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.

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