Reliable internet access during a sporting event is not only important to the fan experience but also to teams and leagues as they explorer new revenue opportunities. However, building a network that can support that environment is an almost-impossible task. Last March, even Mark Cuban admitted that the day of Wi-Fi for fan use in sports venues is further away than most people realize.
On Opening Day of the 2004 season, AT&T Park actually became the first professional sports venue to provide continuous universal wireless access to fans in all concourses and seating areas. Working in conjunction with AT&T, the Giants have installed 323 802.11b/g Wi-Fi access points, creating one of the largest public wireless hotspots in the world.
In fairness to Cuban, a lot has changed since 2004. Fans today now have access to smartphones and consume massive amounts of video – a network killer. That’s why I was intrigued to learn by reading Kyle Stack’s Wired.com article, “Field of Dreams: Ballparks Unveil Tech Upgrades” that the Minnesota Twins launched a free Wi-Fi service at the beginning of the 2011 season.
So how did they do it? Thanks to Twins VP of Technology John Avenson we were able to find out.
With guidance from the San Francisco Giants, equipment manufacturers and Qwest (now CenturyLink) among others, Avenson’s team built his network organically from the ground up. He used a Cisco solution to build a robust wireless network – one that could easily scale when needed. The result was a Wi-Fi network consisting of more than 200 “access points” throughout Target Field.
Why build organically instead of utilizing a service such as Boingo or AT&T? Avenson wanted to leverage the investment made in infrastructure at the one-year-old Target Field. Also, having network management control was important.
So far he’s only seeing a max of 1,000 simultaneous connections to the network at any given time. Avenson says, “Usually fans will perform a quick task and then put the phone down.” He assumes the most popular device is the iPhone and the most popular activity is using Facebook. The Twins in conjunction with MLBAM have also enabled fans using twinswifi.com inside of Target Field to view in-game replays along with other unique content.
Avenson wasn’t shy about describing the project as experimental and “wild west” like. He continues to keep a close eye on the network and admits there is still a tremendous amount to learn. He even does a site survey during most games checking out various access points.
While fans have reported connectivity issues in the past, Avenson says there are very few pockets without signal. “We’re new at it but I thinks the fan’s experience is not fully dependent on core infrastructure but rather on the device. For example, iPads and iPhones don’t seem to roam around the network as well as a laptops do.” He thinks it’s because those devices don’t like jumping from access point to access point.
Ultimately, he believes Wi-Fi is only part of the “wireless soup” and sees 4G service as a key contributor to the overall solution. Carrier services can utilize the Twins’ neutral host antenna system to propagate their signal throughout the stadium. Currently, AT&T and Verizon take advantage of this.
Special thanks to Kyle Stack (@KyleStack) and Twins’ VP of Technology John Avenson for their contributions.