Posted November 20, 2014
Edward Baig - USA Today -
NEW YORK — Die-hard football fans pay close attention to the action.
But the National Football League recognizes folks sitting in NFL stadiums typically behave much like their counterparts watching on TV at home -- that is, they're simultaneously tweeting, posting on Facebook and Instagram, watching video, checking fantasy stats and browsing. At least that's what fans in NFL stadiums want to do.
The problem is the Wi-Fi at venues around the league sometimes falls short of the NFL's goal of enhancing the fan experience. I've noticed first hand at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, home to the New York Giants and New York Jets.
"It creates a frustrating experience when you can't upload a 4- or 5-megabyte selfie, which is by the way what the overwhelming amount of traffic is," says Chuck Berger, CEO of San Jose-based Extreme Networks.
To address the issue, the NFL named Extreme as the "first official Wi-Fi solutions provider of the National Football League." In choosing Extreme, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle says the league went out to the marketplace and asked the clubs for input.
As the official provider, Extreme gets exclusive responsibility for networking NFL offices, league events, and of course, any of the stadiums where it can strike a deal. But individual franchises and stadiums are free to choose their own networking providers, and Extreme as a company competes against rivals such as Cisco Systems and Aruba Networks.
Extreme has already deployed the Wi-Fi infrastructure in the home stadiums of the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans, and says it is close to adding other teams. Extreme also provides Wi-Fi analytics for about a dozen teams.
"If you're at one of our stadiums, our goal is to achieve the same Wi-Fi experience as you have sitting in your office or sitting at home. And we absolutely deliver that," Berger claims. Moreover, if fans do encounter issues, Extreme deploys "Wi-Fi coaches" in the stadium to help them out.
"Every club is a little bit different as far as where they are on this journey," says McKenna-Doyle. Most teams have an in-stadium mobile app that provides replays and statistics or gives people to the ability to order concessions. The NFL has issued its own league-wide mobile apps such as NFL Mobile and NFL Now.
But McKenna-Doyle says the apps got ahead of the stadium infrastructure in some cases. "That's what's the catch up (effort) has been," she says. "We've given all our clubs a goal of the 2015 season to be up to par with Wi-Fi in the bowl areas as well as upgrading their mobile carrier networks. Most are on track to do that."
Of course, it all comes down to big business. "The franchises in the NFL are doing this not only to allow you to upload selfies but to take advantage of the commercial opportunity to send you promotional information," Berger says. "Tom Brady just threw a touchdown pass. Twenty-five percent off his jersey at the logo wear store. Things like that."
The data captured during a game may also be worth gold. "We saw in an Eagles-Detroit game last year that a substantial number of people actually logged onto Amazon.com and bought something during the game. That's valuable information to Amazon."
Mammoth stadiums provide unique infrastructure challenges, starting with the fact they're largely constructed of steel and concrete, difficult for signals to penetrate. The people sitting in stadium seats are made up mostly fluids, which is also difficult for wireless signals. And the mobs of attendees tend to hit the network at the same time: during kickoff, halftime, after a great scoring play. That's only going to increase. Berger figures 25% to 30% of the people tap into Wi-Fi at a stadium now. He expects that to double over the next couple of years.
"No matter how good a network you build, whenever everybody tries to upload their video at the same time…you might have to wait for your turn in line. We just try to minimize that and spread the load throughout the game," says McKenna-Doyle.
She says the NFL negotiated preferential pricing from Extreme but she wouldn't reveal the actual costs, which vary according to the age of the stadium and whether extensive renovations are required or mere upgrades. But the cost is in the multimillion-dollar range per stadium.
The league is also looking to emerging technologies. In February at the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., the NFL and Verizon will test technology known as LTE Multicast for broadcasting live content to mobile devices. But the immediate issue is to move the chains by producing better Wi-Fi.