SBJ/Sept. 30-Oct. 7, 2013/NFL Stadium Experience

Wi-Fi networks fall short without help for users

Wiring stadiums for Wi-Fi is a big NFL priority as the league seeks to lure fans to games away from their deluxe in-home entertainment systems. Offering fans in-stadium-only apps that offer five camera angles on every play, RedZone and instant replays within seconds is increasingly a must-have for teams.

As I learned after attending three games in eight days, however, it’s not enough to just provide the Wi-Fi; teams need tech support, too. Without it, fans may leave mistakenly thinking the Wi-Fi is shoddy.

My first trip was the New York Jets’ home opener at gleaming MetLife Stadium, which opened in 2010 already wired for Wi-Fi. Team President Neil Glat told me before the game that MetLife, owned jointly by the Jets and New York Giants, had upgraded Wi-Fi in the offseason. He even slipped me a ticket so I could see for myself and wander between the press box, with its own Wi-Fi, and the stadium bowl.

Sorry, Neil, my phone, a Droid 4, never connected in the bowl. I stayed for three quarters, with no connectivity on my phone. When I arrived at the press box in the fourth quarter, I felt like a desert traveler stumbling upon an oasis. My Wi-Fi worked, and I greedily lapped up the network games on television and the robust signal on my phone. I had my connectivity fix. And so I reported back the next day to my editors that the Jets, like so many teams, had terrible Wi-Fi.

Ironically, the Jets can thank their archnemesis, the New England Patriots, for disabusing me of that misconception.

The Wi-Fi network at MetLife Stadium was something to celebrate, once our reporter got a tip on how to access it.
Photo by: ICON SMI
Four days after the Jets game, I drove up I-95 for the Pats-Jets Thursday night tilt at Gillette Stadium. The Pats are considered at the forefront of the Wi-Fi push in the NFL, working with Enterasys Networks. Before the game, the team’s director of digital media, Jana Gauthier, walked me through their app, which now even includes restroom waiting times. She assured me I would not have the trouble I did at MetLife.

Just before kickoff I wandered down to the spacious communal plaza underneath the south end zone’s giant video board, a fine place to test out what is often billed as the NFL’s best team app. My Droid 4 again did not connect.

I texted Jana.

Here is where NFL teams should pay attention. She arrived with one of 14 Wi-Fi specialists who roam the stadium, all employees of Enterasys. The tech specialist told me some newer Droids, and Samsungs, search out the strongest Wi-Fi signals and can bounce between them, never finding a home. He searched my phone’s preferences, hoping to instruct it which signal to choose, but found no way to do that. He left to get an answer.

Soon, another Enterasys employee, Michael Lytle, director of global technology and services and operations, walked up to me and said he had the solution: download an app called Wi-Fi Roaming Fix. Dubious this would work, I switched off Wi-Fi and used my weak 4G signal to go to the Google Play Store and downloaded the app I had no idea existed until seconds earlier. The app quickly downloaded into my phone. I then turned on the Wi-Fi and, wouldn’t you know it, presto, I had Wi-Fi access. Within minutes replays raced across my screen and different camera angles beckoned.

Four days later I arrived back at MetLife Stadium for the Manning Bowl. But I was far more interested in Wi-Fi than the Mannings (what can I say?). Would my phone’s new app now allow me Wi-Fi access at MetLife?

I waited until midway through the first quarter, wandered from the press box into a concourse area and perched near a back row of seats. I opened my Wi-Fi. Bingo. No issues. I downloaded the Giants’ in-stadium-only app and had no problems watching replays, different camera angles or RedZone. I did lose service a few times during the game, but encountered no resistance getting back on. My only problem standing there was at least half a dozen fans, seeing me in slacks and a polo shirt, asked me how to find their seats. So perhaps MetLife does have a wayfinding issue!

Many of my peers came back from their games complaining about inferior or nonexistent Wi-Fi signals. I don’t know whether the Wi-Fi Roaming Fix would’ve helped them as it did me. I do know I never would have heard of the app without the Enterasys team at the Patriots game.

It’s true I may have received special attention as a reporter, but other Enterasys employees approached me, handing out literature promoting the app and asking whether I needed help.

Expanding Wi-Fi to NFL stadiums is sure to come with the tech hiccups that I experienced at the Jets game. It’s not enough to offer the service; NFL teams also have to make sure they help fans connect. There are so many devices, so many different operating systems; it would be close to a miracle for 100 percent connectivity satisfaction.

My unsolicited advice: Along with Wi-Fi, teams should offer assistance personnel, messages about the help on the video boards, or even tips and a number to call for assistance. If in-stadium connectivity is as crucial as the NFL believes, then teams must work, pardon the pun, overtime to ensure fans don’t go home disappointed when the solution may be only a download away.

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