UI hoping to boost cell reception, eventually add Web access at Memorial Stadium


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CHAMPAIGN — You're at the big game, trying to upload a selfie to Instagram or text your friends across the stadium — along with 40,000 other people. No signal — too much cell traffic in one place for the network to handle.

Things should run a bit more smoothly for fans at Memorial Stadium this season, with added capacity from Verizon and perhaps one other cellular company. A more permanent system of digital antennas is planned for next year.

And down the road, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics hopes to provide universal wireless Web access at Memorial Stadium, allowing Illini fans to upload photos to social media, stream video or order food from the concession stands on their tablets — without eating up their data plans or overloading cell networks.

It's an idea that's gone viral in collegiate and professional athletics. The University of Nebraska just finished a $12.3 million stadium upgrade that includes free public wireless access for 90,000-plus Husker fans, in time for this weekend's season opener. Wisconsin just installed a similar system, at a cost of $6.2 million.

Penn State, Texas Christian and Stanford universities also have wireless stadiums, as do the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.

Illinois hopes to follow suit sooner rather than later. It's a natural for a campus that's home to top-ranked engineering and computer-science departments and one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, Blue Waters.

"It can't move fast enough," said Marty Kaufmann, assistant athletic director for external relations and licensing. "We're a little behind where we'd like to be."

Wireless upgrade

The campus is at the start of a three-year, $8 million plan to upgrade and extend wireless service to every indoor academic space. Memorial Stadium and State Farm Center are not part of that project, but those spaces are being "looked at" for wireless coverage, said Brian Mertz, chief communications officer for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Systems.

The Illinois Net wireless network has access points throughout campus, but not at the stadium. Every student, faculty member or staff member can use the network through a UI account, or members of the public can set up a guest account.

CITES is working with departments and buildings across campus to identify their wireless needs and has talked with athletics about improving both cellular and wireless coverage at the stadium, Mertz said.

The stadium poses a number of challenges. First, the sheer number of people concentrated in one space. No other spot on campus draws that many people at once.

"On an average day, we'll see 65,000 devices connected to our campus network, but they're spread out all over campus, and spread out over the course of the day," Mertz said. "In the stadium, we may see 30,000, 40,000 people all trying to do something online. All in a relatively tight space, for a short amount of time. It's a different kind of load on the campus network."

The first day of classes posed a similar challenge this week, with a peak of 38,653 devices connected to the network. Some users weren't able to connect, though that problem's been resolved, Mertz said.

The other problem: where to install the wireless access points — sort of like the wireless router in your home that sends out signals to your laptop and other devices. They have to be in a spot where they can disperse coverage as far as possible, but also out of harm's way so they're not damaged, Mertz said.

In classrooms or other campus buildings, you'll typically see them mounted to the ceiling with small antennas sticking out. At Memorial Stadium, some could be hung on the ceilings of covered areas, but that wouldn't be enough. At other stadiums, they've been installed on the handrails in the aisles, which would require much smaller devices, Mertz said.

And given the stadium's historical significance, "We can't just go in and start drilling wherever we think it's best for connectivity."

It will take multiple access points to provide full coverage, he said. The campus has some experience with that in large lecture halls with hundreds of students, he said. The stadium would also need several dedicated servers to handle the thousands of connections. And lots of cable.

One of the big questions is cost. At other stadiums, it's run from $2 million to $6 million, Kaufmann said. The exact price will depend on the number of access points and cable required, he said.

"We're just trying to figure out at this point ranges of cost and options," Kaufmann said.

The $8 million approved this summer is for academic units, and Kaufmann expects athletics and other "auxiliary units" might have to pay their own way if they want to be included. But they could still achieve some economies of scale if they piggybacked on the campus upgrade.

"We're trying to see where the stadium fits in," Mertz said.

The three-year project is one step toward what IT folks call the "Internet of Things" — everyday devices like thermostats and light switches that are networked so they can be controlled automatically. Class schedules could be tied into heating and cooling systems so they kick on when someone's using the room, saving energy costs. Or a pill dispenser could text you when it's time to take your medicine.

Those advances are still down the road, but the campus is installing the infrastructure now to handle it "so when we do get to these future endeavors, wireless connectivity won't be an issue," Mertz said.

The upgrade project will make the UI campus one of the largest wireless environments in higher education, both in terms of access points and the number of people who can use it simultaneously, Mertz said.

"We'll have a much more connected campus once we're done," he said.

Cell coverage

In the meantime, athletics is working with CITES to improve cell phone coverage at the stadium.

"During the games it's been very, very limited," said Kent Brown, associate athletic director for media relations. "A lot of it is just overload. So many people have smart phones."

For this season, Verizon installed a mobile cell site at the southwest corner of the stadium with a huge antenna that reaches above the bleachers to enhance its signal and add capacity over its high-speed network.

"It should dramatically improve coverage inside and outside of the stadium for Verizon users," Kaufmann said. The hope is that AT&T will do the same soon.

Next year, small antennas will be installed throughout the stadium and nearby facilities through an outside vendor, which will then work with Verizon, AT&T and other carriers to provide better access, Kaufmann said.

The improvements are mostly for texting and cell phone calls, Kaufmann said.

But that will allow for more fan interactions and improve guest services and security, Kaufmann said. For example, the stadium advertises a number that fans can text if they need an usher or security, and "we need to make sure if we do that the texts come through," he said.

"If there's an evacuation plan in the event of severe weather, you'd like to think that fans can communicate with each other in today's age," he added.

Complaints from fans haven't been "overwhelming," but "we've just heard enough," said Kaufmann, who's had some frustrations himself trying to text other staff members during the game.

"Sometimes it works great. Sometimes we have issues. That's common throughout the country.

"If a lot of people are at the game, and they're all trying to use it at once, we have issues. If there's not a lot of people, we don't have issues. We're just trying to plug the gaps."

Around the Big Ten

Expect to see lots of Badger and Husker selfies on Twitter this football season. Wisconsin and Nebraska just finished installing wireless access at their stadiums as well as Nebraska's basketball arena. Here are some details:


Venue: Memorial Stadium

Capacity: Over 90,000 fans

Wireless project: Installed "Cisco Connected," which includes free wireless Internet service (no password required) and an Internet-protocol, high-definition television.

Details: More than 800 wireless access points (routers) mounted on ceilings, in antennas or in handrails in the aisles. One of the biggest costs involved running cable to the routers and the 800 digital media players.

Cost: Part of a $12.3 million stadium upgrade that also included a new sound system and creating a game-day smartphone app.

Coming soon: Expanding the service to the parking lot and other areas around the stadium.

Quote: "One of the side benefits is that if they're on Wi-Fi accessing the network, they're not on the cellular system. We're offloading traffic, which should make the cell system function better." — Dan Floyd, Nebraska's director of information technology.


Venue: Camp Randall Stadium

Capacity: 80,321

Wireless project: Installed wireless service and Cisco's "Stadium Vision," which includes 700 TVs with the ability to broadcast games, video and athletic department promotional content.

Details: Routers installed in handrails and other locations throughout the stadium. Camp Randall also has a distributed antenna system for cell phone coverage, which is being expanded.

Cost: $6.2 million.

Coming soon: Adding wireless to the Kohl Center, Wisconsin's basketball and hockey arena.

Quote: "It's a pretty hot topic nationally in athletic venues. You go to an airport, you go to a hotel, you go to a coffee shop, a library, wherever, you're able to get connected all the time. It's just the reality of life in 2014. We want our fans to be able to be connected." — Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

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