Philadelphia Eagles fans attending Sunday's home opener at Lincoln Financial Field will be able to access a new free Wi-Fi network to watch game video, visit social networks or even order food.
The installation of the Wi-Fi network, which cost "several million" dollars, is part of a two-year, $130 million renovation of the 69,000-seat venue, according to Eagles President Don Smolenski, who noted that the wireless network was a big hit with concertgoers over the summer.
"At the Taylor Swift concert in July, I was watching all these teenage girls taking pictures of themselves with their cellphones, and even Taylor Swift was tweeting during a rain delay," Smolenski said, adding that the singer's tweets were carried to the blogosphere via the free Wi-Fi network.
"It's going to be no different at the Eagles' games, with people watching videos and taking photos" and using the Wi-Fi network for in-seat food ordering, he said.
Several NFL stadiums, including Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, now offer free access to in-stadium Wi-Fi service. Both Gillette Stadium and Lincoln Financial Field were equipped with 802.11n access points and a unified network control center from Enterasys Networks.
Smolenski said he picked the Enterasys technology on a recommendation from Patriots management.
"Wi-Fi is where the technology is going, whether you are on a train, in a coffee shop or sitting on a couch," Smolenski said. "People want access and the ability to do the things they want, which might be to look up a stat or have a restaurant review at their fingertips. Carrying that expectation into a football game was really the driver for us."
Smolenski said he and the National Football League want to use such technology to connect with young people in an effort to maintain a strong fan base for professional football, which has been a big part of Philadelphia for 80 years.
The team owner admitted that he's not a big user of sites like Twitter or Instagram; he said he uses his two sons, ages 13 and 15, as a personal focus group for what's hip in technology.
"My phone [an iPhone 5] is attached to my hip and I use it for work, so I'm not up on the Twitter-verse and all that," he said. "My sons say, 'Dad, how can you not know this?' But I recognize it's a part of today's world and important and ever-growing and ever-changing."
Smolenski said he wonders how many fans will be using smartwatches to communicate at football games in coming years now that wristwatch-like devices are being introduced by major vendors like Samsung ( Galaxy Gear) and Apple (which is expected to come out with a product called the iWatch).
"I heard about the smartwatch the other day and I was thinking, who the hell would use this? I wear a watch, but young people don't. They get the time on their smartphones. But maybe my grandkids will use them," he said.
At Lincoln Financial Field, Enterasys had to make a number of custom adjustments to keep the Wi-Fi signals from each access point from bleeding into nearby access points. That meant installing custom-built antennas because no commercial product would work, Enterasys officials said.
While the two-month installation effort was generally smooth, crews had to remove old bird netting and install conduit to support the network of access points in the cavernous structure. Enterasys also set up a single management console that can be switched easily to handle a concert crowd's Wi-Fi demands, which are different from the needs of fans at a football game.
Smolenski explained that there is no need for Wi-Fi access from the field during games, since players don't need it. But the network had to be capable of providing Wi-Fi access to fans on the stadium floor during concerts and other events. "[Enterasys] made it work," he said.
Bandwidth can be increased or decreased in specific locations; the system can even be tweaked to offer better service to a specific smartphone with a specific IP address. For instance, a season ticket holder might get more bandwidth than a single-game ticket holder, said Norm Rice, executive vice president of business and corporate development for Enterasys.
Prior experience taught the company that the volume of outgoing wireless traffic generated by attendees sending videos, photos and other data to friends away from the stadium was two to three times greater than the volume of inbound traffic.
Smolenski said the NFL and the Eagles remain open-minded about the possibility of using emerging mobile payment technologies at some point in the future. For example, it might one day be possible for fans to pay for food and merchandise using phones equipped with QR scanners or NFC (near field communication) technology.
Also on the horizon is the possibility that fans might be able to use mobile devices to watch a video feed of the game from the point of view of the quarterback.
"Never say never," Smolenski said. "I imagine the NFL will look at all sorts of creative opportunities. At one time we didn't have cameras in the locker room, and now we have them. We now have a camera in the tunnel to the locker room to broadcast the feeling at the start of the game when the team comes out. We want to continue to evolve and change as the world changes."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is [email protected].
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