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Wireless Win for NFL

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading
9/22/2006
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On Sunday the rejuvenated Arizona Cardinals (1-1 on the season) will host the St. Louis Rams in what could turn out to be a key divisional matchup in the NFL. On display will not only be the passing of Kurt Warner and the running of Edgerrin James, but Cardinals Stadium itself, the new $450 million facility that is widely considered the most technologically advanced sports palace in the world.

Along with a retractable roof and a sliding grass field that can be retracted for non-football events, Cardinals Stadium, located in Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, features the league's most sophisticated wireless network. Installed by Tempe-based systems integrator Insight North America, using distributed-antenna system (DAS) technology from Cellular Specialties Inc. (CSI), and equipment from MobileAccess, the system offers both cellular voice and WiFi coverage to all of the stadium's 63,400 seats as well as luxury suites, corridors and concession areas, press areas, team offices and locker rooms, and tenant office space within the building. The network also provides full coverage for public safety radios throughout the 1 million-square-foot facility.

"The design of the stadium is a technological marvel, not only from an architectural standpoint with the roof opening and closing, but sliding in and out of the field, everything," says Mark Feller, director of technology for the team. "So when the Cardinals were looking at the telecommunications capability, they made the decision that it made sense to make it the most technologically advanced stadium in the world as well."

The IP-based network from CSI collects both voice and data signals over the distributed antennas and transmits them via coaxial cable to 37 wiring closets or "remote hub units" that are aligned in vertical arrays on the different levels of the stadium. The signals are then filtered and sent to the appropriate destination over fiber-optic cables to carrier networks in the case of cellular traffic, and over Cisco switches and the stadium's VLAN out to the Internet in the case of data traffic. The WiFi access points are located at the remote hubs, not distributed across the facility as in a conventional 802.11 network -- making the system much more flexible and economical, according to Feller.

"Compared to the cost of just putting in a WiFi antenna system, this gives us a lot more flexibility," says Feller. "Since the antennas are connected with coax back to the wiring closets, the management and maintenance for us is much easier than if the access points were scattered throughout the ceiling and various locations around the stadium."

"There are four primary users of the network at the stadium," says Kelley Carr, vice president of service for CSI's Custom Solutions Group. "The fans, the workers for the stadium themselves, public safety personnel, and the news media. The distributed-antenna system gives them all the bandwidth and different types of service they need."

Not only are sports photographers be able to instantly upload their images to company networks from the field, but the plutocrats in the skyboxes can enjoy the benefits of the system as well. Each luxury suite is equipped with Cisco 7970 interactive IP phones, which feature with 5- by 4-inch digital touch screens so that guests can order food, play fantasy football, and buy merchandise instantly.

Even the fiber optic cabling is state-of-the-art: the stadium uses a technology called FutureFlex, from Sumitomo Electric Lightwave Corp. , which allows fiber to be quickly blown through standing tubes using compressed air.

After looking at several networking companies Feller and Insight North America narrowed the choice of providers to three. He declines to name the other two but notes that one of the bidders submitted a price that was 20 percent higher than that of CSI and the other candidate. The selection ultimately came down to experience deploying similar systems in unconventional venues, he says.

Feller won't say how much the team has invested in the network at the new stadium, which will host the BCS National Championship next January and Super Bowl XLII in Feb. 2008. But he notes that the Cardinals are in the forefront of wireless technology not just for sports venues but for less glamorous enterprises.

"A lot of facilities are going to go to this kind of [distributed-antenna] system," Feller maintains, "even commercial buildings, where all the tenants need wireless coverage throughout the facility. I think you'll see this technology in use everywhere over the next few years."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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