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5G technology in smart stadiums puts fans first

Feb. 21, 2023
The nascent technology standard for broadband cellular networks can enable more real-time activity, making the user experience more interactive and safe.

As fans flood back into stadiums, technology holds the promise to taking live events to new heights. Smart stadium technology like the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) can make sports events and concerts more engaging, convenient, and safe. The vehicle for that transformation? 5G.

With venues increasingly competing for live events, stadiums must deliver memorable fan experiences. In today’s hyperconnected world, the answer lies in smart technology. Enabling that technology on a stadiumwide scale requires fast and resilient networks.

How 5G supports smart stadium technology

One key challenge in enabling smart stadium technology is bandwidth. A smart stadium must support thousands of connections from fans’ phones and potentially thousands more from the venue’s own IoT devices. Stadiums traditionally deploy Wi-Fi networks to support their users, with at least 25 NFL stadiums alone seeing more than 30,000 users on these networks per event, according to Extreme Networks. However, a typical Wi-Fi router can only support approximately 250 devices, and speeds drop dramatically as connections approach the router limit. Consequently, scaling up to meet a crowd of thousands’ online needs quickly becomes inefficient and expensive.

The 4G networks most fans access through their own cellular plans are insufficient, too. Compared to the 2,000 devices 4G can support per 0.38 square mile, 5G can support up to 1 million connections thanks to its wider range of spectrums and frequency bands, according to a 2017 CIO article. Since 5G uses a more distributed network and more frequencies, it enables faster speeds, more bandwidth, and less latency.

Fans can upload and download information faster, and smart devices throughout the stadium can send and react to data in near real time. Achieving similar results with 4G or conventional Wi-Fi networks would be impossible.

This potential has drawn billions of dollars in 5G investments, leading to hundreds of thousands of cell site installations in 2020 alone. Stadiums can capitalize on this movement by working with providers to set up 5G small cells—effectively, distributed mini-cell towers—to give fans access to 5G-powered wireless networks. As these networks expand, they could revolutionize the live event experience.

Offering more engaging fan experiences

One of the most enticing benefits of 5G smart stadium technology is its ability to enable novel fan experiences. The Phoenix Suns practice facility uses 5G to support machine vision cameras and sensors to track shot selection, ball movement, and player stats, according to a 2022 case study by GSMA. Similar systems could provide this information to fans using 5G’s speed to analyze data from on-field sensors and display it on screens, taking immersion to a new level.

With faster, more reliable connections, fans can interact with live events in new ways. Audiences could place bets and receive payouts on their phones as the action unfolds, and even place bets on specific plays. Stadiums can also create event-specific augmented reality (AR) experiences or display social media fan reactions in real time on screens.

During Super Bowl LV, the NFL showcased 5G-enabled AR experiences with the app NFL Ultra Toss, according to a March 2021 article in Fierce Wireless. Fans virtually tossed footballs into a digital truck that appeared on their phones’ view of the field; 5G’s connectivity enabled them to see other fans’ tosses, which rallied the crowd.

Since 5G uses a more distributed network and more frequencies, it enables faster speeds, more bandwidth, and less latency.

Security improvements

Smart stadiums also offer more security by supporting new safety technologies and providing the data speeds necessary for AI analytics. With advances such as smart cameras, owners and operators gain more real-time insight and control over developing situations.

At least five NFL teams currently use AI security scans at their home stadiums, according to an August 2022 article in Sports Business Journal. These systems use machine vision and smart sensors so venue security can avoid long lines. 5G lets stadiums apply these security analytics on a broader scale, as it supports more data throughput and faster speeds. Machine-learning algorithms can analyze data from live video feeds from smart cameras around seats, near concession stands, and around the playing field to detect suspicious activity or understand crowd movements.

Similar systems can direct crowds toward the nearest or least-crowded exit if an evacuation is necessary. Solutions like Verizon and Amazon’s joint Edge Crowd Analytics platform use 5G to process lidar and optical data in real time to help stadiums understand and guide crowds’ movements.

Venue services on call

Smart stadium technology powered by 5G can streamline more than security features. Some stadiums let fans order merchandise or concessions from their seats via a smartphone app. Since 5G is up to 100 times faster than 4G, these systems can provide up-to-date information on wait times and inventory.

San Diego’s Petco Park uses a private 5G network to run its concessions, merch, and ticketing processes to make these workflows faster and more convenient. With more than 1,000 staffers working each game day, according to a 2021 Boingo Wireless press release, other wireless technologies don’t offer the bandwidth or speeds required to run these apps efficiently. With 5G, the stadium could offer inventory updates in near real time, as well as wireless payment processing.

Some stadiums also offer in-seat delivery for concessions and merchandise. Faster speeds and lower latencies can help process orders faster, while 5G’s smaller wavelengths can improve location services to aid deliveries. Similar systems can offer real-time insight to available parking spots and facilitate faster, easier parking.

Since 5G is up to 100 times faster than 4G, these systems can provide up-to-date information on wait times and inventory.

New broadcasting opportunities

Smart stadium technology can also improve the fan experience for viewers outside the venue. With fast, high bandwidth 5G networks, the same real-time analytics that appear in smart stadium screens can appear on broadcasts viewable from any location, as can perspectives from IoT-connected drones and 360-degree video feeds.

Similarly, VR and AR technologies are offering 360-degree real-time experiences for fans at home. 5G’s speed could improve these services by enabling faster uploads and supporting higher streaming quality. Fans at home could then tune in with a VR or AR headset to get a first-person, high-quality view of the event without leaving their couch.

Not only do these new broadcasting opportunities offer new revenue streams for events, but they also increase accessibility. Fans of different abilities can get a taste of the live experience, thanks to VR streaming without the lag and quality drops of older wireless technologies.

The holdup

While the potential for smart stadiums is wide, a few challenges have slowed venues from capitalizing on 5G technology. For starters, its newness means it’s not yet widely available. While billions of IoT devices exist today, just over 1,300 devices are 5G-capable, limiting the ready-made options stadiums have.

Of course, more 5G-ready devices will emerge as more manufacturers embrace 5G. Stadiums can also work around the lack of off-the-shelf devices by contracting 5G solution providers to develop custom systems.

Cybersecurity is also a concern. As 5G lets stadiums implement more smart devices, their vulnerable attack surfaces grow. Working closely with security experts and employing protections, such as data encryption and strong password management, will help address this issue.

Revolutionizing live entertainment

With 5G becoming a more viable solution, stadiums can use the technology to make live events more engaging, secure, and convenient, while improving experiences for consumers and businesses alike. As the technology matures, it is becoming more accessible as more supported devices become available on the commercial market. Similarly, growing awareness around IoT security concerns is fueling a bigger industry push toward stronger built-in protections for these devices. These trends will make it easier for venues to capitalize on smart stadium technology.

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About the Author

Emily Newton, Grid Media Services, LLC

Emily Newton is an industrial and tech journalist passionate about how technology is revolutionizing each sector. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than five years and is the editor-in-chief of Revolutionized.

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