and staff over fans
Supporting high-density stadium Wi-Fi is hard enough with one Wi-Fi network. Two Wi-Fi networks competing for the same wireless spectrum is naturally worse. "What we are seeing now is growing pains, and not a fundamental flaw in the Wi-Fi network," said Craig Mathias, principal at the advisory firm Farpoint Group, based in Ashland, Massachusetts. The NFL IT staff tasked with managing the sideline Wi-Fi is still in most likely in the process of fine-tuning for coverage, and probably doesn't have enough access points to handle the capacity needed on the sidelines, Mathias said.
But even though two separate Wi-Fi networks from potentially two different vendors are hard to get to play nice, they can be made to work at the same time, he said. "It's very difficult to get two different Wi-Fi systems operating in close proximity form two different vendors to cooperate -- it's a little more brute-force," Mathias said. The stadiums can swing a separate Wi-Fi for guests and the NFL teams by reserving a channel for the mission-critical traffic and applications used by the coaches.
"The mission-critical portion should be reserved for the coaches on the sidelines, and that traffic needs to be prioritized ahead of the consumer traffic," he said.
Microsoft did not comment on the connectivity of the Surface tablets for this story, but noted that the NFL manages the sideline network. The NFL declined to comment.
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