Private networks Panel

On Any Given Sunday: This Private Wireless Network Has to Work 

Several years ago, the NFL’s former VP of Technology Solutions John Cave and his team were looking for a sideline communications system for coaches to use during games. The league had been using TV white spaces to provide wireless communication at least until 2015, but the channels were unreliable and the system actually experienced an ill-timed outage one year during a Super Bowl. 

That’s when they knew it was time for a change, and someone suggested using the existing Wi-Fi systems at stadiums. 

“So we tried that at a Pro Bowl – not on coaches but on ourselves,” said Cave. “We tested all week long and it worked great in an empty stadium. We were able to get full coverage across the entire playing surface of the field. 

“On game day, once fans began coming in about an hour before kick off, what once worked at 300 feet was now down to about 80 feet,” he said. “And once it really filled up, we barely got 15 or 20 feet. The noise of all those other devices completely knocked us out even though we were coordinated on the channels in the stadium. It was at that point we knew Wi-Fi was not going to be sufficient for us.” 

Cave participated on a panel at Connect (X) that explored some of the successful use cases of private wireless, how Wi-Fi and private wireless work together and what the return on investment is for private wireless. The panel was moderated by Harish Nalinakshan, a principal at PwC, and included insights from Ken Sandfeld, SVP Indoor/Outdoor Wireless Solutions at JMA Wireless, and Scott Cohen, executive director, strategic wireless solutions at Comcast Business. 

Cave said the NFL must coordinate more than 800 frequencies for a game the size of the Super Bowl, including security, halftime show, pregame, officials communication, coach-to-player communication, coaches communication and all the wireless cameras in the stadiums. The NFL deployed a CBRS-based private network in all 30 of its stadiums in 2021 and has had two full seasons of what Cave calls tremendous success. 

“Our litmus test is, it has to work at critical events,” he said. “If it works there, you can make it work anywhere. 

“If you’re on a phone call or a Zoom conference, and all of a sudden somebody begins to sound terrible and they break up or drop out for a period of time, we’re frustrated by it,” said Cave. “A coach doesn’t get frustrated. He throws a lot of choice four-letter words at me. I get phone calls the next day which aren’t very pleasant, so from my perspective there is tremendous value.” 

To make it all work, the NFL had to reach out to many different managed service providers to not only handle installations but also to validate connectivity. Teams would visit each stadium to simulate a game day and set service level agreements that had to be achieved even in the most difficult-to-reach spots in the venue when everyone was talking and all the lights were on. 

The pandemic proved to be an opportune time to test CBRS networks while stadiums were empty, but it created unique challenges as well. Social distancing requirements didn’t allow an accurate simulation of players and coaches on sidelines using actual people. 

“We would get hundreds of those five-gallon buckets at Home Depot filled with water and stack them all up four high and two wide and lay them all out in the bench area like it’s a bunch of 320-pound people. Then we would test the living daylights out of it just to make sure that it worked. 

“The cool thing is we were able to get to a standard configuration that works in all 30 locations,” said Cave. “If you watch a game, look somewhere around the 30-yard line on the field wall –  in some cases no higher than three feet off the ground – you might see a little white antenna. In some cases they put banners across so you might see a little bulge but that’s where it is.” 

For the NFL, a private wireless network that works perfectly on gameday is the return on its investment. However, it architected its systems upfront so that it could pay off financially as well.  

“I had one of those unique use cases in which we did not want to interoperate with anybody else,” said Cave. “We don’t want anybody else getting on the network, consuming the bandwidth, or potentially interfering.”  

But how many events does the NFL have in a given stadium every year, he asked.  

“When you begin to think of these things more broadly you can architect it so that it’s open – so that when Taylor Swift comes in to do a concert, we can make that ROI work by architecting it in upfront.”