Stadium Wi-Fi Highlights Common WLAN Issues
Lee H. Badman
November 11, 2013
Stadium Wi-Fi is becoming quite the headline maker of late, with one pro sports venue after another announcing its new fan-facing wireless service. It turns out that there is much more to the story than just a big signal and flashy apps, and that stadium wireless isn’t all that much different from business Wi-Fi. Both environments face WLAN issues such as complexity, nuisance devices and challenges in accommodating unique wireless devices.
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Whether the setting is a stadium or an office complex, there’s seldom a single wireless network. Stadiums tend to have dedicated WLANs for ticket systems, business operations, and possibly even security. Each is its own line diagram, and other than radio coexistence, these WLANs have little to do with the fan-facing WLAN. A typical business may have a separate WLAN for any number of departments, plus a guest SSID for visitors.
In both environments, “the wireless network” is actually several independent logical topologies with their own security make-up and value in terms of operational importance. Any company, like any stadium, has to wrestle with policy, IP address space, skillsets, and the occasional crisis.
Both businesses and stadiums must continuously battle to keep nuisance devices from doing harm to their important WLANs and also accommodate unique wireless systems. For example, stadium wireless (both in the arena and in the arena offices) can get beat up by personal hotspots brought to events by fans, vendors, media, and visiting teams. In a corporate setting, WLAN administrators have to worry about personal hotspots, but also a number of wonky consumer-grade devices that just don't play well in the enterprise.
At the same time, stadiums have to accommodate AV gear used on and around the field that likely interferes with (and gets interference from) the fan wireless. In the office setting, you may have to find a way to make the wireless security system for the building live with the WLAN, even though they are not good radio neighbors. At the physics layer, you just can’t fix everything.
[Read how Houston Methodist Hospital performs troubleshooting and maintains security on its massive Wi-Fi network in "WLAN Management: How A Hospital Tackles The Complexity."]
Then there are the “gotta work no matter what” client devices. When these stop functioning, a lot of angry people pick up the phone. In my own environment, these devices are tablet PCs used at our medical center for health record access, outdoor cells that police cars connect with, handheld parking ticket terminals, and mobile devices used by the executive team.
In a stadium, the wireless ticket scanners in use are arguably the highest-priority wireless client device. There also are iPads used for playbook operations on the field, and the mobile devices used by customers in the more expensive box seats to access services that other fans can't, such as concessions. Any wireless environment has its own set of “special” clients.
Whether the environment is a stadium or a business, budget and who gets hired to execute a WLAN project certainly makes a difference in quality of WLAN experience for users. The National Football League its teams have deep pockets, so the sky is basically the limit in designing WLAN perfection and providing post-install support. College venues and many businesses seldom have such resources, so WLAN design and support may be more based on situational trade-offs. However, a WLAN architect who knows her stuff can do wonders despite the constraints.
In the months to come, we’ll hear a lot more about stadium Wi-Fi. Designing for such dense use-cases is certainly challenging from an access point and antenna placement perspective, and there are a number of system parameters that get tweaked because of the uniqueness of a stadium full of fans with mobile devices. At the same time, stadiums are businesses. If you understand business Wi-Fi, you know that stadiums really aren't all that much more nuanced when it comes to using wireless.