Super Bowl 2015: Putting Stadium WiFi to the Test

28th Jan 2015

If you’re a fan of the NFL like me, you’ll know that Super Bowl weekend is a BIG deal – such a big deal in fact that it is nothing short of essential to book the following morning off of work (especially when your team are in it! Go Patriots!).

Global interest in the NFL is growing, although average international viewing figures (roughly 100 Million) still pale into insignificance when compared to, say, the FIFA World Cup Final (619 Million). However, in the States, the Super Bowl is frequently the most watched TV event of the year…and this year will be no different (see #deflategate).

Stadium statistics

So, television statistics are one thing, but it’s inside the stadium where things get a little more interesting, and indeed, a little more complicated.

Stadium WiFi has become a much-discussed topic in recent years as clubs and franchises begin to realise the benefits of providing high-quality WiFi to their supporters. The potential to enhance the in-stadium experience with instant video replays, game statistics and even the option to order food and drinks represents an effective way to fill stadiums at a time when television coverage and home-viewing technology can be enough of a reason for fans to stay away.

*Of course, consumer demand, and thus the increased demands on cellular networks, is also a driving force; our near-dependence on uploading pictures of our current location or to express our changing emotions should never be underestimated - more on that later.

Over the past few years the NFL’s Super Bowl has proven to be a series of revealing experiments in stadium WiFi. Given that, unlike the FA Cup Final, the venue changes every year, the selected venues and the demands on their connectivity have paved the way for an increasing development in the marriage of live sports and IT.

Super Bowl 46 (2012)

Stadium, lucas oilHosted at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the 46th Super Bowl saw the New York Giants take on the New England Patriots. We won’t mention the score, that’s obviously not important! The spike in traffic experienced by network provider AT&T was of note however.

During the game their cellular network handled a total of 215 Gigabytes of data (stats from Aruba Networks), and they were only one of four carriers operating that day making the actual data usage far higher.

To put these numbers into some perspective, the 215 Gigabytes of data used that evening was more than AT&T had experienced at any other sporting event previously and was no-less than five times higher than the previous Super Bowl.

This degree of strain on cellular, 3G and 4G, networks was bound to end in a poor user experience (cue Kevin Bacon and his ‘buffer face’).

Why the fuss?

So, offering fans the WiFi equivalent to their home broadband is a simple case of up-scaling existing solutions…right?

Nope. And here’s why.

Challenging WiFi environments

Coverage, Capacity and redundancy are three elements of enterprise-grade wireless that we talk a lot about…and for good reason. Within a stadium environment, the sheer number of fans (all sitting within half a foot of one another), stadium employees, outside broadcasters and journalists using bandwidth-hungry multimedia applications can easily cause a wireless solution to ‘fall over’ – the RF spectrum in which WiFi operates just isn’t that broad.

Super Bowl 47 (2013)

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans.After being awarded the NFL’s 47th season finale, played out between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans allocated $343,000 to expand their Wi-Fi provision; a solution which consisted of 700 wireless access points inside and a further 250 on the outside of the stadium.

Senior VP of the Stadium, Doug Thornton, said: “We want to get it done before the Super Bowl so when people from around the world come into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they're able to connect to WiFi as well as use their wireless carrier for cell service and we don't get overloaded.

"This technology would allow us to handle the increased capacities."

In fact, the Superdome’s management were so concerned that their investment would fall flat on its face that they went to great lengths to identify ‘rogue’ devices as fans arrived at the game. Any device found to be a potential threat (by way of interference) to the performance of the stadium’s WiFi was either denied access or switched to an alternative channel so as to prevent overcrowding.

Extreme Statistics @ Super Bowl 48

The New York Giants' Metlife StadiumLast year’s main event took place at New Jersey’s Metlife stadium, where Wi-Fi is provided by AT&T and officially analysed by Extreme Networks.

Although the game, between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, was something of a whitewash – the Seahawks trounced Peyton Manning’s Broncos 43 points to 8 – the mobile usage statistics were something to get excited about.

Here are just a few...

  • At its peak 13,500 of the 85,500 strong capacity crowd were connected to the stadium Wi-Fi
  • Social Networking and Web Applications saw the most usage
  • Although Twitter and Instagram usage levels were high, usage of Facebook more than doubled them both
  • Throughout the duration of the sporting spectacle, more than 5 pictures every second were uploaded to Instagram (WOW!)

Extreme’s analyses showed that mobile users at Super Bowl 48 remained constantly engaged with their mobile devices as usage steadily increased from kick-off through to halftime and dipped only slightly as the game came to its conclusion (possibly due to the one-sided nature – I know I struggled to stay awake!).

But, more importantly, their analytics for network and application response times showed that all users received the desired experience…and this, after all, is what building high-performance WLAN networks is all about, and indeed shows that high-capacity stadium WiFi can and does work under the maximum workload.

Super Bowl 49 (2015)

So, with these connectivity and usage statistics likely to continue to increase year after year, the 2015 Super Bowl will be yet another test for the network providers.

This year’s battle for the Vince Lombardi trophy, between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, will be held at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona and promises to be a cracker both on the field and amidst the airwaves.

Phoenix stadium bosses have not been shy in realising the requirement for a robust in-stadium wireless experience having struck a deal with WLAN solutions provider CDW. A state-of-the-art Cisco-based system was designed and installed at the beginning of the 2014/15 season and has ranked the stadium amongst the most technologically advanced in the NFL.

Evolving landscape

Looking back over recent major sporting events, 2014’s FIFA World Cup Final in Brazil included, it is clear that the expectations of sports fans, not just in the NFL but of many sports across the globe, are changing rapidly.

Our growing dependence on WiFi connectivity show no bounds; whether at home, at work, at the mall, school, airport, hotel…the list is endless, and businesses and other organisations are realising that facilitating this desire to communicate can have universal benefits.

What Next?

If you are planning to deploy an enterprise-grade wireless network or are experiencing problems with a existing setup, please feel free to contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.