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Craig Mathias of Network World recently traveled to Foxboro, Massachusetts, home of the New England Patriots to talk their huge WiFi installation in Gillette Stadium which serves some 70,000 fans on game day — with 10,000 or so simultaneously seeking information in real time via the stadium’s Wi-Fi network.

For the past three years, the Patriots have offered free Wi-Fi to fans in its suites. This season, the Wi-Fi will be available to all 70,000 fans.

Gillette Stadium and Patriots have apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android to provide guests with in-stadium experience, bringing them closer to the action on the field through exclusive access to the NFL Red Zone and real-time stats.

The Patriots turned to Enterasys for their Stadium-wide Wi-Fi. It utilizes over 300 APs, numerous intermediate racks of equipment and lots of directional antennas. The network will become increasingly important as the NFL rolls out future applications to provide fans at live events with exclusive content through smart phone and tablet apps.

The gear included Enterasys S-Series switches at the core, Enterasys Wi-Fi (both indoor and outdoor), Enterasys Mobile IAM (Identity & Access Management) for BYOD authentication services, as well as Enterasys OneFabric Control Center to centrally manage its network. The entire installation took just over a month.

Gillette Stadium joins the ranks of the few stadiums that are Wi-Fi enabled, which include MetLife Stadium (Jets/Giants), the Georgia Dome (Falcons), Lucas Oil Stadium (Colts), Raymond James Stadium (Buccaneers), Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Saints), Bank of America Stadium (Panthers) and Sun Life Stadium (Dolphins).

“We focused on Wi-Fi,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the league meetings in May. “We’ve made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding, and we have to compete with that in some fashion, making sure we create the same type of environment in our stadiums.”

Setting up hundreds of access points and paying for the service is not cheap. A stadium implementation can cost $6 million, which is one reason why the league searches for a technology partner to help defray some of the costs. The Gillette Stadium installation will enable up to 40 percent of fans to simultaneously use Wi-Fi, which should give them some breathing room. At the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in February, a peak of 12 percent of the crowd was using Lucas Oil Stadium’s Wi-Fi at the same time, and only 19 percent used it at all.

The stadium of the future needs WiFi, says Aruba (pdf). At Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, Cisco installed 604 access points to provide free WiFi to all fans on a carrier-neutral basis. A total of 225GB of data was downloaded, 145GB uploaded, and at its peak the network supported 8,260 simultaneous connections — 12 percent of attendees. That was five times higher than the previous year’s Super Bowl. Ericsson has launched a stadium-optimized Wi-Fi solution and Cisco’s stadium WiFi is also available.

It’s sometimes a tough call between WiFi, which can be cheaper but requires more nodes, and a Distributed Antenna System by the carriers. The development of apps and the advantage of WiFi carrier independence are driving some stadiums to WiFi.

Franchise owners may be wary of Hotspot 2.0, which allows a carrier to enable free WiFi (only for its subscribers). All others pay cash. Franchise owners may view Hotspot 2.0 as a Trojan horse. Some stadium owners are betting that free WiFi can make them more money by embedding advertising and selling extra-cost options.

Some owners would rather have 20K eyeballs generating an average of $1 each (in ads and options), than 2K eyeballs generating $10 each. It fills up the seats.

In that way, Stadium WiFi is like the World in microcosm.

See: Dailywireless Super Streams for Super Bowl XLVI, Superbowl Goes 4G, London: The Biggest Small Network in the World, AT&T: 40,000 Small Cells, Microsoft Sponsors Free WiFi in NYC & SF, Chicago Announces Free WiFi in Parks, Hotspot 2.0, Cellular/WiFi Roaming Gets Real, Street light Provides Wi-Fi, Cell Coverage, Hotspot 2.0, Intel: Basestation in the Cloud, London WiFi, Producing Olympic Multi-Media , Social Olympics, Microsoft’s Streetside: Indoors via Stills & Video, 2010 Winter Olympics, 2008 Summer Olympics and Super Bowl XLIV.

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