The O2 Arena is multi-purpose indoor arena built underneath the iconic Millennium Dome. It’s held the crown as the world’s most successful concert venue for the last 11 years selling more than 2 million tickets in 2018. With up to 20,000 fans eager to share pictures and videos of their experience with friends and family, spotty Wi-Fi simply won’t do.
So when we got the opportunity to quiz the man responsible for designing the Wi-Fi network at the O2 and numerous other stadiums across the UK we jumped at the chance. We spoke to Greg about his approach to designing stadium Wi-Fi and how tools like Ekahau Site Survey and the Ekahau Sidekick™ make the process easier.
Date of interview: Tuesday 6th November 2018
Hi, can you please start by introducing yourself?
Hello, my name is Greg Martin, and I’m the Technical Design Authority for High-Density and Connected Stadia at O2. I have been working here for just over seven years, and although my main focus has been on the sports and stadia industry, I also look after complex and high-density Wi-Fi deployments across the UK, for both public and corporate Wi-Fi.
During my time with O2, I have designed and delivered many high-density public Wi-Fi solutions for Football, Rugby, music and entertainment venues across the UK.
How has the role of stadium wireless changed in recent years?
There has definitely been an increase in demand for wireless and it’s a sector where we see a lot of growth. Traditionally there have been small pockets of wireless covering some back-of-house hospitality areas, but in areas where large numbers of people congregate, Wi-Fi has generally offered a poor experience.
The focus now is on deploying reliable high-performance wireless solutions that allow fans to interact and engage during the event. Connectivity is something that fans expect so they can check transport information, upload photos and videos to social media, order merchandise and even pre-order food and beverages. Stadium owners are also leveraging the benefits of Wi-Fi to increase productivity and drive down operational costs.
It’s not just Wi-Fi of course, mobile and fixed also have their part to play, but Wi-Fi is certainly becoming an essential service throughout the majority of venues today. It’s an exciting time for us and we are currently working with several sporting venues on developing their Digital strategy.
What about the operational side of things?
Wireless is becoming increasingly more important for stadium owners and operational teams. They are looking to Wi-Fi for innovative solutions to challenges like communicating with stewards and security staff, digital ticketing, smart compliance, queue monitoring, managing building infrastructure and a plethora of other event day requirements.
Some clubs have a very clear objectives, but many are looking to a trusted advisor like O2 to come in and explain how they can best achieve their goals.
With the number of projects O2 has delivered, you must have a good idea on what works and what doesn’t?
Yes, we have a wealth of experience to draw from. The more projects we successfully deliver the more we know how to best approach a particular challenge. We’ve started to see many more requests from customers and these help us tailor our products and services to better match their business goals.
What are the biggest challenges in deploying stadium Wi-Fi?
The biggest and most obvious challenge is finding suitable mounting locations for the access points (APs). To provide good performance you need to keep the distance between the APs and the clients to a minimum and along with maintaining a small cell size.
We try to use overhead gantries and roofs where possible…If the roof is too high or it’s too difficult to install APs on then we have to look at other options, which could be from the front or behind seating tiers, or shooting out from the sides. The problem with the latter is this is that you then need to factor in the attenuation caused by walls, pillars and the human bodies.
Venues with metal roofs also create a challenge because you effectively have a Faraday cage with RF bouncing around all over the place. Then you need to find the right balance between power levels, SNR, and co-channel interference to optimise and tune the RF environment.
How do you calculate the capacity requirements for a stadium?
It’s a mixture of the capacity of the venue, the expected client uptake, (how many people will want to use the Wi-Fi), and what types of applications the client devices are using.
We are seeing client uptake grow year-on-year. In sporting venues, it sits around 30 to 40%, but in media areas, you see much higher numbers, and the people in those areas usually have two or three devices and are data hungry.
In music venues like the O2 Arena, we see considerably higher numbers in terms of uptake and data usage than sporting venues. This becomes an even greater problem when you have a concert with an artist who attracts a younger demographic. This is because a lot of the fans are live streaming, or uploading photos and videos to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. The social media savvy generation are really pushing the boundaries of Wi-Fi and how we deliver it.
The O2 Arena is a multi-purpose indoor arena located under the former Millennium Dome. It has the second highest seating capacity of any indoor venue in the United Kingdom, and is the busiest music venue in the world.
So how do you actually design a wireless network for a stadium?
Once we have carried out the initial customer engagement we conduct what we call an IWT (Initial Walk Through). We go to a site, take photographs and measurements, and carry out an audit of what they currently have, both from a Wi-Fi and supporting LAN infrastructure point of view.
We then take that information away and create a predictive model with Ekahau planner. Due to the nature of these environments, I manually place access points on the map rather than using the auto-planner, because it just wouldn’t be appropriate. The predictive designs can be really accurate and Ekahau lets you select exactly which access points and antennae you are going to use, and adjust the mounting height, angle and power levels etc.
We believe that time investment at this stage is really valuable, shows our experience and demonstrates the level of detail we put into our proposals.
Once the contract is signed, we send a team to the site to conduct a physical survey to validate the predictive model using Ekahau Site Survey and Ekahau Sidekick.
Many of our projects are for new builds or extensions to existing venues, so “when” you choose to do the survey is key. You need the construction to have progressed sufficiently so that you get an accurate picture of what the RF environment will look like, but you don’t want it so advanced that you have to retrospectively run cables where ceilings and cable baskets have already been covered up.
When the team arrives, they are effectively walking into a building site. You can imagine how confusing and disorientating it can be with different tradespeople and building materials all over the place. Deciding where to put your first AP-on-a-stick can be pretty daunting if you don’t have a plan to survey against. Due to the fact we already have a predictive RF model to work from, the team can hit the ground running and it becomes more of validation exercise than creating a design from scratch.
You mentioned using an AP-on-a-Stick, which must be quite a challenge in a stadium?
Yes, we have to put APs in some quite challenging places…this may involve hanging them from gantries, using custom-made tripods and sometimes hiring equipment like cherry-pickers. An example would be the custom survey rigs that we designed and built for the London Stadium. They were used to support the access points and antennae being hung from each of the iconic lighting paddles around the roof! We had to use our specialist roping teams to secure them in place.
Once the APs are in place we carry out a full survey with Ekahau and the Sidekick to make sure we have sufficient cell overlap and coverage.
Built to host London 2012, the former Olympic Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London Stadium is home to West Ham United in the Premier League, to UK Athletics as well as playing host to global entertainers in concerts through the summer months.
Has the Ekahau Sidekick improved the way you do surveys?
Absolutely, I have used the Sidekick numerous times myself and the feedback from the rest of the team has been extremely positive. It’s very rare that you get a bit of IT equipment that everyone instantly loves, enjoys using and genuinely makes your job easier.
In the past, we used to use dual USB survey adaptors and Spectrum Analyzers all connected to an external USB hub. Looking back this was quite cumbersome and fiddly to set up, and dongles could easily get knocked or damaged. All of these devices draw power from the laptop or tablet, requiring regular trips to the comms room to recharge the battery, which isn’t ideal, especially in a stadium because of the distances involved.
The Sidekick eliminates both of those problems because it has an internal battery, which means we can survey for longer. It’s also much less unwieldy and you can literally throw it over your shoulder and forget about it. The faster sampling rate also means the speed of the survey is more efficient, and you can walk at a normal pace, rather than having to stop or slow down for the data to be captured.
Once you have deployed the APs do you go back and do a validation survey?
Yes, we call it a data capture and tuning exercise in which we do another survey with Ekahau and the Sidekick to collect all the data. We then analyse this data within Ekahau, decide if we need to make any physical changes (such as the height and angle of access points), or make any controller-based configuration changes. We then repeat the survey in any areas where we have made changes to check they have had the desired effect.
Finally, we also carry out surveys at a number of test events…as you can appreciate Wi-Fi works very differently in an empty venue compared to when it has 57,000 people using it.
I’ve completed over 20 to 30 designs with Ekahau, and it’s really satisfying when the real-world deployment closely mirrors our predictive designs. It gives us great confidence in our process and the choices that we are making during the design phase.
Although we have made a significant investment in Ekahau Sidekick and Site Survey software, it is paying dividends in terms of efficiency and the accuracy of surveys. In my opinion, organisations who want to be successful in the industry need the best possible tools.
What’s next for O2?
We continue to onboard new and innovative products within the Sports and Leisure practice.
We have a dedicated team with a wealth of experience in the industry and are always looking for new ways to further improve and develop our Wi-Fi and Cellular designs.
This in conjunction with O2’s wider portfolio of digital services can really help businesses and Stadium owners reduce operation costs, make venues more productive and enhance the fan experience through technology.