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The NFL no longer expects to sign a leaguewide telecommunications partner to start outfitting team stadiums for Wi-Fi for this season, a key initiative of the sport as it tries to make the in-game experience more akin to the one at home.
However, the league is treating five NFL venues — MetLife Stadium, Gillette Stadium, Bank of America Stadium, Lucas Oil Stadium and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — as pilot projects, as those stadiums push to have their own enhanced wireless systems in place by the start of this season. Those systems will increase connectivity and enable the home teams to offer mobile applications that mirror what is available outside the venues — and allow fans to use their handheld devices to the fullest extent.
The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, for example, are making NFL RedZone part of their in-stadium app. The Carolina Panthers’ app will offer fans replays from a variety of camera angles.
The league is watching the five localized efforts closely to see how the technology issues are sorted through — from how many cellular carriers to use and whether combining Wi-Fi and distributed antenna systems is better suited for stadiums. (A DAS essentially expands the cellular capacity.)
While other league venues have also been working on the issue, these five are the ones the league considers among the furthest along.
“Multiple clubs are already getting these integrated systems installed with one of the carriers or with an equipment provider, thus yielding a rich array of installations that can be monitored for effectiveness,” said Eric Grubman, NFL executive vice president, explaining why the league will likely not sign a major telecommunications pact before the season. “There is still quite a bit of speed in tech development, so we remain wary of big expenditure on installed infrastructure until a solution is proven.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in May, “We are looking for new technology partners that can help us address what I consider pretty complex problems.”
For now, the league will likely offer protocols and standards rather than invest or push the effort from headquarters. The league did engage in negotiations with potential telecommunications partners, and while it is unlikely those talks will bear immediate fruit, some of the terms discussed are being incorporated into the deals the five stadiums are striking on their own.
Much of the Colts’ work at Lucas Oil Stadium began before the Super Bowl in February. The Colts are working with Verizon.
“We have our own app coming out that will allow fans in-stadium to select the replay they want to watch, have access to [the] RedZone channel [and] get instant fantasy stats,” said Pete Ward, Colts chief operating officer. “All just in-stadium.”
The Panthers are working with AT&T at Bank of America Stadium. The club has had a soft rollout, with the system operating during the recent Tim McGraw-Kenny Chesney concert at the stadium.
“People are using mobile devices all the time. To have the ability to do that in a large crowd is almost an expectation now,” said Danny Morrison, Panthers president. “And to do the additional things with our mobile app is important as well.”
Morrison said the coming Democratic National Convention event at Bank of America Stadium did not spark the upgrades, which can cost upward of mid-seven figures.
MetLife Stadium, which has been upgrading its Wi-Fi and DAS, will now allow fans through New York Jets and Giants team apps to watch live camera angles as well as replays in-stadium.
At Gillette Stadium, Wi-Fi has been available on the club level the last two seasons, but the Patriots now hope to have it available in all parts of the stadium by their home opener in September. The new in-stadium app will offer the RedZone channel and different replay camera angles. The team uses DAS from three carriers — Verizon, Sprint and AT&T — underscoring the complexity the league confronted in looking for one partner for all of its teams.
The data demands of tens of thousands of people in a contained space has proved challenging.
“Fifty thousand people uploading photos of a single winning touchdown at the same time all on one Wi-Fi network? The network had better have some serious capacity to enable that,” said Tammy Parker, editor of FierceBroadbandWireless, which covers the wireless sector.