NFL Super Bowl Stadium NRG Didn't Have A Network Until Solution Provider 5 Bars Saved The Day

Nearly 100,000 fans, media and personnel will descend upon NRG Stadium in Houston next Sunday for Super Bowl 51 – a stadium that just 12 months ago didn't have public, Wi-Fi network.

Solution provider 5 Bars and Extreme Networks spent over six months engineering, designing and installing a high-density wireless network that would be ready for the biggest game of the year.

"It was really wild because NRG Stadium is one of the most heavily trafficked stadiums in the country," said Monnie McGaffigan, president of 5 Bars, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider who partnered with Extreme for the project. "The NFL has a whole higher-level of specs and requirements when there's going to be a Super Bowl played. That required us to do a lot more engineering around the densification."

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Super Bowl 51 marks the first time in the NFL's history where network connectivity was mandatory from the hosting venue -- in this case NRG Stadium, according to Norman Rice, Extreme's executive vice president of corporate development, global marketing and supply chain, who oversees the vendor's stadium business.

"The COI of the NFL, Michelle McKenna-Doyle, lobbied with the league a few years ago and said, ''Hey, we need to make it mandatory that a host team or facility needs to require connectivity and technology to be qualified for [hosting the Super Bowl],'" said Rice. "This is the first Super Bowl where it's been mandatory. Prior to that, venues would have it, but it didn't have to meet a standard. Now it's mandatory. It was mandatory in their application to get the Super Bowl."

NRG Stadium – owned by Harris County, Texas, which hosts more than 300 events per year -- selected Extreme Networks and 5 Bars for the project in Dec. 2015.

5 Bars needed to install a network that could handle over 48,500 simultaneous users to accommodate the stadium's 72,000 capacity.

The solution provider spent months designing and installing 1,250 Wave 2 802.11ac access points (APs) and more than 100 switches from Extreme, who is the official Wi-Fi and analytics provider of the NFL. More than half of the AP's are located under the seats inside the stadium's bowl that required weather-proofed enclosure, according to McGaffigan.

"It took months to do the design and engineering and all the radio frequency testing and everything that goes along with making sure we engineered it correctly and had the capacity for the number of concurrent users that were required," said McGaffigan.

A technology "command center" was installed inside the venue that is operated during all major events, which also collects analytics. A handful of 5 bars engineers and project managers monitor the network in real-time.

NRG Stadium not only hosts the Houston Texans, but almost the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo as well as college football and international soccer matches.

The network has been live for the whole Houston Texas season, she said. Although the stadium project is finished, work on NRG Stadium for 5 Bars has never really halted due to Super Bowl preparations.

"We have people on site right now all the way through the Super Bowl," said McGaffigan. "There's some fine tuning going on for the system, but it's ready for action."

During the Super Bowl on February 5, the solution provider will be collecting real-time analytics during the game inside the command center.

"We can see user count. We can see throughput. We can actually see the devices and what kinds of devices -- down to the manufacturer of the device. We can see all of it," said McGaffigan. "That's the beauty of Wi-Fi, different than cellular. When you go on Wi-Fi, it's all unlicensed spectrum, so we can really see all the traffic and what's happening. We're managing and monitoring all the analytics."

McGaffigan said when the game kicks-off between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots next Sunday, "that's when you just pray and you hope nobody unplugs anything."