Sports biz: Data network answers Broncos’ need for speed in digital era

There’s a trendy tech move happening in professional football these days: Shotgun formations and cornerback blitzes are sharing the field with cloud-based video and ultra-fast Ethernet connections.

It’s a measure driven by a familiar football hunger: the need for speed. The vast consumer embrace of smartphones, the reliance on instant video for scouting, and the transformation of stadiums to high-tech entertainment theaters demands more bandwidth than old-school telecom systems could supply.

That’s why teams, including the Denver Broncos, have ripped out legacy data networks and replaced them with state-of-the-art infrastructures optimized for the digital era.

Comcast’s 2013 deal with the Broncos to supply high-capacity data networking capability exemplifies the modernization trend. Comcast supplies a pair of high-speed, dedicated network links. A private fiber network connects the team’s Dove Valley training and office facilities to Sports Authority Field. A second network floods the stadium with high-speed Internet access, connecting Sports Authority’s larger-than-life scoreboard, 1,000 high-definition TV sets and an expanded Wi-Fi network to the Internet.

The Wi-Fi component is increasingly important as fans come to the stadium armed with smartphones, intent on sharing game-day images and messages across social media platforms or interacting with the team’s own digital app. Because Wi-Fi networks can be subdivided into multiple serving zones, they’re able to scale more reliably than cellular data networks in high-usage environments. That means Wi-Fi is a better bet to survive a digital version of Rocky Mountain Thunder: a strain on cellular networks caused by too much concurrent demand from too many users. More than once, I’ve been at the stadium when AT&T’s cellular network has been too bogged down under the weight of thousands of simultaneous data requests, leaving my iPhone to display only the endless spinning wheel of digital death.

Verizon was first to rig up Wi-Fi antennas in and around stadiums, providing enough capacity to handle 25,000 simultaneous connections. The remaining Big 3 carriers are in various stages of implementation that will ultimately turn the place into a giant, multi-carrier hotspot.

 “It’s not just the venue, but the other offices that are associated (and) the imagery that gets moved from training facilities to where scouts are,” said Bill Stemper, the Philadelphia-based president of Comcast’s business services unit, at a cable industry conference in April.

A star performer on this new field is metro Ethernet. As the name suggests, it’s a type of high-speed, metro-wide data network that meets a global technology standard. Across the U.S., “metro E” networks are rapidly replacing legacy data infrastructures built around circuits known as T1 lines. The metro Ethernet networks Comcast provides for the  Broncos can pump data down the pipe at speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, or more than 60 times the maximum limit of old T1 circuits. But they’re built for even more capacity, with switches from Cisco Systems that can sling information at up to 10 gigabits per second.

“We find ourselves having enormous success bringing teams gigabits of fiber,” Stemper said. “It’s an area that really has kind of a hand-in-glove fit.”

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