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On Sunday, Sept. 16, the New England Patriots played their home opener at Gillette Stadium against the Arizona Cardinals, a team they were expected to rout. They did not. For the first three quarters, the home team’s offense bogged down, its running backs gobbled up by the Cardinal defense, its offensive line porous, its receivers unable to get open or to catch the ball when they did.
It’s just as well, then, that the Patriots organization chose that weekend to give their fans access to the world’s greatest font of distraction: the Internet. The team this summer hired Enterasys Networks, an Andover (Mass.) network and security solutions company, to wire Gillette with hundreds of access points and antennae and 15 miles of cable, turning the building into a giant Wi-Fi hotspot in a multimillion-dollar deal (neither Enterasys nor the team will get more specific about the cost).
At a time when people expect to be able to hop on the Net at any time, stadiums have lagged. Packing thousands of phone-toting fans into one building is a formula for overwhelming the local cellular network. In response, teams have begun installing wireless networks. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans were among the first.
For NFL teams, wiring stadiums is part of a larger strategy to keep fans from deciding that the benefits of watching a game at home outweigh those of attending in person. Besides enjoying climate-controlled rooms with large high-definition TVs, fans tuning in at home can keep their smartphones and tablets at the ready to: a) check scores of other games and their fantasy football stats and b) launch online flame wars with opposing fans. For teams like the Patriots, which have sold out every home game since 1994, fans will keep coming to games with or without Wi-Fi. Still, the team has been fielding complaints about poor cell reception for years. “I think fans have come to expect connectivity wherever they are,” says Fred Kirsch, vice president for content for the Patriots. “There have been calls over the years, people saying, ‘I can’t make a phone call, I can’t check my e-mail, I can’t upload a photo.’ ”
As Enterasys Chief Executive Officer Chris Crowell says, a true dry run with 70,000 people would have been impractical. So there was no way to know in advance how well the system would work. This reporter attended the Patriots/Cardinals game, armed with not only an iPhone but also a laptop (on the assumption that by the fourth quarter, when the Pats were up by 21 points, I might want to do some work or stream an old episode of 30 Rock). Sadly, in section 312, row 2, seat 13, the Wi-Fi signal proved even weaker on this given Sunday than the Patriots’ running game. The signal was better elsewhere—it was possible to stand in the concession area watching a live video feed of an Indianapolis Colts touchdown drive against the Minnesota Vikings on my iPhone while simultaneously glancing at the Patriots game on a television on the wall. But that’s probably not the stadium experience the Patriots had in mind when they installed the network.
Enterasys and the Patriots say dead spots were rare, and that the reviews from users were largely positive. According to Kirsch, 15,000 people connected to Wi-Fi during the game. Enterasys engineers roamed the stadium testing the signal, and the information gathered will help the company improve the service by reorienting some of their antennae.
In section 312 (as well as sections 311 and 313), however, Web surfing and use of social media seemed to be minimal, especially in the fourth quarter, when Tom Brady finally shook off the Pats’ offensive torpor and started marching down the field. The game ended wildly, with a missed two-point conversion by the Patriots that would have tied the game, a fumble recovery that gave them the ball, and a missed field goal at the end that would have won it. In those last minutes, the fans in Gillette, as one, engaged in that most ancient and direct form of in-stadium communication: profanity-laced screaming.
The bottom line: NFL teams still have work to do on their new Wi-Fi networks to keep fans in the stadium as connected as they are at home.