The NFL knows a lot about deploying high-capacity WiFi networks

The NFL's lessons-learned from supplying Wi-Fi services to tens of thousands of fans during games can be applied to enterprises with large numbers of IoT devices.

levis stadium san francisco 49ers
Jim Bahn (CC BY 2.0)

Everyone watching Super Bowl 2020 witnessed the excitement that filled Hard Rock Stadium, as the Kansas City Chiefs became this year’s champions. (I was cheering hard for the 49ers but want to offer hearty congratulations to the new champs.) What wasn’t visible to the public—yet was omnipresent throughout the venue—was Wi-Fi connectivity that gave fans an enhanced experience during the game.

Whether it’s in a hospital, an office building, a university auditorium or a stadium, Wi-Fi scale matters. In hospitals, gameday is every day, and healthcare wireless networks play a vital role. Stadiums don’t always have gameday, but when they do, the WiFi has to work without a glitch.

Hard Rock Stadium has more than 65,000 seats, while the Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field is the NFL’s third busiest stadium with a capacity of around 69,000. Delivering seamless and reliable WiFi to so many people is a difficult undertaking, which the NFL tackled back in 2013 by deploying several in-stadium networking solutions that include:

  • High-density Wi-Fi connectivity
  • Centralized network management and control
  • Application-layer Wi-Fi analytics
  • Robust and intelligent switching infrastructure
  • Wi-Fi carrier offload
  • Policy-based network provisioning
  • Location-based services and promotions

Having offered a positive game-day experience to its fans for several years now, the NFL has shared important WiFi lessons that apply to other industries. The NFL hosted a webinar prior to the Super Bowl, in partnership with its stadium Wi-Fi provider Extreme Networks, recapping trends from the 2019-2020 football season. Here are the key takeaways.

Every Environment Has Unique Problems

Deploying Wi-Fi in an extremely dense environment is relatively new and challenging, so it’s not a perfect science. As a general rule, a high-quality Wi-Fi network needs to adapt automatically to users and applications. Stadium visitors stream video, upload content to social media and engage with venue-specific apps and services. This requires a network design that can handle high capacity and throughput.

To meet density requirements, the Seattle Seahawks plan to double the number of access points at CenturyLink Field from 750 to more than 1500 in time for next season. The access points will be placed under seats closer to stadium visitors to increase Wi-Fi coverage, explained Chip Suttles, the Seahawks vice president of technology.

Analytics is necessary

Analytics can help organizations measure network and application performance. The Seahawks realized it was time to upgrade its Wi-Fi network after analyzing data from past seasons.  

Analytics plays another big role in understanding user behavior. Having insight into which apps are running on the network and how they’re being used allows organizations to engage with the users. For example, if fans are using certain application more than expected, the NFL can change its guidelines and remove bandwidth caps to improve the user experience.  This prevents fans from shutting off WiFi and flipping over to the cellular network.  

(Unexpectedly, the NFL found Bitmoji was popular among fans, ranking number five behind Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, according to insights collected during the 2019-2020 season. Sports apps that used the most bandwidth were ESPN, NFL, Yinzcam, Yahoo Sports, and CBS Sports. Yinzcam, an augmented reality app that lets fans use their phone camera to transform real objects, like Bitmoji, was a surprise like).

The NFL found the data to be valuable as it showed how fans react to certain situations during the game. The NFL can use this data to better understand fan behavior and trends and change its digital marketing tactics. 

Mobile experience has evolved

Mobile information gathering is on the rise across all industries. At the NFL, the Wi-Fi adoption rate by fans has increased from 18 percent in 2013 to 45 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, the average bandwidth transferred has gone up from 1.9 terabytes (TB) in 2015 to 4.61 TB in 2019.

During the 2019-2020 season, the biggest change that took place was the introduction of the digital ticket. With mobile ticketing here to stay, the NFL had to increase connectivity at the gate and address the bottlenecks. The NFL also worked to improve point-of-sale systems, including deploying WiFi-enabled portables around stadiums.

Wi-Fi 6 will change the game

As data consumption continues to rise, the NFL plans to transition to Wi-Fi 6—the next-generation wireless standard—over the next two to three years. Suttles envisions data-transfer rates to double when the network is upgraded.

The biggest benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is not the fast speed but its ability to support many devices and applications on a single network. In a stadium this capability is required because thousands of fans want to stream, download and upload data without overwhelming the Wi-Fi network.

Industries where IoT deployments are growing rapidly—defense, transportation, logistics—have similar requirements for the tens of thousands of interconnected devices and sensors on their networks.

The people challenge

The takeaway from the NFL is this: If a stadium can successfully deploy high-quality Wi-Fi, so can any business, but technology is just part of the solution.

As the number of endpoints and types of devices grow on all networks, the introduction of new tech complicates the IT environment and creates a people challenge. Staff must be trained, knowledge transfer about the new tech must take place and outside experts may need to be hired.

It’s imperative to identify key IT stakeholders early on and ensure that project teams clearly understand their roles. Each business will have a different approach since each one has unique gameday challenges.

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