Smart connected stadiums – taking the experience to another level

Riaan Graham

Riaan Graham, sales director for Ruckus Wireless sub-Saharan Africa

Fans are constantly seeking a game thrilling experience.  Take for example, sport, which is appreciated across the world, with fans often enduring bad weather just to watch a game or their favourite team(s) goes up against each other. However, with the rise of technology, more and more millennials are missing out on the full stadium experience as they try to connect and capture the ‘moment’ with everything they do.

Technology does not have to be a hindrance for fans and enthusiasts alike, in fact, it’s an opportunity. Think about it, when a city builds new stadiums or arenas or even just examine upgrading existing infrastructure, with technology incorporated, they are able to upgrade the entire fan experience which is becoming a prerequisite not only from the fans, but the VIP boxes and the media boxes alike powerful wireless network solutions; digital ticket entry, mobile apps and mobile point-of-service are now a reality for sports arenas. Fans can now gain access into the stadiums using digital tickets, via an app. Once they have entered, they get notifications of possible upgrades of tickets (should there be availability on better seats), and can order food and drinks right from the comfort of their seats. The fan experience can be further elevated to the next level where replays of a goal can be viewed on stadium mobile apps to ensure any moment can be relived.

Incorporating connectivity in stadiums however can present its own set of challenges given the design of the structures, the large concrete pillars which adds to connectivity interference and the requirement to cater for high performance and high density – especially considering that at full capacity there could be thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people trying to connect simultaneously.  However, with new developments in Wi-Fi standards, smart access points with adaptive antenna technology and deployment expertise, this has become a manageable task for project developers and it is for this reason, that connectivity has become a real opportunity and value add and many new developments now have connectivity at the heart of their planning, along with building materials, design, aesthetics, capacity and health and safety features.
As such, consultation or partnership between engineers and IT specialists is a must, as this helps guide the architects around the type and size of equipment that will be used and how to incorporate these within the blue-print designs. It also allows for innovative means of ‘hiding’ the technological infrastructure, to ensure the aesthetic of the stadium is maintained, but connectivity is still top-class.

For existing stadiums, it’s not too late to upgrade and add wide-spread connectivity across the arena – it just requires a different approach as existing interference can be a huge problem. The design of these networks will vary greatly depending on the nature of the venue. Every structure is different and different approaches are needed for success.

As such, when designing stadium networks the key is to make use of all possible vertical assets to get the desired coverage across all public seating areas. Stadium networks will typically require 100 to 200 access points (APs) for most large venues. With careful design and carrier class access points it is possible to get some truly impressive performance numbers in the most challenging environments imaginable.

Great Wi-Fi creates happier fans and more return visits but it also gives providers a platform to operate their venue more intelligently and profitably by using Wi-Fi to:
Reach audiences directly with personalised and location-based promotions
Empower vendors to move to high revenue-generating areas without being limited by wired connections
Improve vendor and staff productivity by providing live or predictive information about visitor flows, real-time product availability and pricing information, and more
Create new kinds of fan experiences by broadcasting the action, along with other related content, directly to suites.

A recent example is the National Stadium in Gaborone (24 000 capacity) and the Francistown Stadium (27 000) who deployed the relevant hardware, software and operational support to give fans the ability to connect in the stadium, through Wi-Fi and heighten the experience. The stadiums were clever in that they ensured that all products selected and used were designed for easy installation, within an ultra-lightweight and low profile enclosure. A step in the right direction to digitise African stadiums and lead change.

Undoubtedly stadiums are slowly starting to embrace Wi-Fi and connectivity as a service to draw in the numbers and extend the fan experience. However, this is just the start of the journey for stadiums, planners, designers and architects as this changes the traditional game and these professions will need to start working closely with ICT providers and integrators to truly realise the digitisation possibilities going forward.