The Cleveland Browns need lightning-fast Wi-Fi to deliver a modern fan experience, says Vice President of IT Brandon Covert.

Sep 08 2022

How to Deliver Perfect Wi-Fi to the Masses

Sports facilities and other public venues beef up their wireless networks for big audiences.

The NFL’s Cleveland Browns want to eliminate one of the biggest buzzkills of attending a game in person: long lines. To speed entry into the stadium, the team is leveraging a combination of technologies with a faster wireless network at the heart of it.

In 2021, the team upgraded its wireless with Cisco’s latest Wi-Fi 6 access points, including additional APs at FirstEnergy Stadium’s entrance gates to support a new face authentication ticketing system that enables fans to breeze right through. Instead of pulling out smartphones to have their mobile tickets scanned, they can have their faces scanned with tablets.

“We needed to make sure our wireless infrastructure at our gates was as robust as possible to support the required tablets,” says Browns Vice President of IT Brandon Covert.

Fans can still use mobile tickets, but after piloting face authentication technology in 2020, the Browns will make that their primary ticketing method this year. The team’s goal is to have 25 percent of fans adopt this ticketing format, which will reduce the pregame logjam at the entry gates.

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“If you come 15 minutes before kickoff, it historically takes 20 to 25 minutes to come in. With mobile tickets, we got that down to about six to eight minutes, which is very good,” he says. “But with face authentication, it reduces it to less than a minute. Nobody enrolled in facial ticketing waits at all to get in.”

Organizations are increasingly upgrading their wireless networks to Wi-Fi 6 at stadiums, arenas, convention centers and other venues that draw large crowds in order to bolster performance and meet the bandwidth needs of attendees, vendors and employees.

Wi-Fi 6 offers faster speeds, less interference and quadrupled capacity, allowing more people to connect in dense or congested areas, making it a great fit for a sports venue or convention center.

“It’s a more efficient use of the spectrum and introduces a mechanism that allows multiple users to be on the same channels at the same time,” says Siân Morgan, a wireless LAN research director at Dell’Oro Group. “That means you get higher density and better performance.”

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How to Address Coverage Needs and Deliver Better Wi-Fi

In 2015, the Browns blanketed their stadium with 802.11ac access points, but that supported only half its capacity of 68,000 seats. In recent years, however, as many as 40,000 fans would routinely connect to Wi-Fi during games, so the team needed to upgrade.

In 2021, Covert embarked on a new Wi-Fi project with several goals: upgrade to Wi-Fi 6; improve the wireless at the front gates to support entry through face authentication; add additional APs in areas with spotty Wi-Fi, such as the concourse; and move APs from overhead locations and handrails to underneath the seats.

In doing so, the Browns increased the number of APs from about 1,000 to about 1,500, largely because under-seat deployment doesn’t offer as much range as overhead deployment, so more APs are needed.

Covert and his team wanted to place the APs underneath seats in the lower, middle and upper bowls of the stadium because of aesthetics, easier access for maintenance and better control of wireless signals.

“When you have 68,000 people in a bowl, an access point under the seat will only go 15 yards instead of 35 yards. It creates a more defined signal pattern that we can control,” Covert says.

The organization standardized on Cisco Catalyst 9120 AX Wi-Fi 6 APs, which are managed by two Cisco Catalyst 9800 series wireless controllers. The team also purchased 13 Cisco Catalyst switches to support the additional APs and augment existing switches installed during the first wireless deployment. CDW supplied the equipment, assisted with the design and implementation, and provided onsite support for several games to make sure the new system ran smoothly.

Fans are elated over the new Wi-Fi network and are enjoying the incredibly fast speeds, Covert says. Most Wi-Fi users at the stadium are using it for content creation, posting videos and photos on social media. The Wi-Fi also takes the load off cellular networks, which improves phone service inside the stadium, he says.

Team employees are using Wi-Fi to communicate on their mobile devices. The new wireless network also allows the team to improve mobile ordering of food and beverages.

“Wi-Fi allows us to provide higher-level functions like face authentication ticketing and mobile ordering,” Covert says. “All those things we do for our fans rely on solid wireless connectivity.”

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How Wi-Fi Can Enable Greater Mobility

In Texas, when Major League Soccer team Austin FC opened its new 20,000-seat Q2 Stadium, it also relied on Wi-Fi 6 to improve the fan experience, from mobile ticketing and mobile concessions ordering to contactless payment.

“We are a mobile-based organization from entry to exit, so we’ve got to have solid Wi-Fi,” says Ryan Fannin, Austin FC’s vice president of IT.

The team’s communications network includes 600 Cisco APs, 80 10-gigabit Cisco switches and a distributed antenna system for cellular connections. Austin FC placed APs under the seats in the bowl of the stadium and overhead in concourse areas and elsewhere.

Prior to the expansion franchise’s inaugural season in 2021, Fannin walked through the stadium to ensure fans got good wireless signals. He performed speed and connection tests and made sure fans could roam the facility without losing the signal.

Some fine-tuning of signals and additional access points was necessary.

Ryan Fannin
We are a mobile-based organization from entry to exit, so we’ve got to have solid Wi-Fi.”

Ryan Fannin Vice President of IT, Auston FC

“It’s tuning, adjusting the signal and power levels,” Fannin says. “It’s possible to have too much Wi-Fi in an area, which confuses the user’s device and it doesn’t know which AP to connect to. It’s about finding the right balance.”

Fannin and the service provider continually work to improve the network. In the meantime, the wireless network is meeting the needs of both fans and employees, he says.

Stadium employees connect their smartphones to Wi-Fi so they can communicate using the Microsoft Teams app. To reduce lines, fans can order food on the team’s mobile app, then pick up their orders at specific concession stands. The stadium also has cashierless stores where fans can buy beverages and snacks with contactless payment. The average transaction time is 18 seconds.

“Concession lines across the industry can be lengthy. We want to mitigate that and help fans get back to their seats as quickly as possible, so they don’t miss any action,” Fannin says.

How the Right Wi-fi Tech Can Ease Management

In the Midwest, the Wisconsin Center District hosts conventions, meetings, sporting events such as the Milwaukee Admirals minor league hockey team, concerts, comedy shows and other events at three facilities in downtown Milwaukee — and it must provide fast Wi-Fi for its attendees.

The WCD’s IT department has standardized on Extreme Networks’ cloud-managed Wi-Fi APs and upgrades the APs at each facility when they reach the end of life.

The Wisconsin Center, a convention center in downtown Milwaukee featuring 189,000 square feet of space, runs Wi-Fi 6 APs in its exhibit areas while continuing to use older 802.11ac APs in meeting rooms, says Steve Totzke, the WCD’s vice president of IT.

“It’s just been recently that we started seeing more Wi-Fi 6 devices connect to our wireless network,” he says, so the older devices in the meeting rooms are fine for now.

READ MORE: Learn how Wi-Fi 6 equipment can boost your business operations overnight.

In the coming months, the WCD plans to upgrade its 4,000-seat Miller High Life Theatre with new Wi-Fi 6E APs, says IT Operations Manager Sean Colburn. The IT staff uses ExtremeCloud IQ software to centrally manage the mix of new and old APs. With the software, Colburn can easily push firmware updates to each AP automatically. He can also create unique, secure Wi-Fi networks for different events at the convention center and for internal employees, including front-of-house staff, cleaning staff and the security team.

The software provides real-time visibility into the network, allowing Colburn to troubleshoot issues and ensure Wi-Fi users have good connectivity.

“I can go all the way down to the application layer to determine if end users’ applications are performing properly through their connections,” he says. “We can troubleshoot and massage the network live without impacting service.”

Photography by Roger Mastroianni

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