How many times have you been relieved to find a Wi-Fi cafe – only to end up tearing your hair out because it’s taken several centuries to email a 20-second video? If that frustrating scenario can present itself in an establishment catering for only 20 or 30 people what must it be like in a crowded football stadium during a World Cup?
Like the rest of us armed with smart stuff, football fans also expect seamless connectivity and generally during standard Saturday matches most stadiums deliver. But at a massive event such as this year’s World Cup, providing sufficient network capacity to cope with excessive Internet use is a major challenge.
Many stadiums and arenas in the Northern Hemisphere might struggle to optimise existing wireless and cellular technologies for high-density use during a World Cup, but what about those in Brazil?
According to the GSM Association (the world trade association of mobile operators) the country has already established an efficient network infrastructure to cope with Internet users that have adopted social networks to a much larger degree than many other countries. But this trend coupled with a huge influx of foreign users during the World Cup will have a massive impact on network traffic - demanding more network optimisation and contingency planning to guarantee the availability and quality of service. And despite several test simulations, how the system copes under real working conditions is as yet unknown.
So rather than running the risk of leaving tens of thousands of fans with limited access to phone calls, texts, video sharing and other mobile data apps, in 2013 a consortium of Brazil’s biggest network operators including Claro, Oi, Telefónica, and TIM, selected US company Ruckus Wireless to supply advanced indoor/outdoor smart Wi-Fi products and technology - to deliver high-speed Wi-Fi access within two of Brazil’s largest soccer stadiums: Estádio Nacional de Brasília and Arena Octávio Mangabeira.
Managing high levels of traffic
Given that they are 71,412 and 50,000-seaters respectively that’s a lot of traffic to manage.
“We are actually handling all the traffic for four different mobile operators,” explains Jussi Koria, regional carrier sales director at Ruckus. “In our previous experience upwards of 35 per cent of spectators use Wi-Fi during a normal game. That’s just local spectators so the percentage is going to be much higher during this World Cup.”
And it’s not just for relaying thousands of behind-the-goal selfies – the Wi-Fi also has to handle all of the traditional back office and operational needs like ticketing, point-of-sale, press box, etc.
“The key to this is to deploy enough access points to provide blanket coverage everywhere in the stadiums i.e. to have one single network,” says Koria.
To ensure reliable, high-performance Wi-Fi throughout the two stadiums, including all outdoor seating areas and indoor concourses, over 360 Ruckus ZoneFlex indoor and outdoor access points (APs), will be deployed - with over 200 in the Estádio Nacional alone.
“One of the major challenges of a stadium is that the seating is inclined rather than flat,” Koria continues. “So we deal with this by hanging dedicated APs from the roof/catwalk of the stadiums over the seating areas. Each AP has internal antennas covering a narrow sector of the seats and each seat ‘sees’ a few other neighbouring APs, which ensures that there is contiguous coverage in the whole bowl area. With this slight overlap, if one person has 'excessive use' of one access point, the other users can switch automatically to a neighbouring one.”
And just for back-up the Ruckus Wi-Fi system also provides for mechanisms that inhibit exorbitant use by a single over-zealous fan by limiting their throughput – thereby allowing both fair usage of the overall network and preserving quality.
Meanwhile, alongside thousands of concurrent Wi-Fi connections already buzzing in the stadium ether, there will also be hundreds of broadcasters bouncing signals from those all-important matches to TVs all around the world. And many of these broadcasters will be using wireless equipment provided by Vislink – a company that in 2012 provided the kit used to cover two-thirds of the major outside broadcast events in the world, including the London Olympics, the US Presidential Election and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
One of the advantages of a wireless camera is mobility – broadcasters can cover interviews, fan cam shots, sideline commentary etc. with multiple cameras or just one – without the need for rigging cables. In addition Vislink’s LMS-T digital system enables feeds from wireless cameras to be used alongside the video from a number of other wired cameras, without a visible signal delay.
But while Wi-Fi will be more than enough to keep football fans happy, it’s unlikely to have enough capacity to handle all the data for TV video stream.
“If you turn up with a camera that is relying on 4G or Wi-Fi transmission it’ll be fine on the day before a match but during the actual game when everybody turns up with all their phones and computers you won’t get a connection,” explains Owen Groves, principal design engineer at Vislink. “TV companies generally use different frequencies and bandwidths to the Wi-Fi and mobile networks, and each buys a slot of spectrum within which to operate privately without interruption. Also Vislink’s wireless video transmitters send data over RF/microwave at a higher frequency than most other operators which negates the chance of interference.”
Will they be ready for kick off?
Assuming, of course, that the frequencies have been correctly allocated. It’s the responsibility of FIFA to ensure that TV companies that have shelled out huge sums for rights are going to be able to get pictures out. But given that not all infrastructure will be completed by June 12 no matter how much overtime is put in and the Brazilian government has already acknowledged that communications inside stadiums won't be perfect could there be a blot on the transmission horizon?
Mark Anderson, Vislink’s marketing operations manager thinks not.
“With events like these things tend to pull together at the last minute,” Anderson says. “As long as they’ve allocated the frequencies correctly – there’s a guaranteed path for video. There is plenty of on-the-ground support for all the people down there with our kit. They will have 24-hour access to our engineers and we also have partners in Brazil who are well-versed in terms of technical challenges – so once it’s all up and running we should be OK.”
“A lot of preparation goes in to setting up and testing and as some of the stadiums will be used three or four times for matches, once they’re set up crews can go in any time,” Grove adds. “Receivers are usually permanently mounted on the SNG (satellite news gathering) trucks so the cameras can be operational as soon at the vehicle arrives.”
As for football fans being able to tweet and watch replays of the action Koria too is confident they won’t be let down at least not in the stadiums Ruckus is responsible for – both of which are due to host quarter-final matches.
“To my best knowledge this is the first ‘connected’ World Cup,” he says. “Consequently quite a lot of expertise, design and man-hours have gone into ensuring a quality network is up and running and with enough margins. There is a remote control area that watches the stadiums – so if anything goes wrong information can be relayed to the field people on standby – which includes dedicated Ruckus technicians.”