Wi-Fi for the Masses

A Kansas City soccer stadium's new Wi-Fi network allows 18 000 simultaneous connections

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

What makes for the perfect sports stadium? Natural grass, of course. How about 300 HDTVs? How about a canopy roof that shades every seat? How about a wireless network powerful enough that everyone in the stadium could be on the Internet with their smartphones and tablets at the same time?

Last month, Kansas City’s major league soccer team, Sporting Kansas City, got a new home stadium. The canopy roof was probably on everyone’s wish list—it’s going to hit 96 degrees there today—but the wireless network was the vision of one man—the team’s new CIO and chief architect, Asim Pasha.

Back in January, he came to the team with the idea of creating the perfect fan experience, which for him meant that even if every one of the 18 000 seats was occupied by a fan using their phone to order food, check scores, and post play-by-play updates to their Facebook accounts, no one would lose a connection.

My guest today is that man with a plan, Asim Pasha. He joins us by phone from Kansas City. Asim, welcome to the podcast.

Asim Pasha: Oh, thank you, Steven. Glad to be here.

Steven Cherry: Asim, for 15 years, the Kansas City soccer team, which used to be called the Wizards, were basically homeless. On June 9th, they played their first true home game. At around 6 pm, the first tailgaters started to enter the stadium. What was that night like from an IT perspective?

Asim Pasha: Steven, I think it was a very exciting time. For one, it was the test for our vision that we had been working feverishly on for six months; at the same time there was a little bit of reservation, because a lot of the stuff that we had deployed and designed was being done for the first time in any sports venue in the world, and there were some unknowns that we wanted to see what happens when you have 18 000 people in the seats. So it was kind of mixed emotion—we were all excited but at the same time nervous and running around feverishly making sure that everything was working as planned, and I’m glad to say that for 95 percent of it went better than expected.

Steven Cherry: So let’s say I’m a big soccer fan. I’ve driven 9 hours from, I don’t know, Milwaukee for the game, I’ve got my Android phone, my iPad tablet. It’s a full house. So what you’re saying is it’s guaranteed I’m going to connect and even have a good data rate?

Asim Pasha: That is correct. It is definitely something that we had expected. And if you look at Wi-Fi in general, when you have 25 to 30 people on one access point, we define—historically, a good throughput was defined as 1 megabit per second dedicated connection to your device. And our hope was that you will exceed that, because the kind of things we want to do require the bandwidth. And on day one, when we had about 19 000 people with standing room capacity, we were running at about 7, 7½ megs download speed. And then at the max capacity we hit about 2½ megabits per second, which is better than most you have seen in the world today.

Steven Cherry: That’s pretty remarkable. You said that this in some ways really hadn’t been done before. I guess you’re using some new equipment from Cisco that’s specifically designed for this kind of stadium or large crowd experience.

Asim Pasha: That is correct. They have a product called the Connected Stadium Wi-Fi, which is their commercial name. It actually is what we call a high-density wireless, where you get the ability to target each stand in the stadium with its own dedicated RF bandwidth. Then it’s able to isolate signals to that one section by itself so that people don’t get overlap and crossovers, and you get a much better connection stability and throughput on an ongoing basis.

Steven Cherry: So I guess the access point itself—you know, we’re used to—in our own homes we have these little Wi-Fi routers, and this is really sort of like a giant Wi-Fi router. I guess it’s like the difference between a car and a truck.

Asim Pasha: Well, it’s a little more than that. I like to say that it’s the difference between a car and a very highly sophisticated Ferrari truck is how I define it. It’s definitely physically much bigger, but also it’s really a combination of two of their old technologies Cisco used in the past. And what they did was, they looked at the venues they’ve done and said we need a better design, aesthetically as well as technically, so that we can provide coverage which is dedicated and we can provide the flexibility of an omni or a universal RF antenna in the same product. And that’s what it comes out to be.

Steven Cherry: So there’s a bunch of other networking going on behind the scenes—those 300 HDTVs are…

Asim Pasha: Correct. Steve, actually there are 21 systems in the stadium, and I can tell you that every single one of them, even my sprinkler system, uses Wi-Fi to be controlled. And we have a very solid foundation behind this. We’ve put in what we call a 10-gigabit multimode fiber; we have 146 miles of it that runs across the stadium and wires up the 13 data centers that run. And then we create almost like a virtual subsection of the stadium in every zone so that each set of fan base is partitioned into smaller networks. And then they all converge back to this 10-gig multimode fiber that I talked about that runs across, that powers up everything from IPTV to security cameras to sprinkler systems to everything.

Steven Cherry: Yeah. The sprinkler system sounds good; that’s a reflection of that natural grass again.

Asim Pasha: There we go [laughter].

Steven Cherry: Tell us about the ordering food online from your seat.

Asim Pasha: Uh huh. So what we tried to achieve and what I mentioned was the ultimate fan experience to me was to let you stay in tune with the game, and yet have the services and the convenience and the excitement that you can layer on top of the game that’s going on on the field. Now soccer, unlike NFL or major league baseball, does not have natural stops in the middle of every quarter or half, right? We run 45-minute halves. That really means that I’m glued to the seat for 45 minutes, and if I’m thirsty or I need to get something, I’m going to leave my seat and miss the action and that stuff. So our thought process is, everybody on their smartphone is able to place an order using their membership profile. And then the payment is already stored in that profile so they don’t have to swipe any credit cards or any mobile devices or anything of that sort. And then we know your seat number; we know where you’re sitting at because every seat has a QR code. That QR code really tells me that when you walk in, I make you, I request each fan to scan the QR code so I can kind of register you, your location in the stadium. And then when you place the order, the food is brought to your seat; you don’t have to get up and go away even for 30 seconds. Kind of keep you in the game throughout the 90-minute session rather than trying to get you moving back and forth.

Steven Cherry: Wow. I want the restaurants I go to to work that way too, actually.

Asim Pasha: [laughs] That’s our hope.

Steven Cherry: So people think of sort of your smartphone at a stadium as being a distraction, but in a way it’s just the reverse.

Asim Pasha: That’s right, because in our venue, Steve, what we do is not just the food ordering but the actual ability to play what we call a sporting explorer app, which is a live-play trivia game. So as you watch the game you are sent a question every 3 minutes, or you can lock in your answers prior to the game, even starting up, based on your confidence level. And when you submit the answers you are awarded points, affinity points, for number one, participating, and two, getting answers right. Which kind of increases the fans’ observation of the game and starts to make them think about what’s going on and what’s going to happen next, right? So this is happening whether it’s an away game or a home game, you can play this online app every single Sporting KC match that happens.

Steven Cherry: So you came to the club in January. Did you arrive with this vision or how did it work out?

Asim Pasha: Well, it’s kind of interesting, because I was told one thing, which was we want to create a venue where the fans can elevate their level of experience inside the venue and be able to connect them even if they can’t make it to the game, right? That’s the total mission statement I was given back in January. What I did was I kind of went around the country; I went to some of the biggest NFL venues that have done a good job with the technology side, and I noticed that they all went as far as building a network, but they never really started to use that network to engage the fans. And I come from a software development background, and to me that was a natural next step was to not only build a network but to also build apps that utilize the network and get the fans more involved with the process. So this was more of a definition over time, and we did not launch our software development cycle until about March of this year, so about 2½ months before the opening and firmed up all these pieces.

Steven Cherry: It’s interesting that you traveled around the country. You know, back in March Google announced that the city of Kansas City would get an experimental ultrahigh-speed fiber to the home network, which I guess they’re going to try and roll out next year. (And by the way, I should mention that’s Kansas City, Kansas, and the stadium is on the Kansas side of the border as well. And for my listeners in places like Korea and New York, where they don’t know anything about the U.S. Midwest, Kansas City, Missouri, is the larger of the two—it’s about three times as big.) Anyway, is the Google network coming to the same city as your superwired stadium just a coincidence?

Asim Pasha: Actually, it was a coincidence, because the stadium as you know was conceived back in February 2010, and actually our CEO, Rob Hineman, was instrumental in bringing Google to town. One of the exciting factors for Google picking this spot was, besides many other things, was the fact that they had a high-tech venue and a sports organization that was passionate about technology so they could use that ability to drive content and traffic onto the fiber, right? So that kind of drove them in that direction as well, but I think Google was actually the end of March, after the fact, but now I think our partnership together is going to showcase both sides.

Steven Cherry: Very good. I guess I’m also wondering, how well do you think this will scale up? I mean, there are college stadiums that have 100 000 people; there’s a million people who come to Times Square to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. How far do you think this can go?

Asim Pasha: Great question, Steve. So our next iteration, as I said, obviously we are enhancing the in-venue stuff. I have had inquiries obviously from the local teams, the Royals and Chiefs, who want to go do the same thing. I’ve had contacts from some East Coast and West Coast NFL teams who think this is a pretty cool idea. And then the whole MLS league itself—I was with them last month—are looking to roll this out across the whole, all the 20 venues, and then create kind of a connected league kind of a concept, right? That’s number one. Number two, the biggest challenge that you find in sports today is the content, the actual live broadcast feed that is available to the fans and is kind of blocked off because of the whole rights issue that you face. I mean, NFL makes a lot of money from TV rights and all that stuff, and with MLS our hope is to kind of break that mold. And we are working on something with Google and Microsoft and IBM in creating a new-age cloud which actually is a media exchange concept, where fans can receive real-time game feed on their tablets, on their iPhones outside the venue, and they can customize their own perspectives and create their own kind of streams of video and share it with other members in the cloud. So my goal in the next six months is to take this technology benefit outside the venue as well and connect the whole league together. So I think this is just a starting point.

Steven Cherry: Very good. And what about that million-person crowd at New Year’s Eve?

Asim Pasha: So I think, in my mind, once you get this outside the venue option created and this media exchange built out, then the possibility of accessing content is as difficult as how fast can you get it into the cloud?

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, thanks a lot and good luck. And it’s pretty impressive what you’ve done already.

Asim Pasha: Thank you, Steve, appreciate the time. Thank you.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Asim Pasha, CIO for Sporting Kansas City, about what might be the most tech-savvy sports stadium in the world. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 19 July 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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