British sport in 2017 – providing the coverage it deserves

You’ve managed to get tickets to see the football/tennis/rugby/cricket, you’ve braved queues at the stadium, and you’ve spent a small fortune on food and drink. You find your seat amidst the crowd, the game begins, and you want to share the action with friends and family at home.

You take a couple of photos, record a video clip, and tap the social media app on your smartphone. The device remains unresponsive. Mobile connectivity is slow or non-existent so you scan for Wi-Fi, which in a wealthy, landmark stadium such as this, must surely be available? The answer to this question will likely be either, ‘yes, but connectivity speeds make even the simplest of tasks impossible’, or a more straightforward: ‘no’.

Despite hosting a winning array of sporting events over the course of the next few months, not to mention a steady stream of rock and pop concerts, stadiums in the UK rarely score any points when it comes to mobile connectivity. The influx of crowds, the swell in demand for mobile data traffic, and even the physical infrastructure of stadia mean that many of these venues still fail to serve up adequate coverage to fans using traditional mobile network architectures.

This not only impacts spectators’ ability to share their experiences, but mobile connectivity is vital in order for stadium visitors to find their friends in a packed arena, post to online fan groups, check the stats of opponents, or keep track of the score of concurrent games. Failing to provide reliable mobile coverage is a real own-goal by stadium owners and management across the UK, and seriously diminishes the spectator experience.

Some investments are being made in this area. Lords offers Sky’s Cloud Wi-Fi, Twickenham’s 2014 revamp included Wi-Fi deployment, and England’s Football League announced last year that free Wi-Fi was coming to venues. Yet this will be limited to Championship, League One and League Two stadiums, and to club-branded apps only.

The fact that clubs and stadiums are addressing the connectivity issue may signal progress, but fielding Wi-Fi for mobile coverage is hardly a winning solution. To access these services, fans usually have to fill out online forms and provide personal data, and even when connected to the Wi-Fi, quality of service is usually severely impacted by poor connectivity speeds.

Considering the cost of enjoying live sport as well as the unwavering loyalty of fans, venues should be performing and delivering at peak levels for attendees. So, what’s the solution?

Those lucky enough to be heading to the final rounds of the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium across April and May this year will experience first-hand the benefits of a DAS (distributed antenna system) for venues of this type. Selected by EE, the UK’s largest mobile network operator (MNO) and technology partner to Wembley Stadium, the system supports multiple MNOs, and enables 2G, 3G and 4G coverage. DAS deliver high capacity wireless coverage, making the solution an ideal choice for environments such as stadiums that have a great number and density of users all trying to access network simultaneously.

The DAS has the ability to divide coverage into sectors in a given environment – Wembley, in this case. This allows mobile operators to overcome the significant challenge of providing indoor coverage to the whole stadium by treating the project as a collection of smaller challenges. The multiple base stations send radio signals to an Optical Master Unit (OMU), converting the signals into light, before distributing via fibre to one or more remote units within each sector. This flexible approach helps provide both coverage and capacity solutions; seamlessly channelling mobile operators’ networks into inherently difficult locations.

Since the deployment at Wembley the system has provided high quality arena-wide coverage, even during spikes in mobile data traffic during some of the stadium’s most popular events. Rather than logging into Wi-Fi, spectators will automatically connect to their native MNO and service. Fans attending FA Cup matches in the coming weeks will therefore be able to take advantage of the reliable mobile coverage the DAS provides.

At present, the majority of UK stadiums are missing an easy win when it comes to coverage. Following initial investment, a system like that used at Wembley will deliver OPEX and CAPEX savings to stadium owners in the long run. The cost of adding additional capacity or extending geographical reach further down the line is low in comparison with other systems.

Most importantly though, is the impact on stadium visitors. Wembley’s championing of a DAS should be an example to all clubs and venue owners to up their game, improve coverage and deliver a positive, seamless fan experience.

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Anthony_Sutton_Blog Anthony Sutton Director, Coverage, Cobham Wireless

Anthony has over 20 years experience in international sales and business development within the Engineering & Telecommunication industry. He has a good understanding of LTE, UMTS, GSM, GSM-R, Tetra, LMR / PMR technologies, currently supporting the delivery of coverage solutions for multi-operator, multi- technology clients.

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