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When it comes to professional hockey, Montreal Canadiens fans are electrified. But up until recently, they certainly weren't wired -- at least not sufficiently. Today, those attending Canadiens games and other events at the Bell Centre in downtown Montreal have access to a multitude of services, thanks to a specially architected stadium Wi-Fi network designed by Avaya Inc.
It seems fitting that the new wireless LAN and underlying infrastructure comes to a building named after Bell. But while communications is reflected in the NHL's largest arena's name, modern networking at the 21,273-seat facility has lagged -- until now.
Early struggles limited capabilities
Since the completion of the stadium in 1996, the Molson family, who owns both the Canadiens and the Bell Centre, has struggled to adapt the building's old network to meet the different requirements of all the 175 events -- from hockey games and concerts to ice shows and circuses -- appearing at the venue. Stadium Wi-Fi proved challenging. An upgrade in 2006, through Nortel, brought a network based on the vendor's CS1000 server that enabled the beginnings of wireless capability and early Wi-Fi delivery for sales and concession stands.
But even as the Bell Centre continued to upgrade its network, the infrastructure couldn't keep up. Instead, mobile users had to connect to nearby cell towers. It was clear the Bell Centre needed an entirely new mobile and network foundation, and the facility began working with Avaya, which had acquired Nortel in 2009, to put the necessary pieces in place.
The result: A network based on 100 10 GbE 4000 series switches and 500 802.11n access points (APs) runs on an Avaya fabric backbone. The system includes features such as IP shortcuts -- to support direct Layer 3 connectivity to individual endpoints without relying on Open Shortest Path First -- as well as a virtual interswitch trunk, an Avaya technology that permits switches to exchange information more rapidly. All of it runs over an infrastructure made up of Avaya Virtual Services Platform 7000 series and Platform 9000 series switches to mimic carrier-grade performance. Avaya's Wireless LAN 9100 Series APs, meantime, support mobile application visibility and control.
Avaya comes online
"[It is] so easy, so flexible, I feel it is always working … nothing is complicated," said Pierre-Éric Belzile, vice president of information and communication technology for the Canadiens, speaking of the new system. Belzile, an electrical engineer and 15-year veteran of the Bell Centre, has spent much of his career as a hands-on troubleshooter. He adds that in contrast with the old system, with its frequent outages in different sections, the new system seems remarkably reliable.
Pierre-Éric Belzilevice president of information and communication technology, Montreal Canadiens
Among the new capabilities: When fans arrive in the building, they are automatically connected to the building Wi-Fi. The wireless network enabled ticketless entry, where guests arrive with only a credit card and a valid ID to gain access to the building. At a time when fans are able to connect across so many different platforms, Belzile said the new Wi-Fi infrastructure allows fans to share experiences through Twitter and Facebook, and to keep the experience going on the concourse. That engagement even extends to quizzes, replays and point scanning systems for members of the Canadiens' premium Club 1909 fan group.
Additionally, the Bell Centre installed 24 IP-multicast screens throughout the facility, allowing fans to view hockey action through a network of 3D cameras set up at the edge of the rink.
Canadiens' IT looks to the future
As the Canadiens weigh their next move in upgrading the Bell Centre's networking infrastructure, Belzile said "upload is more important than download." While only about 3,200 fans are connecting to the stadium Wi-Fi at peak times so far, Belzile projects those numbers to grow by 50%. To accommodate that growth in engagement, Belzile said the Bell Centre will upgrade its wireless network to 802.11ac -- a project that should be wrapped up by 2017.
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