October 16th marked the triumphant return of New England Patriots QB Tom Brady to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Had they been aware, the sellout throng would have been cheering completion of a wide-sweeping upgrade to the facility's Wi-Fi network that gives them a 10-fold performance increase.
The Patriots pioneered Wi-Fi in NFL stadiums. In 2012 it launched the league's first stadium network with then-partner Enterasys Networks, which Extreme Networks bought for $180 million in 2013.The vendor boasts nearly double-digit wireless implementations across the National Football League.
The wireless upgrade combined with wired infrastructure has increased performance. This increase is attributable to the advances supported in the latest Wi-Fi spec combined with the installation methodology used for the sweeping upgrade. One without the other would not achieve optimal result.
The time was right for the upgrade. "Three things converged: fan usage of their phones at games was on the rise, the technology evolved (802.11 ac Wave 2), and the new phones on the market improved to the point that they could support the first two," explained Fred Kirsch, publisher & vice president of content at Kraft Sports Productions. "The expectation for phone connectivity is now that of having hot dogs and beer at the ready. It just has to be there."
Pioneering tech advancements is commonplace at Gillette. The Patriots were the first to launch a website, and long ago launched a general purpose Patriots app for fans, followed by a robust game day app with help from Yinzcam, for fans headed to the venue.
The latter made it among the very first NFL teams to enable fans to order concessions from their seats using mobile devices. A notable feature allows fans to make voice calls over the upgraded Wi-Fi network. They can take pictures of items that need repair with the team, not the fan, able to pin down the location of the items.
That's in addition to staples including texting, content access, sharing of photos and social media. Now, with the upgrade, sending videos and sharing photos to mobile services while moving around the stadium is much easier.
Faster replays are enabled. Mobile ticketing is a reality with yet expanded new features and functionality an ongoing process at 1 Patriot Place.
By contrast, Extreme and partner Carousel Industries recently completed the very first Wi-Fi implementation for New Era Stadium (formerly Ralph Wilson Stadium) which is the home of the Buffalo Bills, the site of many concerts and other events. A new team and venue app accompanied the network's launch. Still other teams don't yet have a stadium Wi-Fi network.
Catching the Wave
Last year, the 802.11 ac Wave 2 specification was ratified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Access Points that support the tech spec provide embedded, location-based analytics, higher performance and enhanced security. These latest APs better address the network demands driven by mobility, smart devices and the rapidly expanding wireless-enabled internet of things (IoT).
Wireless 802.11ac Wave 2 access points provide multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) technology and "may deliver an increase of up to 20 percent more packet processing power and up to a 50 percent increase in overall throughput than previous generations," according to Extreme. This, the company claims, allows the network to provide a consistent experience to more concurrent users and devices for high-density BYOD and IoT deployments.
By The Numbers
The Gillette Stadium Wi-Fi network upgrade required 300% more access points and delivered the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi technology (Wave 2). These new access points were almost entirely focused on the fans and media to increase mobile performance and improve the level of fan engagement.
"What goes into delivering over 1100 access points, 30 miles of new copper cabling and 10 Gigabit Internet services requires a level of focus, collaboration and cooperation that many don't see from the outside," explained John Burke, Director - Stadium Architect for Sports & Entertainment at Extreme. "That's the point. Fans simply want to engage. Fans don't want to have to think about the how. The service simply needs to connect them in a way that feels right."
Gillette Stadium's 1st generation Wi-Fi installation was a thoughtful approach that provided the most effective coverage while leveraging more traditional installation standards at the time, recalled Burke. Access points and antenna were mounted high to provide line -of-sight services.
"When it came time to deploy the 2nd generation Wi-Fi system, it not only needed to improve the level of available signal, it also needed to improve the system capacity," Burke said. The resulting design was one that delivered one access point per 90 seats in the bowl as opposed to one per 350-400 seats. This required more creativity and collaboration with facilities to achieve meaningful results.
Frequent Extreme partner Carousel Industries helped with the installation of the vendor's wireless and wired networking equipment. Drilling through concrete was required in the access point setup as were custom-made enclosures for the wireless network devices.
As you might expect by tech-savvy teams, the vendor-partner's analytics products played a core role in the upgrade project. Extreme is also the NFL's official Wi-Fi analytics provider for the last two Super Bowls (49 and 50). And while you can't compare use at a Super Bowl to a regular season game at a home field, you also can't plan forward for wireless without understand traffic and fan use.
The percent of fans at the Super Bowl that connected to Wi-Fi soared from 25% last year during Super Bowl 49 to 42% this past February at Super Bowl 50 - a telling indicator of the rise of fan use of wireless stadium networks. Social media retained the top spot as the reason for use.
This stats help drive the creation of apps, services and more for raising fans-in-the-stand engagement.
"Extreme Analytics (formerly named Purview Analytics) has helped us understand the stadium behavior, growth and demand," Burke said. "We've watched the user take rate steadily grow over the last few years and the demand on applications and bandwidth consumption even greater."
And since analytics provide teams greater info on their fans (including fan behavior), more can be done to pitch them new features, products, offers, promotions and capabilities that help monetize the fan.
The Project Progression
The project itself took place over the course of months. The level of cable and construction was not trivial but unglamorous. "The irony behind a good Wi-Fi solution is the need for a solid wired network foundation of Category 6 cable, intermediate distribution frames (IDF), Power over Ethernet switches, bonded core, and Network Management and Analytics to complete the package," noted Burke.
Some access points were placed under seats to minimize disruption during the project.
And whether it's anew installation or an upgrade, effective project management is a necessity with a multi-vendor project. This type of delivery necessitates sound project management, with a cabling and infrastructure partner, a service delivery partner, a network and radio frequency engineering team, along with game day coordination and communication continuity with the venue, Burke explained.
Testing, 1, 2, 3
When it comes to testing stadium Wi-Fi networks, the remote approach used by service provider to test their networks doesn't cut it. In fact, drones are being used to determine signal strength in some sports venues.
In the case of the Gillette upgrade, Extreme used a combination of industry-standard tools, including products made by Fluke, Ekahau and more. "Testing is done in person, in event, with individuals walking up and down seating space to capture readings at pre-determined test points. It is quite a challenge to complete in a 3 - 3 ½-hour game window and often takes few events," Burke said.
The days of using stadiums nearly only for NFL games - and perhaps other sports contests - are long gone. As with any valuable asset, owners want to get as much use as possible out of their expensive venues. Concerts were a natural fit data back decades, as are shows/expos, ice hockey specials and festivals. Both outdoor and indoor events filled the calendar.
So when thinking of football-first venues like Gillette Stadium, planners, builders and other parties typically measure traffic at events other than home NFL games to ensure that customer-facing Wi-Fi networks can handle the needs of all audiences.
The Bottom Line
Long gone are the days when fan engagement at Gillette consisted of occasional replays on the big screen and out-of-town game score updates. Keeping pace with the latest venue wireless technology has resulted in an extreme makeover with fans provided a multitude of messaging and video sharing options throughout matches. Team apps and broadening content access from mobile devices have changed the fan engagement game in Foxboro.
Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology redefine the way sports teams interact with their partners, players and fans. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.