Stanford Stadium got wired for wireless in 2011. Penn State's Beaver Stadium did so last year. Auburn (2011) and Alabama (2012) were already bringing Wi-Fi to the football game day masses when Southeastern Conference officials estimated this spring that it would cost member schools $2 million each to improve stadium cell phone and Wi-Fi connectivity.
"Our next generation of fans is used to staying connected. They should be able to communicate in real time with somebody on the other side of the stadium," said University of Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart in the run-up to the SEC annual spring meetings in May. "It's quite an investment but we have to make it."
It can also be quite a logistical challenge, according to Bill Schlough, CIO of the San Francisco Giants, the earliest adopters of the stadium Wi-Fi concept. Whereas fewer than 100 Giants fans were online on a typical game day in 2004, plugging cards into their laptops to connect, today roughly 12,000 mobile-device-toting fans (or about a third of the average AT&T Park crowd) are connected at any given moment during a game. In between, there have been numerous "rip and replace" upgrades to stadium infrastructure as the technology improves. Ten years ago, 139 Wi-Fi antennas dotted the park. Between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the number of antennas - inconspicuously located under upper decks and underneath seats - more than doubled to 821.
But Schlough contends that the Giants' journey has been comparatively easy. "It's really challenging to do it in a football stadium. A college football stadium? I can't imagine a bigger challenge on earth," he says, citing the sheer size of such facilities and the short seasons they host. "This technology is not plug and play. It's not like turning on a TV. This is something that needs to be tuned and adjusted and monitored and updated every year, and baseball lends itself so well to that, because we have so many games. With football, it's a huge challenge to do that for such a short season and to make that kind of investment. But it's a quandary, because if you don't, then that means your fans at the stadium can't stay connected. And if they can't stay connected, will they come to the games? I would say no. More and more, I say no."
"Installing a Wi-Fi network in any stadium is a very complicated engineering problem - far more complicated than people initially believe it to be, including us and our technology partners," says Kevin Blue, Stanford's associate athletic director of business strategy. (Like the Giants, the Cardinal partners with AT&T.) "Having a limited number of opportunities to refine network performance does make it difficult."
The Giants, who boast the longest home sellout streak in Major League Baseball, draw from a tech-savvy fan base that has gotten ever more comfortable with staying connected at the park. On June 17, a social media gathering place - @Cafe - opened behind AT&T Park's centerfield scoreboard. There, fans can keep up with Giants-related buzz as it appears on Twitter and Facebook, as well as view posted Instagram photos - all on high-definition screens. "Fans are transferring 74 percent more data per device this year versus last year," Schlough says. "That could be anything from a text message to browsing the web to accessing or sharing a photo or a video. So you're seeing more and more multimedia use, because fans can do it and they enjoy it. Instagram is becoming very popular. People want to take pictures and share those pictures."
More sports entities are sharing the big picture when it comes to stadium Wi-Fi. Next year, the San Francisco 49ers' Levis Stadium will open in Santa Clara, Calif., with the ability to simultaneously accommodate the full Wi-Fi needs of capacity crowds, regardless of what those 68,500 fans are doing online - a concept once considered unimaginable. "The goal is to provide you with enough bandwidth that you would saturate your device before you saturate the network," Dan Williams, the team's senior director of technology, told Ars Technica in March. "That's what we expect to do."
Expectations are particularly high in the Silicon Valley, admits Blue, adding, "We don't want Stanford Stadium to be the one place in the Silicon Valley that doesn't meet this expectation."
So far, Stanford Stadium - with its 305 antennas installed on signs, light poles and overhangs - has been able to accommodate 30 percent of fans with a Wi-Fi experience that varies depending not only on what each fan is trying to do on the network, but on potential interference from frequencies serving coaches' communications equipment, police scanners and walkie-talkies. "It is possible to provide the connectivity that fans expect, but the stadium environment presents challenges that make it difficult to replicate the connectivity experience people receive in their office or home," Blue says. "We strive to meet their expectations, even though this is a very difficult engineering problem to solve, limited to high-mass situations. Very few have actually solved it. There isn't an easy-to-follow blueprint or a wealth of experienced engineers who have installed a significant number of Wi-Fi systems in football stadiums."
That, no doubt, will change in the coming months and years, as stadium operators scramble to remove from fans' lists one more reason to watch games from home. "We've been working on this for three football seasons and are still learning a significant amount," Blue says. "The user experience is not perfect yet, but our fans appreciate the fact that we're trying to innovate and solve this problem."
Connecting with Bill Schlough
Few individuals have as much hands-on experience with stadium Wi-Fi as Bill Schlough, CIO of the San Francisco Giants. Paul Steinbach asked Schlough to retrace the team's technological evolution over the past 10 years.
Q: Is demand for wireless connectivity on the rise at AT&T Park?
A: The last time I checked, on a per-device basis, fans are transferring 74 percent more data per device this year versus last year. That could be anything from a text message to browsing the web to accessing or sharing a photo to accessing or sharing a video. So you're seeing more and more multimedia use, because fans can do it and they enjoy it. Thirty-two percent of our fans in the ballpark use the Wi-Fi network on a typical night.
Q: How has your Wi-Fi infrastructure changed since 2004?
A: We had 139 antennas in 2004 to service fewer than 100 fans, so it was more than one antenna per fan to enable access to this network. Fast forward to today, that's changed tremendously. Now we're up to 821 antennas to deliver this content. We were at 320 or so last year, so we've added approximately 500 since last season. Sometimes we expand, but technology advances, so we'll rip and replace also.
Q: How can a facility make Wi-Fi antennas as inconspicuous as possible?
A: In a perfect world, all of the antennas are located overhead - sometimes even above ceiling tiles, so you wouldn't see them - or they're discretely mounted in places where people aren't looking. On the upper deck, they're at the back of the overhang, and they're painted green, so you have to really be looking for them. Nowadays, some of them are under seats, and so you will see those only if you're looking for them. They're hanging from light poles. It's somewhat like cellular antennas in the woods disguised as trees these days. They have to match the color of the trees so that people don't notice that it's actually a metal tree that has cellular antennas all over it. The strategy in stadiums is the same. You may have 500 to 1,000 of these things, but you want them to blend into the background so nobody notices.
Q: Is antenna placement any different in an indoor arena?
A: An indoor arena is easier, because you're in an enclosed facility and you can mount your antennas on the roof or on the ceiling, and it's generally pretty symmetrical. So I would say arena is the easiest, baseball stadium is midrange and football stadium is the toughest.
Q: Why is a football stadium the toughest?
A: Because it's much bigger, and you only have eight games - fewer than that for college football. What do they have, six home games? Since we launched our Wi-Fi network, we're approaching 1,000 games with our Wi-Fi network. How many years of college football seasons is that? It's like 150 years. This technology is not plug and play. It's not like turning on a TV. This is something that needs to be tuned and adjusted and monitored and updated every year, and baseball lends itself so well to that, because we have so many games. We can test it out, we can tweak it, we can make changes, we can see how it works. With football, it's a huge challenge to do that for such a short season and to make that kind of investment. But it's a quandary, because if you don't, then that means your fans at the stadium can't stay connected. And if they can't stay connected, will they come to the games? I would say no. More and more, I say no.
Q: Have tech-savvy San Franciscans taken connectivity at AT&T Park for granted, or do they truly appreciate the perk?
A: They don't take it for granted, because it's not an experience they have at other sports facilities. So, I think the experience at AT&T Park is unique, and I think the fans are showing us how much they appreciate it by the fact we've had a triple-digit string of sellouts and they keep coming to our games. I think that the wireless experience is part of that. I'm not saying it's exclusively why. Of course, we've also won a couple World Series in the past three years, but fans here in this area are very demanding, and they expect to stay connected when they're at the venue, and if they aren't, they're disappointed. It's changed over the years from wanting to be able to make a phone call at a ballpark and being frustrated if you couldn't, to wanting to be able to send a text and being frustrated, and now it's far different from that - at least at our facility. It's wanting to be able to access scores, statistics, replays, stream video. The Master's is always a big weekend for us with streaming video, because people want to watch the golf. So it has changed over the years in terms of what fans' expectations are.