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Cisco's Sporting Life

Sporting events and venues have been going wireless using Wi-Fi for a few years, but the market appears to be heating up, at least in Cisco Systems's patch. A premier supplier of Wi-Fi infrastructure equipment since its acquisition of Aironet Wireless four years ago, the networking giant has in recent months been part of no fewer than five sports-related Wi-Fi deployments.

They range from a major implementation at Minute Maid Park, home of baseball's Houston Astros, to temporary deployments at racing events such as the Wales Rally GB, part of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Marine Corps Marathon and the All-American Soap Box Derby. The Red Bull Cheever Racing Team, an Indy car outfit, is also using Cisco Wi-Fi gear to transmit telemetry information from its cars as they roar around the track.

"It's not exactly coincidence," says Ann Sun, Cisco's senior manager of wireless and mobility marketing. "We had early deployments at sporting events even before we acquired Aironet. But it's more an extension of the work we've done with other kinds of public events and other kinds of campus-like settings such as universities."

Cisco has not identified and targeted sports events and venues as a distinct market, Sun says. Most of the business came through Cisco distributors and resellers in any case. The market is becoming more important, though, and Cisco and its partners have other sports-related deals on the table and deployments the company can't talk about yet.

A more important trend reflected in the current sports projects is the growing number of Wi-Fi implementations with both a public and a private component, Sun says. The system at Minute Maid Park, implemented by Cisco partner Wide Area Management Services Inc. (WAMS) and operated by Time Warner Cable of Houston, is a perfect example.

The park uses the Wi-Fi network to provide high-speed connectivity to media personnel who need to file articles and images during games to meet their deadlines. It's also using the network to connect automated ticket turnstiles which eliminate the need for ticket takers in some areas. Fans can use Wi-Fi to access the Internet on their laptops, PDAs or smart phones.

"The park is able to reduce operations costs, increase efficiency and provide better service to the fans — all the good benefits," Sun says. "Plus there's the upside potential for revenues [from fans]."

Not that many fans currently bring Wi-Fi devices to the ball park, she admits, but many do take their mobile phones everywhere they go. As more and more upgrade to Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones and PDA phones, wireless access at the park may become very attractive. Fans at Minute Maid can currently check player statistics using Time Warner Cable's Road Runner service. In future, they may also be able to stream video replays and highlights from other games and order food from park concessions using their handheld devices.

Sun argues that Cisco has a competitive advantage over some other equipment vendors in such public-private implementations. "The network architecture we have gives us the ability to easily support private and public applications over a single network," she says. "That's why you see some of these venues adopting Cisco and why mobile carriers are committed to Cisco."

Cisco's strong record on security innovations — perhaps less relevant now with the emergence of the industry-wide 802.11i security standard — is another factor, Sun says. If you have members of the public using the same network that carries sensitive internal information, you want to be very sure the security is uncrackable, she points out.

WAMS completed the Minute Maid Park implementation in just two weeks, in time for the 75th Annual All-Star Game on July 22. This was fairly impressive considering the network covers nearly 29 acres including all 40,950 seats, restaurants, entrances, exits and common areas. The challenge was more than just the sheer size of the venue, though, Sun says.

"You have to consider, for example, that potentially every single fan might be using the network at some point. As well, you have to deal with a lot of metal and concrete and moving bodies. It's a very complex environment for wireless."

It took more than 90 Aironet 1200 802.11b/g access points to cover the property. WAMS also used the CiscoWorks Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE) for managing the infrastructure, Cisco Catalyst units for switching and Cisco Access Routers to connect the APs to the wired network.

Speed of deployment has always been a feature of wireless technologies, especially Wi-Fi, and it's particularly important for many of the Cisco sports events, including the 2004 Marine Corps Marathon, an annual event hosted in Washington DC since 1976 by the Marine Corps Reserve.

Organizers needed a temporary network that could be erected quickly outdoors but provide reliable, high-speed data connectivity. The idea was to deliver runners' times from monitoring stations along the route to the marathon's site on the Internet. Spectators, sponsors and reporters covering the event all wanted to be able to more precisely track runners' times and know their up-to-the-minute positions.

The 18,000 runners all had microchips from ChampionChip attached to their shoelaces. As they crossed special antenna mats throughout the course, the ChampionChip system recorded their time and relayed the data over a Cisco Wi-Fi network set up along the route. Marathon organizers say they will be using a similar Wi-Fi network next year as well.

Cisco again has an advantage over other vendors when it comes to outdoor, temporary networking environments, Sun says. Its equipment features support for Power over Ethernet (PoE), which makes it easier to cable access points. It also offers a line of products with metal enclosures designed for use in harsh environments that require a plenum rating — a fire resistance spec, usually for Ethernet cabling.

The All-American Soap Box Derby is a downhill race in gravity-powered cars driven by young people. This year, its 67th, held in Akron OH with a field of 500, organizers used a Cisco wireless solution to enable communications along the track, real-time scoring and Webcasting of race video for parents and families. That was the private component. Spectators and exhibitors at the event could also access the Internet over the Wi-Fi network.

Perhaps the most impressive of the Cisco sports applications is the one deployed by the Red Bull Cheever Racing Team. The team uses hardened, vibration- and heat-resistant Cisco Mobile Access Routers mounted in the noses of its sleek Indy cars, which rocket around the track at 200 mph and faster. The router transmits 180 channels of data from the car's sophisticated telemetry systems over a track-side local area Wi-Fi network.

The data collected covers everything from velocity to engine temperature to tire pressure. Pit crews and engineers receive it in real time on laptops and use custom software to analyze it and decide what they need to do to the cars at each pit stop. The Wi-Fi solution was a big improvement on the telemetry system the team was using before, which couldn't deliver enough bandwidth or provide the coverage to get all the data the crew needed from all points on the track.

"The business benefit of that," says Sun, "is competitive advantage. They're getting real time information rather than guessing at what needs to be done. It's really the same reason a lot of corporate environments are deploying Wi-Fi — so employees can have constant access to information wherever they are."

Which may be the real point of the Wi-Fi experience in high-profile, glamorous sporting events and venues. The business requirements aren't really so different from what they are in mainstream enterprises: simple, cost-effective network deployment to provide anytime, anywhere information for both internal and external users.