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March 23, 2015

Q&A: Gordon Campbell talks stadium wi-fi

CBR caught up with Sports Revolution's Director of Wireless Products to discuss why his company backs wi-fi over 4G when connecting sports stadia.

By Alexander Sword

As Huawei brings wi-fi to Wolfburg’s stadium in Germany, CBR chatted to Gordon Campbell from UK sports marketing agency Sports Revolution about the stadium connectivity situation here in the UK and why wi-fi could bring better coverage than 4G.

Q: What are the technical requirements for connecting a large stadium?

A: The key technical requirement is ensuring you can deliver sufficient bandwidth to a very densely packed crowd, evenly across all seats in the bowl. This isn’t as easy as it sounds and there have been several attempts in football stadia that couldn’t deliver the capacity they promised, with unreliable reception and ‘black spots’ around the ground.

A logistical problem is adapting the fitting of the wi-fi to the typical size and shape of a football stadium. Wi-fi works as low power over a short distance, so you need to be quite close to it for it to work best. But in a modern stadium, you typically have a very high roof, a long way above the fans and few vertical columns. So it is not easy to get the wi-fi units close enough to the fans.

We worked with Cisco Systems to build the network at Celtic Park and have achieved the first fully functioning high-density network, delivering reliable capacity to all the seats in the bowl.

Q: Sports Revolution was recently quoted by CBR about the 4G-enabled Wembley, which aims to be "the most connected stadium in the world". What are the drawbacks of using 4G to connect a stadium?

A: 4G, being a cellular technology, is designed for city centres and large public spaces, but a full stadium is unlike any other public space. It can’t deliver true high-density broadband in such a unique environment in the way that true high-density wi-fi can, especially if fans are using data-heavy apps or streaming video. It also can’t compete on cost.

To achieve the same density of coverage in a stadium, 4G can cost at least four times as much as wi-fi. Another challenge facing the operators is that the pace of demand for wireless data is completely out-pacing the ability of mobile networks to upgrade, making it near impossible to keep up. 4G only serves to make the user more addicted to fast mobile internet, constantly demanding more and more.

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Q: You have long made the case for using wi-fi to provide in-stadia connectivity. What can wi-fi do that 4G can’t, and why?

A: The main benefit is the reliability of truly high-density bandwidth, delivered evenly across the whole stadium bowl. You will get a truly satisfying connected experience. The same cant be said for 4G – I estimate that in a typical large stadium it can only deliver half the number of meaningful data connections that a high-density wi-fi system can achieve.

Another problem with stadium connectivity using 4G is that you can’t filter, block or control how fans use it. For a football club’s brand partners and exclusive sponsors, this is important. They want exclusive access to the fans in the stadium. With 4G there is no way to filter or block anything. It is all open, other than for age restricted sites. Using wi-fi you can, for example, restrict access to betting sites to an exclusive partner you have signed to the wi-fi app.

We did this with Unibet at Celtic Park, making them the first commercial third-party partner for a stadium wi-fi system in the UK and pointing the way forward for how these systems can be monetised with partners offering well-targeted and relevant services.

Q: What lessons did you learn from your wi-fi installation at Celtic Park?

A: We have seen that football fans are very sophisticated in their use of mobile technology. A very high proportion are accessing the wi-fi at Celtic on the faster 5Ghz channel, showing they are using the latest devices. The installation has also shown us that fans will engage with the app for far longer than you may expect.

There is a rapid build-up in data use before the game, a peak at half time and a steady growth through the second half until well after the final whistle has been blown. This shows us that fans go on a real journey with CelticLIVE, becoming a key part of their experience on match day before, during and after the game.

Q: If operators are able to deliver high-quality connectivity, how can they monetise it?

A: Monetisation opportunities very much depend on the specific club, sponsors and fan base. However, our experience so far has shown us that the any commercial offering via the fan app absolutely has to enhance the experience for the fans and add value. CelticLIVE – and the same goes for other fan apps using stadium wi-fi – have to operate on a high level of engagement.

Fans are in the ground because they are already highly informed and passionate about their club. So to get them using the app – and generating revenues from the users and our commercial partners – we have to take this high degree of engagement to a new level.

We have seen this with one of our first commercial partners on CelticLIVE, the betting company, Unibet. They serve real-time in-play odds tailored to the actual action on the pitch, making it a highly relevant and immersive offering. It is something that fans just couldn’t do before we offered it to them, and they have responded enthusiastically.

Following the success of in-play betting we are now creating and perfecting the next monetisation opportunities. Real-time scores from other leagues (sponsored), premium content behind a paywall and transactional services (such as food and beverage ordering or merchandise) are just a few of the areas we are creating and trialling.

Q: It seems that the UK is a long way behind the US, where we see the Levi’s Stadium and Barclay’s Center, in connecting its stadia. Why is adoption here so much slower?

A: Yes, the US market for connected stadia and also commercial applications is more advanced, but the matchday experience there is completely different. The average baseball or NFL game sees fans in the stadium for 4-9 hours, with multiple breaks. This lends itself to a plethora of opportunities for engagement in connected stadia that we, by comparison, have far less time for during the average football match.

Fans in the US also spend far more on a match day – an average of $25 per head, compared to just £4 here – and the clubs themselves have more money to spend on wi-fi infrastructure. Here, football clubs spend all their money on the talent on the pitch, leaving relatively little for investment in stadium connectivity.

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