Cisco Sidesteps Blame For NFL Microsoft Tablet Failure

Cisco is sidestepping blame for a wireless networking issue during the NFL's AFC championship game Sunday that left New England Patriots coaches and players unable to review plays on the sidelines on their Microsoft Surface tablets.

During the second quarter of the game against the Denver Broncos at Denver's Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, Patriots coaches complained that their Microsoft Surface tablets used to review plays weren't working. The issue was fixed by switching the tablets from wireless to a network hardwire, according to a report during the game's CBS TV broadcast.

Microsoft issued a statement to CRN confirming that the issue was not related to the tablets, but rather the network. "We worked with our partners who manage the network to ensure the issue was resolved quickly," said Microsoft, without identifying the network vendor.

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The San Jose, Calif.-based networking giant said that although the stadium uses Cisco for its wireless network, the Microsoft tablets used on the sidelines were connected to a mobile cart rather than the stadium Wi-Fi system. It's unclear whether the cart contains Cisco gear. A Cisco spokesperson was unable to confirm whether the cart contained Cisco gear by publication time.

"While there was a reported issue with the Patriots staff being able to use their Microsoft Surface tablets for a time on the sidelines, the tablets connect to a separate, dedicated mobile cart rather than to the aforementioned Wi-Fi system," said Cisco in a statement to CRN. "As a result, this issue was not related to the overall in-venue Wi-Fi solution, or its performance."

The stadium uses Cisco Connected Stadium Wi-Fi and Cisco StadiumVision for its wireless solutions. Connected Stadium is a high-density, turnkey wireless solution that combines Wi-Fi technologies, specialized software and professional services optimized for stadiums, according to Cisco. StadiumVision is a centrally managed video and digital content solution made up of customized video, team and sponsor promotions and relevant event information.

One executive from a solution provider based in Colorado familiar with Mile High Stadium gave CRN an inside look at the stadium and listed several factors that could have played a role in the wireless malfunction.

"The Broncos do enable a number of wireless features for both fans and coaches alike," said the executive with the local solution provider and Cisco partner, who declined to be identified. "Some of those features include access to ... stadium mobile applications. The Broncos do have an internal application that live streams radio broadcasts, video broadcasts, TV broadcasts, so those are consumers of bandwidth available. The Cisco technology suite is a very localized option, though. So what you want to do is have adequate coverage. You want to have enough concentration of the access points to be able to handle both the bandwidth and the localization. All these various SSIDs [Service Set Identifiers] that separate one another and keep them from interfering with each other -- they use sophisticated controllers to help manage the [radio frequency] power transmit and receive functions that help keep all these different [access points] in alignment with one another and keep them from running over each other."

The executive said he believes critical network services like sideline information for the teams are protected by giving them priority ahead of the general traffic going on around the stadium.

"You do have localized SSIDs that should separate the various teams from one another and from the fans. Those technologies are implemented and they should help reduce that risk," he said.

He said there are numerous applications that someone could maliciously use to help interfere with the wireless or SSID. A lower possibility for the Patriots' network issue, he said, would be because of high traffic volume, because more than the Patriots' sidelines would have been affected.

"Typically when you see interference like this during a busy time, it's that everything has become overconsumed -- your wireless bandwidth, your Internet bandwidth, but since it’s a specific SSID, and a specific area where it went down, it's more likely localized interference or a configuration changed," he said. "A bandwidth or consumption issue would have affected everyone equally. … It's worth checking to see the logs for malicious issues."

In a news conference Monday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said having problems with the performance of Microsoft's Surface tablets was "pretty common."

"We have had it at home, we have had it on the road, other teams have had it, it's a fairly common problem," said Belichick. "Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."

The executive who declined to be named said he's worked in several stadium environments and says each issue is unique.

"When you run down the root-cause issue, I've yet to find any two that are the same," he said. "I haven't heard of any issues at Mile High myself -- that isn’t to say there haven't been any issues in the past."

Cisco boasted earlier this month that the Denver Broncos selected Cisco "to deliver a top-notch in-stadium experience" at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, according to a blog post by Ken Martin, general manager and director at Cisco's Global Sales, Sports and Entertainment Solutions Group.

"By providing reliable connectivity for tens of thousands of fans, the Broncos are staying ahead of the curve," said Martin in his post. "With all of the arena's displays centrally controlled on one network, the Broncos are able to target, manage and deliver digital assets more efficiently than ever before."

In a case study with the Broncos, Cisco said it has implemented the latest in connectivity, mobility and video technology as well as created a 50 percent increase in concourse signage revenue.

"Cisco wireless solutions knocked it out of the park," said Russ Trainor, vice president of IT for the Broncos, in the case study. "We wanted synergistic network and Wi-Fi platforms, and it turned out that Cisco delivered the whole package -- a solid flexible architecture."

Trainor and public relations spokespeople at Mile High Stadium did not respond for comment on the matter by publication time.

One executive for a Microsoft partner, who asked not to be named, said that the problem could be either with the network or with the Surface hardware because of harsh weather conditions.

"There's going to be [one of] two things -- either the environment is too cold, and they couldn't get the Surface tablets to power on or function, or it’s a network issue," said the partner. "It's one or the other."

The Surface tablets are part of a $400 million deal that Microsoft inked in 2013 with the NFL to promote the Surface. Microsoft agreed to supply teams with tablets that could be used on the sidelines to go over plays in exchange for advertising opportunities with the NFL.

LINDSEY O'DONNELL contributed to this story.