NFL's 'radio cops' organize wireless use for Super Bowl XLII

Super Bowl game plan includes dealing with some 10,000 wireless devices in Glendale

The NFL's 'radio cops' are suiting up to coordinate 10,000 wireless devices expected at the Super Bowl.

They do not like to be called “radio cops.” They insist on “frequency coordinators.” But on rare occasions at National Football League games, the NFL’s Game Day Frequency Coordinators have to get a bit insistent.

And 45 of them will be suiting up for Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., to organize the use of some 10,000 wireless devices. (Read a related story on the stadium’s state-of-the-art wireless system.) 

The NFL launched its frequency coordination effort in 1996 at Super Bowl XXX in Phoenix. The initial goal was simple: organize the use of limited radio frequencies at the Super Bowl. Three years later, the program expanded to all NFL games, so that the ever-growing crowd of wireless users, from quarterbacks to cleaners, can use an ever-growing number of wireless devices without interfering with each other.

Sometimes things get testy.

Wireless users, such as TV crews, are required to coordinate with the NFL before the game, to get a frequency assignment. At the NFC Championship game Jan. 20, between the Green Bay Packers and the winning New York Giants, the GDCs monitoring the frequencies found an uncoordinated TV news crew, called a “CoordNot.” To link a wireless microphone to the camera, the crew was using a channel assigned to another wireless user. This crew was a “repeat offender,” says Jay Gerber, manager and founder of the NFL Frequency Organization Group. He wouldn’t identify their employer.

Photo of University of Phoenix stadium

Using the NFL’s standard-issue, radio direction-finding gear, the GDCs onsite at Lambeau Field tracked down the TV crew, a camera operator and sound man, and spoke to them. In the vast majority of cases, such unauthorized users are apologetic and work with the coordinators to find and use an open frequency.

Not this time.

Because this was a repeat offense, the crew was not given the customary option of continuing to work by using a cable connection for the microphone. First-time offenders have their wireless gear confiscated and returned at the end of the game, and can keep working using a wired connection. After consulting with League officials and NFL security at the stadium, the GDC told the TV crew to pack up. They turned in their credentials and left the stadium.

“You can’t be ignorant like that about wireless use today,” says Gerber, with just a trace of impatience in his voice.

Today, there are 32 primary frequency coordinators and about twice that number of assistants who organize frequency use for all NFL games and events like the NFL draft. An important part of the coordination effort are volunteers, amateur radio operators and members of the Society of the Broadcast Engineers. One volunteer gives an account, with photos, of helping out at Super Bowl XXXIX.

A well-rehearsed team

The official GDC has a place reserved in the press box, and presides over what is now a well-rehearsed team, whose work begins days before. They organize radio use for wireless intercoms, team communications, the referees, reporters and broadcasters, Wi-Fi systems, in fact for almost everything except cell phones.

Inside look at University of Phoenix stadium

At this year’s Super Bowl, Gerber, a former top executive with NFL Films, will be at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale with Chief Coordinator Karl Voss, who works for KPNX-12 TV in Mesa. As a long-time member of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, Voss worked closely with Gerber from the start of the frequency coordination effort.

“What we recognized since 1996 is the fact that wireless communications is growing by leaps and bounds,” Gerber says. “At each of these events, there was so much RF going on that someone had to organize what everyone uses. We became the organizers.”

Signs are now posted in NFL stadiums: “Do you use RF devices? WARNING” The warning is that operating radio transmitters on the property “is a privilege not a right” and interference to authorized users could result in equipment confiscation and eviction.

But that rarely happens, because it’s in everyone’s interest to get a channel assignment and not have to worry about someone else using it. The coordinators work on a ThinkPad notebook PC with a sophisticated database program, which Voss co-wrote, that tracks all the available frequencies at a given location, which ones have been assigned to whom, the TV station frequency assignments in the area, the static frequencies already in use by stadium services such as housekeeping and security. For the Super Bowl, the program moves to a server for more horsepower, real-time updates for a half-dozen ThinkPad users and redundancy.

“At a regular season game, we coordinate 400-500 frequencies,” Voss says. “But at the Super Bowl, that goes up to 2,000 frequencies, and over 10,000 RF devices.”

Growing wireless use

And more and more stuff is becoming wireless. One stadium introduced a wireless ticketing system, which it had rigorously tested. But on game day, the system crashed. The next day it worked fine, and kept working fine through repeated tests until the next game day, when it crashed again. They called Voss for help. He asked them where the TV broadcast trucks parked on game day. It turns out they parked just outside the main gate. When they lit up their power microwave transmitters, on the same band as the wireless ticketing system, they “wiped the ticket scanners off the face of the earth,” Voss says.

People requesting wireless frequencies are asked to give details about what equipment they’re using, what frequencies it can be tuned to. Increasingly, radios used in everything from wireless intercoms, microphones and professional ENG video cameras can be tuned to a given channel within a band. Sometimes, equipment can only run on one specific frequency. If that one has been already assigned, the GDC plays what Voss calls “the shell game” and tries to move the original assignee to a different frequency.

Wireless users at the Super Bowl, many of them reporters and radio and TV broadcasters, will check in through a separate entrance, their names checked against the credentials list, and their frequency assignments confirmed. Authorized wireless equipment is tagged, usually with a brightly colored scarf or tape. Gerber says the NFL in 2007 “came down hard” on what it calls “uncoordinated users,” who show up without a previously arranged frequency assignment.

Also this year, the league made a “significant investment,” Gerber says, in spectrum analyzers from Anritsu for the GDCs. The standard equipment package includes these analyzers and the ThinkPads, pocket frequency scanners, two-way radios, direction finders and the like.

Users on unlicensed bands

Wireless systems running in the unlicensed bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz, are a growing issue. Because the bands are unlicensed, stadiums and their tenants can easily deploy Wi-Fi systems for example. But they often don’t realize that users on licensed bands have precedence. “They are the low man on the totem pole,” says Voss.

In the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, the stadium food service deployed a 2.4GHz wireless system for ordering food. “We told them we couldn’t protect them and they should have a manual back-up system,” Gerber says. Sure enough, on game day, the blimp overhead started transmitting video on that band, overloaded it, and wiped out the unlicensed system.

Once Super Bowl XLII starts, the GDCs will be monitoring the frequencies, and fielding complaint and trouble reports. “People don’t understand RF,” says Gerber. “If their gear stops working, they assume they’re being interfered with. But usually, it’s just the batteries are run down, or an antenna has been disconnected.”

Wireless has become much more essential to the game itself. Radios enable communications between coaches, between coach and quarterback, and between referees and the replay booth. Gerber says he now gets calls from team equipment managers who stress how important it is for the GDC to arrive early to make sure these wireless systems are working properly.

The potential problems were vividly illustrated on Jan. 7, 2006, during the AFC wild-card playoff between the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Foxboro, Mass. During the first half, radio chatter from Patriots security staff was interfering with the Jaguars’ primary coach-to-quarterback wireless system (a brief reference is found in a later USA Today column). The Jaguars switched to their backup system, and the GDC investigated during half-time.

The investigation found that the Patriots security department had installed a new frequency on their two-way radios but forgot to tell the NFL frequency coordinators. The new frequency was the same one used by the Jaguars for their primary coach-quarterback system, which was disrupted when Patriots security switched to the new frequency. (Read about the Patriots’ CIO.)

The NFL concluded it was accidental, not deliberate interference, though some fans still think otherwise. “What we have found almost in every instance is that there was an equipment malfunction, operational error by the coach in some cases, broken antenna cables or antennas themselves, radio batteries not charged and so on,” he says. On rare occasions, RF interference crops up. “But most often it’s from some unrelated operation that happened to be on the same frequency, and the GDC gets that shut down very quickly,” Gerber says.

Super Bowl and national security

On one occasion, at the 2001 Super Bowl, in Tampa, the NFL frequency coordinators came close to getting shut down themselves. As part of the opening ceremonies on game day, an Air Force B-2 stealth bomber was to fly over the stadium (see a video clip of a similar flyover in 2006 at the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead stadium) and beam down live video of the stadium as it did so, to be picked up and broadcast by the TV network. Earlier in the day, and completely unrelated to this, one TV camera crew had requested a specific frequency from Voss, who was the chief coordinator onsite. But for various reasons, he had to deny that request.

The camera crew contacted their equipment vendor, who instead of reprogramming the radio to use an open frequency, somehow “shifted” the radio slightly . . . into the frequency reserved for the bomber’s video stream. The jet flew whisper quiet over the stadium, but unable to transmit any video. Within minutes, Gerber recalls, the GDC trailer was filled with FBI agents, military intelligence staff, and the FCC demanding to know what happened.

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