It’s no secret that sports stadiums experience connectivity issues when tens of thousands of fans converge on game day, hopping on the Wi-Fi network to access tickets, purchase concessions and stream, download and upload content. For Haslam Sports Group (HSG), addressing this reality required a new approach to wireless connectivity that would revolutionize the fan experience at their stadiums.
For HSG, wireless coverage and network latency issues at their venues was making it increasingly difficult to quickly usher fans into the stadiums and sell them concessions. Coverage holes, dropped connections, wireless congestion, interference and application disruptions caused critical delays in delivering superior service to fans and vendors alike.
Both stadiums witnessed long lines at the entry gates and wait times for concessions being sold by vendors in the bowl. FirstEnergy Stadium, for example, seats approximately 70,000 people and is located on Lake Erie, and approximately 80% of fans enter the stadium through the south gates from the same direction, at the same time. There are two main gates that each handle 25,000 to 30,000 converging fans. The process creates congestion on both the stadium’s Wi-Fi network as well as the public carrier cellular infrastructure. This created “bothersome bottlenecks when letting fans through the gates,” explained Brandon Covert, VP of Information Technology for HSG.
“When you have a sea of people rushing to get into the stadiums, Wi-Fi becomes very congested. There’s simply too much client density to maintain reliable Wi-Fi connectivity. And seconds matter when we’re trying to get everybody in the stadium before kickoff,” said Covert.
Private wireless to the rescue
For Covert, private wireless represented a real opportunity to change the game for fans while opening the door to new use cases that could exploit more reliable wireless connectivity in and around its stadiums.
HSG turned to its solutions provider, Step CG, to find and deploy a best-in-class private wireless system that included everything HSG needed. In turn, Step CG installed Celona’s 5G LAN system that leverages new shared cellular spectrum.
According to Covert, Celona 5G LAN technology was engineered for precisely these sorts of demanding environments. For HSG, the technology offered a fully integrated private wireless solution that utilized 4G/5G radios operating within the 3.55 to 3.7 gigahertz (GHz) Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum. The system could be easily installed alongside its existing Wi-Fi network within a deployment framework familiar to IT staff.
What’s more, advanced traffic management technologies within Celona’s edge software provided HSG with end-to-end quality of services and direct accessibility to user equipment for added security.
For instance, the MicroSlicing technology gives HSG the ability to automatically enforce and track key service metrics like latency, jitter and packet error rates for each application or device group.
A more granular approach than generic service quality implementations, such as network slicing used by mobile network operators, MicroSlicing effectively guarantees the service level operation of individual applications or devices from the RAN across the LAN without additional client software or configuring APNs on client devices. This ensures an app or device that requires strict latency or throughput is always guaranteed the requisite resources over the wireless network, much like it would over a wired network.
Removing the need to deploy dozens of Wi-Fi access points (APs), HSG installed two outdoor CBRS-based Celona APs around the entry gates at FirstEnergy Stadium. The private cellular network is now enabling new use cases at the stadium, including an express entry service that uses CBRS-native tablets to automatically authenticate fans.
Facial authentication removes fan friction
To reduce entry times into the stadium, HSG launched an innovative express entry service using facial authentication technology. The ticketing and access control platform, provided by Wicket, is a specialized software system that uses a person’s face to authenticate their identity without the use of tickets or phones.
“The express entry service is designed to replace QR code or barcode-based digital ticketing by “linking a selfie with a ticket,” according to Covert.
"Just like turnpikes implemented mostly EZ Pass lanes and some cash lanes, we’re offering more express access capacity and less what we call ‘legacy mobile tickets.’ Express access is going to be your best bet because it’s such an easy and painless process,” said Covert.
“But the biggest win that facial authentication delivers is the ability to handle large groups more easily. One person can redeem tickets for their entire group, and everyone can walk right through versus having to scan a ticket for everyone. But without a reliable wireless network, none of this is possible. That’s why private wireless was so attractive to us.”
Inside FirstEnergy Stadium, HSG installed two more Celona outdoor APs to cover the bowl and support concession vendors/hawkers. This has helped to speed the time it takes for vendors to sell concessions in the bowl during games. Covert said Celona’s technology is ideal for the current ticketing and concession use cases. Therefore, it didn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars on an on-prem solution with the latest hardware from a major cellular carrier. With Celona’s 5G LAN system, HSG maintains operational control of the entire network.
At Lower.com Field, with a capacity of approximately 20,000, HSG deployed five outdoor Celona APs to provide wireless coverage for the stadium bowl, south plaza entry gates, and east parking lots. The stadium is also using the 5G LAN system to automate its turnstiles. Instead of each turnstile being supervised by staff, one staff member will be able to now man five or more turnstiles.
Like FirstEnergy Stadium, Lower.com Field is now able to expedite concession services. Vendors, equipped with mobile CBRS-to-Wi-Fi gateway devices, can roam the stadium perimeter and sell concessions to fans without worrying about losing connectivity. Meanwhile, HSG’s IT staff can automatically enforce strict quality of service (QoS) requirements on the private cellular network using MicroSlicing, so network service levels are continually met for each use case.
In one use case example, HSG successfully replaced Wi-Fi with CBRS cellular connectivity during a multi-day event. The stadium held a festival with outdoor food and merchandise tents around its large perimeter. Vendors used CBRS-connected handheld devices and were able to complete transactions anywhere on the grounds.
“Getting Wi-Fi to those distances would have been extremely challenging and a very expensive proposition,” Covert concluded. “The infrastructure installed worked very well because it was only a couple CBRS antennas, and it was minimal. The flexibility they had was well beyond what Wi-Fi or a public carrier service could ever offer.”
There is a tremendous amount of private cellular today but most of the use cases are in the areas of manufacturing and factory floors, which doesn’t have broad appeal. This use case by HSG could easily be applied to retail check-out, airport security, hotel check-in or any industry that processes large volumes of customers.
Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long-term strategic advice. Kerravala provides research and advice to end-user IT and network managers, vendors of IT hardware, software and services and the financial community looking to invest in the companies that he covers. He can be reached at [email protected], and follow him @zkerravala and on YouTube.
Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of Fierce.