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9 August 2021

Spate of 5G stadium deployments as venues plot pandemic recovery

The story of wireless connectivity in densely packed venues for sports and large-scale concerts has been mixed ever since the dawn of voice-based services. There were always bottlenecks susceptible to loss of service and the situation initially became worse following emergence of data services with 3G. At first, WiFi stepped into the breach, perhaps reaching its apotheosis at the London 2012 Olympic Games, where BT was able to present its WiFi implementation as a triumph that largely met users’ expectations.

This followed the very limited deployment of WiFi at the preceding 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The 2012 London deployment involved what BT at the time claimed was the highest density wireless network so far deployed. It served thousands of spectators with WiFi-enabled smartphones, tablets and laptops following other events while in one of the venues.

Mobile 4G service was provided at the 2012 London Games by EE. At that time BT was not even in the cellular market, re-entering when it acquired EE in 2016. 4G played only a relatively small role, compared with WiFi, for accessing data at the 2012 London games, being still primarily used for voice and messaging at events there.

This set the stage for WiFi being the preferred network for data access in large public venues generally, and led to some successful packages. Cisco claimed some significant scalps for its Connected Stadium WiFi, featuring a new architecture partitioning a stadium network into multiple micro WiFi cells, each supporting a given set of users. It used highly directional antennas, with down-tilt for confining cell coverage to small areas, while reaching users within stadium bowl areas with reduced co-channel interference. Cisco touted its careful planning to ensure an adequate number and correct placement of access points for capacity and performance.

Nevertheless, this service has rather withered on the vine, being hamstrung by the limitations of the prevailing WiFi 5 technology, which even with this microcell architecture failed to provide sustained performance for emerging, more demanding applications involving real time access to compelling high bandwidth video content relating to the event.

WiFi is still very much in the game now that version 6E is emerging, but in the stadium context especially, it has lost critical momentum to cellular given the push behind 5G.

Indeed, Cisco itself has now rallied behind stadium 5G in the USA, partnering with Verizon to help venues prepare for their recovery from Covid-19 pandemic stasis by combining the operator’s in-stadium 5G applications with its own edge computing infrastructure. Verizon was attracted by Cisco’s network analytics capabilities for monitoring wait times at entry points, as well as ability to interact with digital signage to direct patrons to alternative locations with shorter lines.

Another early use case is for sending messages to stadium staff for identifying areas of crowd density to help manage traffic. Over time though, the pair want to progress beyond applications associated with the pandemic, and help venues compete with other forms of entertainment in a world that has subtly shifted, partly as a result of lockdowns.

A telling point was made by Douglas Lieberman, senior director of global solutions co-creation services at Dell, in a report on 5G-connected venues by RCR Wireless News. He argued that increased penetration of high-resolution large screen TVs was enticing some people away from live events because the experience was more “real” than ever with the help of immersive sound and high dynamic range (HDR) displaying more realistic colors. This trend had naturally been amplified by the pandemic in the absence of live attendance as an option at all in so many countries.

This has given renewed urgency to deployment of 5G during the pandemic and is one reason for a recent spate of deployments. Venues need both to reduce the friction against attendance, which as recent events have shown is rather higher precisely because of lingering restrictions, and also to improve the in-stadium experience by making compelling ancillary content available.

One such deployment, announced in May 2021, was at the Berlin Olympiastadion, one of the largest sports venues in Germany, seating up to 74,475, as well as being home for Bundesliga soccer club Hertha BSC Berlin. This works with active antennas in which transmission and reception are directly integrated, avoiding need for cable connections to the base station. Speeds up to 1Gbps were registered during early test events.

Around the same time, China Unicom Beijing and Huawei unveiled a 5G indoor network in the country’s National Stadium, as part of their joint 5G Capital initiative. This combined Huawei’s 5G LampSite indoor network products, which support 300 MHz bandwidth with distributed Massive MIMO technology, in this case demonstrating widespread rates of 1Gbps in 90% of the grandstand area.

Admittedly, no data has been given on real world performance given a capacity crowd with high contention. However, both parties insist it will cope with the stadium’s potential 91,000 crowds and enable large-scale sharing of video calls while supporting augmented reality overlays to spice up content. As evidence, the two cite field tests establishing downlink peak throughput of 12Gbps with a continuous 300 MHz bandwidth in the 3.3–3.5 GHz band.

It is the USA, though, that leads in demonstration of advanced in-stadium use cases, driven in part by interest and investment from the major sporting leagues. The annual SuperBowl in particular has long been a shop window for the latest innovations in TV broadcast and more recently for use of mobile technologies at the actual event.

Matters came to a head for this year’s SuperBowl LV, held on February 7 2021. This was the first to be affected by Covid restrictions, making it the least well attended SuperBowl in history with 25,000 spectators. This accentuated focus on the role of 5G in  enforcing distancing regulation and crowd control, with Verizon alone investing over $80m enhance its network with edge computing capabilities.

The operator has become a leading venue operator with its 5G Ultra-Wideband now deployed in 60 arenas. Applications already operational include real time stadium wayfinding, merchandising and concessions, as well as interactive access to video highlights and player tracking data using AR in conjunction with the National Hockey League (NHL).

Also in the NHL, Verizon has recently tested an edge application at a game featuring the New Jersey Devils running with AWS Wavelength, allowing users to point their 5G devices at any player on the ice and see real time stats overlaid in AR. Such stats include player speed, time on ice, and historical data.

Clearly this capability could be invoked at a variety of events, including concerts or even conferences, to bring up relevant content such as slides or lyrics as applicable. There is even scope for interacting with the action more directly through access to optional ancillary content, such as instantaneous translations, or close ups of members of a band.

The main point is that 5G has emerged as the preferred wireless medium for stadium communications, enabling these innovative use case. As it happens, the London Olympic stadium has now switched on 5G, deployed once again by EE, now part of BT. The difference this time is that the main stadium itself, now home to West Ham United football club as well as occasional athletics events, is majoring on 5G rather than WiFi.