SCWS 2022: Wireless connectivity for venues: getting the basics right

In May, after two years of virtual events, the Small Cells World Summit in London was back – with a full house, a packed agenda and many engaging presentations, discussions and interactions.

In the day one ‘Enterprise and Industry Requirements’ track my focus was on stadiums and venues – and an important question. There are multiple deployment solutions in this sector but are they able to meet today’s needs – and to adapt, reliably and affordably, to change?

With this in mind, I discussed Wembley Stadium and the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, both of whose wireless requirements we worked on from an early stage. We are still advisors for both venues today.

Though both venues have a lot of exciting wireless capabilities, it’s important to remember that for stadium owners the primary focus isn’t video downloads, data or internet access. It’s safety: getting people safely into and out of the stadium. Two-way radio – PMR – may be basic, but it certainly meets those needs, offering short and succinct communications on a reliable radio network. But cellular and Wi-Fi are growing in importance; when longer conversations are required, event managers and the safety staff will use mobile phones. A stadium system has to support this sort of audio communication.

Non-voice safety considerations are also becoming important: way finding and facial recognition for example. In the Euro2020 championships in Wembley Stadium Covid passes were required and, on occasion, mobile networks couldn’t cope. That made the safe movement of people difficult.

At the same time, it’s not entirely about safety and security. There are a lot of fixed line requirements, like LED displays and televisions, especially for replays and large-screen coverage. It is also true that uploads and streaming, mobile payments, event information, offers and deals are increasingly seen as useful ways to improve the visitor experience – and have commercial benefits to stadiums.

For many people these and other uses mean Wi-Fi, mobile coverage, IoT and radio communications – and that means wireless. Even where wired communications are favoured there are undoubted opportunities for wireless. Take CCTV. In Wembley Stadium there are 4k cameras streaming across into the control room. A wireless service that could carry real-time images from bodycams would surely be helpful and quick, especially compared to saving and uploading camera footage and getting it to the control room.

But wireless coverage remains an issue. At the moment, Wi-Fi services are often accessible in and around a venue’s concourse areas and restaurants, though rarely in a stadium bowl (Tottenham is a notable exception). This goes for mobile coverage too; it can be very expensive to bring mobile coverage to the bowl. Radio communications in the 400 – 450MHz spectrum (or TETRA at 390MHz for emergencies) is easier and cheaper to roll out but not usually accessible by stadium visitors.

Venues can surely do more with wireless. However, the wireless industry doesn’t always do itself any favours. Landlords and stadiums owners face multiple choices of technology. They may not really appreciate what these technologies can and cannot do. More likely that’s not their concern. They want their basic requirements met – and then, perhaps, something more. But they also want the options clearly explained.

And that’s our job: to work with landlords and owners, assess their requirements and see how wireless can deliver. We also help them understand what is possible with wireless beyond the here and now – and how it could benefit their operations.

If you want to have an appealing offering for mobile consumers, there are, at the moment, three ways of delivering or building mobile coverage inside a stadium…

One is through accommodating all mobile network operators. Single-operator systems are rarely viable.

Another approach is a landlord-owned system – a model, like Heathrow early this century, where a landlord has control of a unique environment with a lot of people going through it and can limit operators from delivering any type of service from outside in. This is now rare.

Then there are neutral hosts – a way to support multiple operators with less hardware. There is growing choice in the neutral host space especially as MNOs don’t seem to want to take on the provision of multi-operator systems.

But who pays for these stadium coverage models? It’s not clear. Models are emerging where the landlord, the mobile network or some sort of hybrid covers the costs. However, again, MNOs are not keen to go it alone.

Real Wireless has already worked with a variety of models in stadium coverage. Over time we do think neutral hosts will play a greater role. They can, potentially, bridge the gap between landlords and mobile operators, helping them to offer private services and public services on a single network.

This may do the job, offering an approach that delivers a reliable and consistent service. After safety, that’s the first thing venues are looking for.

And then there will be opportunities to do much more. But our message to all parties is to get the basics right first. The bells and whistles can follow afterwards.

Please click here to access a pdf download of the SCWS 2022 presentations (on-demand audio presentations available in due course).

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