The information super-fairway
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Sam Fenwick delves into the use of Wi-Fi at the Ryder Cup and hears from John Dundas about the communications used at the European Championships in Glasgow

In prehistoric times, we placed our hands on cave walls and blew pigment on them to say ‘we were here’. In today’s modern hyper-connected age, this drive is still strong, given voice through the roaring digital tumult of countless selfies and Instagram posts. Those running major sporting events have to go to great lengths to cater for this desire, while also satisfying the press’s ravenous hunger for bandwidth (a sports photographer can take hundreds of photos per day, many of which need to be sent back to their office).

At the same time, the tyranny of logistics and security concerns means that in many cases, the human need for high-touch events often sits uneasily with the ability for on-the-ground spectators to get the same close-to-the-action experience as those viewing the event from their living rooms. This creates a need to find novel ways of improving the spectator experience, often through leveraging wireless technology to deliver in-game statistics and updates to smartphones.

At the recent Ryder Cup, which took place at the Albatros course at Le Golf National in Guyancourt, a suburb southwest of Paris, European Tour (the event organiser) sought to tackle both issues using its new Wi-Fi network; this had been procured from Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), is entirely based on the Aruba Mobile First Architecture and designed and implemented by HPE partner Ultima. A small pack of tech journalists and I were invited to attend to get a feel for the set-up ahead of the opening ceremony and concert on the day before the start of the cup.

The heat is on
After a brief introduction at the pavilion, we walk to the NOC – the network operations centre, where Michael Cole, European Tour’s CTO, talks us through what goes into ensuring everything runs as smoothly as possible. He explains that the NOC is one of two data centres that mirror each other, allowing for full redundancy – “If we lost this site, we can immediately switch over to the other and vice versa.

“We design for uptime [with] about 99.9 per cent availability, which equates over six days to five minutes of downtime. Five minutes’ downtime when Tiger Woods tees off would not be great. That’s why we’ve built highly redundant, highly reliable technology infrastructure to support us.”

While we are in the NOC, we are shown a heat map and a screen with a series of green boxes, which represent switches or racks of switches with no issues. If there is a problem with a switch, the box goes red and the team would be able to hover over its box to see its asset number and GPS co-ordinates – which can then be fed into the event’s ticketing software and sent to the nearest engineer; the same system is used to monitor the site’s 700 Wi-Fi access points.

Any tickets would have been sent over multiple channels, including mobile devices with two-way radio as a back-up. To speed up the response, Cole says technical staff are permanently placed in all the key locations, such as the media centre, the pavilions and the TV compound – thereby avoiding having to navigate across the course in a buggy with a crowd of 51,000 people between the engineer and their destination.

“We don’t have time to fix anything, as bizarre as that sounds. If it breaks, we swap it out for a new one. That’s the only way we can protect our 99.9 per cent availability levels and [ensure that we meet our] SLAs.”

The heat map, which displays location data gathered via a range of technologies including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacons, allows easy monitoring of crowd movements. “It’s really useful for our ops people to understand where people are transgressing the course and they can redeploy our marshals where necessary,” says Cole. In addition to health and safety considerations, the ability to monitor spectators’ locations means European Tour’s commercial partners can send push notifications to people entering a geofenced area and the Tour can then provide them with engagement statistics. Some of the general metrics monitored by the system include hospitality dwell times, course entry and departure times and Wi-Fi utilisation periods.

Location services (underpinned by the Aruba Meridian platform) are also a key feature of the event’s app, which has an interactive map that allows users to see their location on the course and plot a route to their intended destination. The app also features live scoring with the delay reduced to 30 seconds, which Cole describes as “a big improvement on 2014”. The app also provides notifications, travel information, live blog coverage, video highlights and information on player locations. It additionally offers a live Ryder Cup Radio service (in both French and English), which spectators can also access by buying radios.

Cole adds the Wi-Fi system has four categories of prioritisation: the media are assigned the highest priority, followed by the operational team, the event’s commercial partners and then the public. The media’s requirements when it comes to wireless technology are massive, partly due to the complexity of covering the Ryder Cup given the fact that up to 20 balls can be in play at any one time, all of which have to be covered well (across the 150-acre course).

We then move to the media centre, which is dominated by a massive 16.2m x 4.2m videowall and row upon row of desks (408 in the main room) for journalists. We walk up a flight of stairs to the photographers’ area, equipped with the highest capacity Wi-Fi access points in the park to cater for the huge amount of data that can be consumed while uploading thousands of photos. On the way back to the pavilion, we run into a human traffic jam, making me realise just how useful having a heat map may be when it comes to planning future events.

Connecting with content
Cole says the network is now what he considers to be a live and steady state with all green lights across the dashboard. Of the 19,000-20,000 people on site (around 60,000 are to attend on the following day), 7,000 are on Wi-Fi (you would normally expect around 15-20 per cent for an event of this kind); Cole says this uptake is “astonishing”, and the statistics are about three hours old, so they could be higher.

He explains that European Tour is in the process of transforming its entire technology landscape, and one of the areas he is most excited about is data. Historically the only data captured on the course was scoring on a hole-by-hole basis, which resulted in around 20,000 data points. European Tour has already increased its data collection by a factor of seven, capturing nearly 140,000 data points per tournament – including things such as club type, lie of the ball and yardage to hole. European Tour works with an organisation called 15th Club to process and analyse the data, and it makes insights available to the players so they can enhance their game.

They will start rolling out greater data collection in the first half of 2019, capturing it shot by shot in real time, which Cole describes as a “game-changer”. However, he has “no great intent to be the first to market with any new technology, my background is very much the Olympics – I’m very happy to use tried-and-tested technology and bring it into golf”.

One of Cole’s “underpinning principles” is that he wants “people to feel like they’re connecting with content” rather than to technology. “Technology should be seamless and they should be able to [easily] come onto the Wi-Fi and download the app; the seamless provision of the services is ultimately what we want to drive across all the interactions we have, whether it’s the Ryder Cup or the European Tour.”

Cole says the Tour’s new Wi-Fi network is the “biggest investment we’ve ever made in technology” and it will be used over the next four years, across all the events the company runs – 47 in 30 different countries a year. This means that unlike the Ryder Cup, the build for which “has probably taken around three months”, Cole’s team normally have three days to take their operation onto the next tournament in another country “sometimes on another continent” and be ready to go again.

He adds that part of the reason behind European Tour’s decision to use HPE was the flexibility and adaptability it enables and that temporary additional infrastructure is being installed for the opening ceremony to cope with the extra stress on the network – and the Tour hasn’t been in a position to do that until now. From my conversations with Aruba, I understand that the Wi-Fi deployment is essentially a case of packing the access points up, taking them to the next venue and deploying them in any order.

Different strokes for different folks
One of the considerations here is the need to attract a whole new generation into the sport. Cole mentions that European Tour is seeking to be an innovator in golf and cites its use of new formats, such as the GolfSixes, which is a two-day six-hole event, and the Shot Clock Masters, where players are timed in order to speed up the pace, to cater to different audiences.

Each new format requires “a subtle change in the way that we deploy the technology”, and Cole explains that the timing system introduced for the Shot Clock Masters was “probably the most challenging technological project” he has ever done. This is because European Tour had to enable features such as the ability for referees to impose penalties in the event of time infringement, override a penalty stroke if there are mitigating circumstances, and for each player to call two time-outs. All of this had to be synchronised with the display on a buggy, and 20 of these were required across 18 holes. “We had a lot of hostile interference from other Wi-Fi devices across that infrastructure,” Cole adds, “and if that wasn’t enough, we also had live TV, so what we couldn’t afford to happen was an image of a countdown display being picked up on TV where they had their own countdown graphics and [being] out of sync”.

Turning to another major sporting event, this time the European Championships, I caught up with John Dundas, consultant and director at Dundastech, to learn how the communications were handled in and around Glasgow. He says Amanda Dundas, junior consultant, began work on the fleetmapping a year before, and it went well.

Dundas emphasises the importance of having an effective spectrum policy plan and enforcing it. “With something this size, you need spectrum management, you need testing and tagging of equipment, whether it’s licence-exempt or licensed, you still need people to register it, you need people on the ground to go around checking it and saying, ‘I would like to see your wireless microphone, your radios – [is] there a tag on it? No? Then please don’t use it.’ You will come across people who have just not got the message, so you have to assist them with the help of Ofcom to get a licence for the event.”

Fear is the spectrum-saver
Dundas says during the event, he “put the fear of God into everybody. It may seem like overkill, but I would rather stop a problem happening than try to find interference when there is live broadcast going out to millions of viewers”. He was constantly testing, moving around, checking things, pulling people up on any misuse of wireless equipment and making unplanned wireless users switch to cable where possible, especially broadcasters.

Dundas says Ofcom’s Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE) team did “a fantastic job” in terms of spectrum management, involving more than 1,300 frequencies (both licence and licence-exempt), with timing and scoring equipment running on licence-exempt and wireless intercom systems using the 1.9GHz band. He adds the sheer amount of RF at event venues has led to drones falling out of the sky; a no-fly zone was put in place by the Civil Aviation Authority around the venues during the European Championships, so the main risk from drones was outside the venues.

When it comes to the cellular side of things, Dundas recommends engaging “with the mobile operators as far out as possible, because they’re always planning a year ahead. They’ve only got so much kit and there’s a high demand for it for different festivals around the UK and events.

“They’ll send you forms and ask questions about how big your venue is and how many people you expect to turn up; it gives them an idea of the traffic loading. I was really happy with what I received from the mobile operators for [the recent event], some of the venues there [initially had] virtually no mobile phone signal, but the enhancements [we received from the MNOs] made a big difference.”

Turning to the use of Push-to-talk over Cellular (PoC), Dundas highlights the high amount of bandwidth that can be consumed by broadcast cameras and recommends having a Wi-Fi connection as a back-up, and the lack of quality of service and pre-emption for business-critical communications. For the event, all 120 vehicles had LTE devices and iCabbi, a cellular dispatch solution to track them (the second time that Dundas has used it for a sporting event). He adds that PoC was used instead of two-way radio because of the need for very wide area coverage, and that it was possible to tell the LTE devices to use the venue’s Wi-Fi if the mobile networks became congested. He describes the overall approach as “cost-effective and reliable”.

Like European Tour’s Cole, Dundas says resilience is critical, particularly as there is a cut-off point in event size, based on the number of people attending, below which there will probably be very little or no police presence. As a consequence, “safety and security is down to the actual event organisers, so you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got a robust [communications] system that’s going to work, you’ve got to make sure that there’s enough capacity in your system, so that when somebody presses that button, it’s going to work and it’s not going to get clogged up. You’ve got to have battery back-up or power generators [as well].

“If you’ve got a repeater system, you should have simplex channels programmed into your radios, so if it does go bang for some reason, at least you can work simplex (back-to-back mode). Simplex might not be the best thing for your venue, but something is better than nothing.”

He says during the event, every medical team and the ambulance service were provided with the event organiser’s radios, “so we could have interoperability between our medical staff and theirs on the ground so that in case [of a major incident], at least their staff could talk to their staff and people could know what was going on. Sometimes having two radios is the best way of [having] interoperability – one person with two bits of kit. Some people overcomplicate it and want big fancy control rooms and panels. Sometimes you don’t have the money to do that, [in which case you have to use] a temporary solution.”

We’ve seen that wireless comms are at the forefront of event organisers’ minds, both as a way of driving interest in the sport and in ensuring the safety and well-being of those attending. Given the need for both immense bandwidth and reliability, it will be interesting to see how 5G, which has already been used during the Winter Olympics and is intended to address both requirements, will be used in this area once it becomes readily available.

When things go wrong
Sadly, due to the potential for televised carnage, major events are considered prime targets by terrorists and those with a desire to cause mass causalities. When the response to such attacks is less than perfect, the consequences can make a tragic situation far worse. Dundastech’s John Dundas highlights the mass shooting that took place at the Route 91 Harvest Festival grounds in Las Vegas on 1 October 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 59 people (including the perpetrator) and 851 injuries (422 from gunfire). He says some operators were using commercial networks (which got overloaded) for their dispatch systems, interoperability didn’t work because people were on different systems, and the police weren’t on the proper talk-groups because they didn’t know the fleetmapping. He adds that FEMA published “quite a damning report” on the response, which can be viewed at

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