If you've ever been to a sporting event and been frustrated by a completely congested cellular network that renders your smartphone dead in the water, you'll appreciate what the NFL's San Francisco 49ers are planning for their new stadium. When Santa Clara Stadium opens in the fall of 2014, all 68,500 fans who can fit inside the new venue will be able to simultaneously access a superfast Wi-Fi network, with speeds comparable to the high-speed LTE — at least, that's the plan. Ars Technica has the full scoop on how the 49ers plan to eclipse the Wi-Fi capabilities of any modern stadium operating today.
The 49ers senior IT director Dan Williams and CTO Kunal Malik both come from Facebook, where they had plenty of experience building one of the internet's largest and most stable networks. They're bringing that mentality to the 49ers' new stadium — "we see the stadium as a large data center," William told Ars. If all goes according to plan, the stadium will be able to host more than double the Wi-Fi traffic that was seen during Super Bowl XLVII; the Superdome (pictured above) had a Wi-Fi network during the game with a maximum capacity of 30,000 devices.
"We see the stadium as a large data center."
The 49ers plan is certainly ambitious — again, the team hopes to have over 68,000 devices connected without having to limit speeds or bandwidth in any way — but since the team is building from the ground up, it can make design choices that will help achieve this goal. While Williams wouldn't reveal the exact design of the network, he did tell Ars that the stadium will feature "zero to 1,500" Wi-Fi access points. That's a potentially significant jump over the Superdome's 750 during the Super Bowl or the 375 in the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium. (The Patriots' Wi-Fi network was installed before this past NFL season and has served up to 10,000 fans simultaneously, but the team admits that the system would not be able to serve everyone in a capacity crowd.)
"We'll probably be on, what, the iPhone 7 by then?"
There are definite challenges in the way of the 49ers' ambitious plan — the majority of devices still use 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, which is less effective than the 5GHz frequency which is starting to become more commonplace. While Santa Clara stadium will offer both, 80 percent of Wi-Fi users at Gillette Stadium used 2.4GHz devices last season. The hopes are that by 2014, many of those older devices will be replaced by 5GHz smartphones and tablets. "It's 2013, we have another year and a half of iteration," Williams told Ars. "We'll probably be on, what, the iPhone 7 by then? The move to 5GHz really just makes us lucky. We're doing this at the right time."
Regardless of any potential pitfalls, it seems likely that the new stadium will just be the latest in the movement of high-tech, connected sports venues. By the time the 49ers kick off in 2014, the team plans to have a Wi-Fi network in place that's so powerful, your smartphone won't be able to keep up with it. "The goal is to provide you with enough bandwidth that you would saturate your device before you saturate the network," Williams said. "That's what we expect to do."