Feb 13 2013

Sports Stadiums and Wi-Fi Connectivity: Will It Ever Get Better?

Reliable, speedy, in-stadium wireless connectivity is what most sports fans dream of.

The roar of the crowd rips through the stadium as the last shot clinches victory for the hometown team. You let out a triumphant hoot, embrace the people around you in the stands and relish the joyful delirium as it sets in.

Right then and there, in that moment of bliss, you decide you want to share this moment with the world, so you whip out your smartphone to post a status update to Facebook. But when you open up the Facebook app, you’re hit with the non-connectivity message of doom: “No Internet Connection.”

If you’ve ever gone to a professional sporting event — an NBA, NHL, NFL or MLS game for starters — you’ve probably run into this frustrating scenario a time or two. And you’re not alone.

Connectivity inside stadiums was a hot topic among sports executives and technologists at the On Deck Sports & Technology Conference in New York City.

“Right now we're not meeting the fans’ expectations,” said Matt Higgins, CEO of RSE Ventures, a sports and entertainment venture capital firm, during a session. "In most venues, you can't even send a text message. Fans expect to be able to interact with content in venue as they do at home.”

But why haven’t we figured out wireless connectivity yet? After all, Wi-Fi was born in the late 1990s, and we're now on the fourth iteration of the mobile broadband standard so what’s the hold up? It turns out that the answers to this technology mystery aren’t so easy to unravel.

What’s to Blame: Inadequate Funds or Technology?

When it comes to pointing fingers at what, exactly, is gumming up the Wi-Fi in stadiums, people cast blame on either the lack of money invested in connectivity or the inadequacy of wireless technology itself.

Higgins believes that teams investing in wireless technology by themselves isn’t going to cut it. The leagues need to band together to make more substantial investments, he argues.

“[The leagues] should bring everyone together and make the investment,” Higgins said. “A team can't come up with the ROI on that investment. In the venues that are aggressive, like we are in Miami, we have 1,200 Wi-Fi access points. But it's expensive.”

Scott O’Neil, former president of Madison Square Garden Sports, is of the mind that throwing money at the problem won’t solve it. In his experience, wireless technology can’t handle the demands of a connected sea of fans in a stadium.

“The technology just isn’t there yet,” O’Neil said during a session. Upgrades to infrastructure technology alone didn’t deliver on the same wireless experience that most people get at home when he worked for MSG Sports.

Does this mean technology has left us out to dry? Not quite.

In another panel session at the conference, Gene Arantowicz, senior director of business development in Cisco's Sports and Entertainment Group, said the technology necessary to deliver Wi-Fi in stadiums “has arrived.”

“It's [called] a high-density wireless network,” he said. Wireless technology in stadiums is something that Cisco Systems in particular has been aggressive on innovating. They’ve dubbed these wireless-ready stadiums “Cisco Connected Stadiums.” And if you’ve ever been inside one, you’ll be impressed.


Arantowicz does acknowledge, however, that the Cisco experience is not yet ubiquitous in most stadiums.

“Not everybody has it,” he said. It’s been rolled out by Cisco only "in over 100 deployments in 20 some countries.”

Arantowicz cited the company’s recently announced partnership with the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which will allow fans to stream live video in the stadium, as an example of the innovative stadiums that are within reach.

Bob Jordan, senior vice president of the Van Wagner Sports Group, applauds the advances that technology has made, but he also points out that Wi-Fi wasn’t necessarily built for the stadium use case.

“High-density Wi-Fi is good, but [Wi-Fi] really wasn't designed to do that,” he said.

Using baseball stadiums as an example, Jordan highlighted the infrastructural challenges MLB teams face since the distance from the dugout to the outfield exceeds the range of even the most advanced access points.

“At the end of the day, we have a convergence of the way the buildings are built and [we’re] wrestling with how do we get [wireless] in these venues,” he said.

The Wi-Fi challenges don’t mean anyone in sports is going to give up trying to improve connectivity anytime soon though. It just means the sports industry has its work cut out for it.

For any team operating in today’s market, “technology is a requirement,” Jordan said definitively. And there’s no getting around it.


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