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Senior Contributor

Are you ready for your building’s ‘Super Bowl’ of wireless demand?

Feb 19, 20186 mins
BroadbandCellular NetworksMobile

Huge wireless traffic demands caused by big sporting events have led stadiums to innovate with new methods of network deployment and operation. Big buildings of all kinds can learn from stadiums how to prepare for wireless demands from their own "big crowd" incidents or events.

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Beyond the record-setting day of total offense generated in the Philadelphia Eagles’ thrilling 41-33 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52, there was also a record 16.31 terabytes of Wi-Fi data used during the game, the most ever reported for a single-day, single-building event.

While you probably won’t have to worry about having almost 70,000 people show up at your building for the day, there are plenty of lessons for any big-building owner or operator to learn from how U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis prepared for its “super” wireless stress test, and how you might better prepare for your own big-demand wireless days, whenever they might arrive.

What’s most interesting from a traffic-predicting standpoint is the steady climb of wireless data usage over the past few years at the NFL’s yearly championship game, both via cellular connections as well as by Wi-Fi. In what now sounds like ancient history, fans used a total of “only” 3.2 TB of Wi-Fi data at Super Bowl 48 at MetLife Stadium back in February of 2014. Since then, successive Super Bowls have seen Wi-Fi data use climb to 6.23 TB at Super Bowl 49, 10.1 TB at Super Bowl 50, and 11.8 TB at Super Bowl 51 before this year’s 16.31 TB mark was recorded.

Use of cellular networks in and around the stadiums used for Super Bowls has grown yearly as well, and while it’s not a strictly apples to apples comparison due to the different ways different carriers report figures, this year AT&T, Verizon and Sprint saw 50.2 TB of traffic in and around the stadium on game day, compared to 25.8 TB seen the year before. Maybe you can blame Justin Timberlake for running into the stands for a selfie for some of this year’s record totals, but it’s our guess that what the numbers really mean is that there’s still no top to the growth in wireless data demand, both at big sporting events as well as at any place where there’s lots of people in the same area at the same time.

Getting the network closer to the users

So how does that matter to your large building? While you probably don’t have to worry about hordes of face-painted tweeters showing up in your lobby on a Sunday, it’s also true that any large commercial building is likely to have its own types of packed-house days, incidents where whatever networks you have installed will be severely tested. Some businesses, like shopping malls, convention centers and other “event” establishments may regularly see standing-room-only crowds and have some experience preparing for them. But even office towers, hotels or outdoor public places may have their own “Super Bowl” type events from time to time, planned or not. Protests, marches, flash mobs and other ad hoc gatherings – or emergency situations like fires, floods or earthquakes – can easily bring crowds with wireless demands that overwhelm “normal” traffic patterns and render traditional network deployments useless.

Big stadiums, like those used for Super Bowls, have had several years of experience now to form some best practices, which include over-provisioning for data totals that may not have ever been imagined, and building in support for even more future capacity to keep pace with the growth in demand. At U.S. Bank Stadium, network designers used more than 1,300 Wi-Fi APs throughout the venue, covering not just the seating bowl but concourses, bars and clubs, and even gathering areas outside the stadium doors.

The deployment of Wi-Fi APs in handrail-mounted enclosures in the seating bowl reflects a new school of thought in dense Wi-Fi design, where designers purposely use the interference caused by human bodies to allow them to place APs closer together. Under-seat AP placement, used at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, among others, achieves the same goal. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to traditional AP placement techniques, but it has proven effective in allowing more users to have optimal network connections.

While you may not have an NFL-sized budget or places where people sit closely together, thinking differently about where and how you place antennas should be part of any big building’s deployment strategy these days, for both cellular and Wi-Fi. At Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif., some cellular antennas in the gathering areas outside the arena are hidden in fake rocks that are part of the landscaping, a great way of getting the network closer to users without sticking wires in their face. To help improve outdoor urban coverage, a cellular equipment company has developed an antenna that sits inside the lid of a street side trash can; with more antennas needed for the coming 5G networks, finding new spots to put them may be the next big deployment challenge.

More fiber for future bandwidth needs

More fiber network infrastructure in the backbone is a good way to keep from having to install more conduit in the future, and every new stadium that is built seems to set a new record for miles of fiber cabling used. Unlike most other structures, stadiums are extremely expensive to retrofit for networks, mainly because they are built with a lot of poured concrete and steel; there’s little drywall or false ceilings to hide things behind out in the seating bowls. One trend for new stadium builds or even retrofits is to plan for additional cable space or to install dark fiber drops at the outset, for devices not yet needed or not yet invented. When future demand arrives — and the Super Bowl stats seem to say that will be sooner rather than later — you’re going to be a lot happier just plugging something in instead of having to drill to run new conduit pipes.

It’s an old saying that any wireless network is obsolete the moment it’s been finished, mainly because the pace of change pushed by new devices and apps always races past the ability of networks to keep up. But if you accept and embrace the fact that data use is going to keep climbing for the foreseeable future, that can help you better plan for how to support crowds of device users when they all show up needing and wanting to connect at the same time.

Senior Contributor

Paul Kapustka has been reporting on networking for a long list of publications since the late 1980s, with a focus on wireless systems since the early 2000s. Publications Paul's worked for include Unix Today!, Open Systems Today, CommunicationsWeek, InformationWeek, Red Herring, Light Reading and GigaOM.

Prior to starting Mobile Sports Report, Paul did research and analysis on 4G cellular deployments at his research firm, Sidecut Reports.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Paul Kapustka and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.