Huawei uses stadium play to showcase future networks


Until recently, large stadiums and venues either didn’t support decent mobile services, or were the preserve of DAS. Now, they have become every vendor’s favorite showcase for their most cutting edge solutions, a challenging yet fully controlled environment in which to hint to the world (and customers) what they might have up their sleeve for the next wave of wireless networks.

LTE Broadcast has been an obvious example of this recently (see separate item), and a technology with a clear application in the sport event environment. Qualcomm used the Nascar track to demonstrate just how dense a small cell network it could achieve (the equivalent of 1,000 cells per square kilometer), thus pointing to the kind of technologies which might become mainstream in the next generation. Now Huawei is the latest to address the challenges of the stadium, both as a near term sales opportunity, and as a way to test and show off upcoming approaches, including its ‘10GiFi’ concept.

At this year’s CeBIT trade show in Germany in March, Huawei announced its Smart Stadium portfolio, which promises ‘agile networks’ heavily based around WiFi rather than DAS or even its LampSite distributed radio platform. To show it off, the Chinese vendor demonstrated services in the Singal Iduna Park soccer stadium (the home of the Borussia Dortmund squad), where it is deploying what claims to be Germany’s largest WiFi network in terms of peak usage, supporting 80,000 people at one time.

Now Huawei has added an alliance with digital sports content provider FanPlay to the offering, emphasizing how the potential of the wireless stadium lies not just in deploying networks – a competitive business with a long upgrade cycle – but in layering management and consumer services on top. FanPlay will deliver options such as live video and replays, in-game betting, and refreshments purchasing via the network, along with personalized content and advertising.

As with most wireless services, personalization will be key to profit, not only increasing users’ purchasing and response to ads, but providing big data and allowing operators to improve overall experience. An integral part of Huawei’s solution is the data analytics tool, which resides in the system’s agile controller and in its security gateways. The tool can be used to deliver different levels of network service to different users (for instance, critical QoS to security staff), and it also monitors traffic from the security gateways in order to protect the venue from attacks.

The first deployer of Smart Stadium with FanPlay will be a UK venue, believed to be Glasgow Rangers’  Ibrox home in Scotland. The team has already signed a seven-figure deal with Huawei to deliver a WiFi network.

While the attraction to commercial enterprises like stadium operators and sports teams may lie in the consumer services and big data, the vendor still has to get the network itself right. Providing unbroken access to streamed video everywhere in the stadium, plus supporting image and video uploads from thousands of people at a time in a congested space, are challenging tasks, but they also allow vendors to put new technologies through their paces – and score valuable marketing points if they work well – in a tightly controlled and planned environment.

Huawei is using Smart Stadium to prove and enhance techniques for network agility – allocating bandwidth where it is needed, and the right level of QoS as required for certain users or apps. The more dynamically this can be done, the more efficient the use of the network resources and the better the customer experience. This is particularly important during a big event, but agility is rapidly becoming the hallmark of new mobile build-outs in general, as operators battle to reduce cost and improve user satisfaction simultaneously. Among Huawei’s specific tools for the agile stadium are auto-radio, high density boost and dynamic time scheduling of airtime.

Its offering is notably WiFi-centric, compared to some vendors’ venue platforms, and the Chinese giant is also using its stadium activities to progress and showcase a technology which it dearly wants to drive – 10-gigabit WiFi, which it calls 10GiFi, and which will be particularly focused on ultra-dense scenarios like sports venues. In May, Huawei announced lab trials in which prototype equipment reached peaks of 10.53Gbps in the 5GHz band (not the higher frequencies, such as 60GHz, which are used to boost data rates to multiple gigabits in other efforts like WiGig).

The firm hopes to make its developments the basis of the future IEEE standard, 802.11ax, and so to gain the kind of headstart and influence in that platform, that Intel and Qualcomm have often seized in earlier generations of the WiFi family. The IEEE approved the 11ax effort in March, after a year of preliminary work, and it is set to be ratified in 2018 or possibly 2019. While most WiFi standards focus on the data capacity of a whole network shared by multiple users, 11ax will address and boost the actual data rate to each individual device. The IEEE is looking to increase that speed at least fourfold.

Huawei is heading up the 11ax taskgroup at the IEEE (its chair is one of the firm’s principal engineers, Osama Aboul-Magd) and is basing its efforts around several technologies which may also feature heavily in cellular and multi-RAT ‘5G’, such as MIMO-OFDA, dynamic spectrum allocation, interference coordination and hybrid access techniques.

This is a good example of how vendors and operators are not just focusing R&D on the next generation – which is likely to start being commercialized in 2020 – but are using enhancements to current platforms as dress rehearsals. Such activities will help future-proof emerging WiFi and cellular standards, however 5G ends up looking, and will also help keep the established wireless suppliers in pole position in terms of defining platforms and storing up patents.

Although the 11ax standard is unlikely to be ratified until 2018, it is sure to appear in ‘pre-standard’ commercial gear at least a year earlier (the first draft is expected by 2016), and as Huawei shows, some of the underlying technologies will start to be deployed far earlier, in dense environments like stadiums. The company says its breakthroughs, and 11ax in general, will “break the logjam of classical WiFi wideband radio and baseband processing to increase user data rates”.  

Of the techniques it used to achieve a claimed tenfold spectral efficiency improvement in the lab, MIMO-OFDA is attracting a lot of interest. It combines large MIMO arrays with OFDM schemes, which divide sub-carriers into separate data streams, and send them out at right angles to one another, aiming to find a pathway with least interference in a congested zone. OFDA is based on existing OFDM schemes, but adds a multiple access component, so that subsets are assigned within the subcarrier frequencies to create a bigger pipe for each individual device.

However, despite Huawei’s chairmanship, there is no guarantee that MIMO-OFDA will win the day. “There’s a lot of industry activity to identify what mechanisms go into 802.11ax and what modulation technologies are used,” Greg Ennis, VP of technology at the WiFi Alliance, told IDG News, though he acknowledged that Huawei’s lab tests had been a “good advertisement” for the technique. “It’s difficult to say that one part is necessarily going forward,” he said, and of course, future standards are unlikely to be confined just to 5GHz.

Indeed, previous WiFi standards like 11n have proved intense battlegrounds for warring approaches (remember the war over MIMO definitions for 11n, back in 2005, between Atheros and Airgo? Both, of course, are now owned by Qualcomm).

“There’s tremendous interest in 802.11ax and lot of people and companies are participating,” Ennis continued. “The increased data rate means you end up not just increasing the speed for individuals but also aggregate capacity in the network. That’s a significant improvement of performance not only for those in a sweet spot, but for all the users in a particular WiFi hotspot.” He added that there will be mechanisms specifically geared to high QoS in dense environments.

Other 11ax objectives are to maintain or improve power efficiency and maintain backward compatibility and coexistence. Outdoor operation will be limited to stationary and pedestrian speeds. 

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.