Case Study: The Super Bowl

For the most unwired Super Bowl ever, Ford Field will be one gigantic WiFi hotspot

February 3, 2006

4 Min Read
Case Study: The Super Bowl

It's 72 hours till kickoff, and Dave Port is standing in one of the concourses at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, supervising the setup of the wireless networks that will blanket the stadium during the world's biggest one-day sporting event.

"Right now I'm programming TVs for the media, but mostly what we've been working on is providing wireless Internet access in all the press boxes and the media center," says Port, the NFL's vice president for IT and one of the busiest people in Detroit in the run-up to Super Bowl XL this Sunday. "We've got a broadband Internet circuit brought into the stadium on fiber, and then we're converting it over and working with Motorola to deploy an 802.11 wireless network throughout the stadium, so everyone in the media can get out onto the Net and file their stories on game day."

The NFL has worked with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and with Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) to essentially turn Ford Field into one gigantic WiFi hotspot, as well as one of the most intensively covered cellular live zones on Earth. Not only members of the working press will benefit: League business partners, stadium staff, Detroit businesses, and the fans will all be able to take advantage of the broadband infrastructure that Port and his colleagues are installing.

Stadium users will be able to connect wirelessly via 24 Motorola dual-radio, tri-mode WiAP-200 access points. Linked together via Ethernet switches, the APs send traffic over a Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) fiber network.

For the press, this means the end of a scene that most on-assignment reporters have encountered far too often: a bunch of guys (90 percent of sportswriters are male) standing around cradling their laptops, waiting for a freed-up Ethernet cable.

"It's a lot easier than in the past, when we essentially had to hardwire everything," says Tim Goodall, Motorola's Super Bowl network project leader. "You had Ethernet cables sticking out all over the place. Even for the NFL it was hard to pull all those wires in and connect 'em up."

A densely packed throng
Also connected wirelessly are the ticket scanners at the stadium gates, which actually lie outside Ford Field itself because, for the Super Bowl, the NFL extends the access perimeter a couple of hundred feet beyond the walls of the facility. Last year, in Jacksonville, Fla., Port was able to establish a wireless network that connected handheld ticket scanners out at the satellite entry portals back into the computerized gate-control system within the stadium. Because Ford Field lies in the heart of downtown Detroit, Sprint Nextel has actually laid fiber out to the external gates, each of which houses a WiFi hotspot.

"They ran fiber to junction boxes in the ground and on lightpoles, and we connected into those boxes and extended [the cable] into the gate areas, then assembled wireless networks within each of those tents," says Port. This perimeter network is one of the few elements of the wireless infrastructure that won't remain behind after gameday.

The main problem in ensuring WiFi coverage inside the stadium, was not architecture but density: of RF transmissions and of people.

"Ford Field is relatively new, so it's a little bit better for deploying wireless," explains Goodall. "The challenge really is density of users. We've got the reporters lined up shoulder-to-shoulder at row after row of tables. How do you support that many users and ensure enough bandwidth for all of them?"

And, considering the mélange of other devices in use during the game, the network engineers had to deal with multiple overlapping RF networks: Nextel walkie-talkies used by many NFL staff; coaches' headsets on the sidelines; onfield officials; merchants' point-of-sale terminals...

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"Last year we looked at it, and I think there were about 1,000 RF-emitting devices within the field area alone," marvels Goodall, "two-way radios, wireless microphones, wireless cams, numbers of different devices. You have to understand the frequency and what's covering where."

After an extensive walking tour of the facility, Goodall and Port drew an RF-overlay map, tracing the different coverage areas like meteorologists on a slow day. Mindful of the radio environment, they installed a total of 48 APs, including the venues beyond Ford Field.

As for the fans, they'll have plenty of cell coverage and access to streaming audio and video in their seats, not to mention at the 20 or so venues in Detroit hosting events associated with the game. Sprint Nextel has "installed an extensive fiber network in the Detroit area, not just for the Super Bowl," says John Harrison, the company's regional networking manager. "We've built an extensive in-building system for Ford Field, and augmented that with 500 base radios, to make sure there's enough capacity for the radio side."

The company has also enhanced its EVDO-based "Power Vision" network for mobile broadband data, both in the stadium and throughout the city.

That will help at the end of the game, when fans in the stands with browser-equipped mobile phones will be able to go to the league's portal site and vote on the Super Bowl MVP.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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