Thanks to an owner who is both fabulously wealthy and technologically savvy, the American Airlines Center in Dallas is gearing up to be a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi access venue.
The center is home to the up-and-coming Dallas Mavericks basketball team, which is owned by billionaire maverick and reality TV star Mark Cuban. He bought the team in early 2000, and the American Airlines Center opened shortly before the start of the 2001-2002 season.
Initially the fans were the target of the technical vision.
"It was built with the intention of being the most technological sports facility in the world," said Joe Heinlein, IT director for the American Airlines Center. "On that basis, the owners had talked about wiring every seat with fan access [to the Internet], and as we got closer to doing that, we found out it might be cost-prohibitive."
Cuban and the American Airlines Center staff realized that it made more sense to cast the Net to a wider audience.
"One of the other reasons we didnt go forward with the Net to the seats is that I learned a lot more about fan experiences and what makes them better," said Cuban. "Looking at a screen of any size is not part of a good fan experience. I want people jumping up and down and screaming, not looking for a place to put a laptop."
The center does have plans to let fans order concessions from their seats. But Cuban also wanted to offer Internet access to the centers staff, the news media, third-party promoters and guests who use the meeting rooms. Even the basketball players are equipped with laptop computers. A wireless network made sense.
Heinlein headed up the Wi-Fi deployment, which the center officially launched earlier this month, in time for the new basketball season.
Wanting a system that offered centralized management and provisioning of access points, he chose WLAN (wireless LAN) switch vendor Aruba Wireless Networks Inc.
"Heretofore if you wanted to change something on the access point, youd have to go to the access point," Heinlein said, noting that certain stadium events might require occasional outdoor Wi-Fi access. "We get requests to move the festivities outdoors. By having the switch configure the APs we can move the APs from spot to spot to spot as needed."
While Heinlein was largely in charge of the installation, Cuban keeps an eye on the business practices of the vendors he chooses, especially when it comes to outsourcing labor.
"I do pay attention to see if the CEO and insiders put the savings in their pockets or use the savings to hire for different jobs," Cuban said. "There are some major companies that have outsourced and put more in their pockets from selling stock than they have saved in a year from outsourcing. To me thats wrong."
The initial phase of the Wi-Fi network includes 50 access points that cover all 800,000 square feet of the center. The WLAN supports a mix of 802.11b and 802.11g at 2.4GHz and 802.11a at 5GHz. Heinlein wanted use of the 5GHz band for video applications and possible voice-over-IP applications in the future.
The access points are managed by a single switch. The level of access depends on the users. "We had the ability to put multiple SSIDs [service set identifiers] on one access point and lock that down into profiles if we needed it," Heinlein said.
The staff can access asset and inventory management applications, while customers can access the Internet. Arubas system also monitors for rogue access points, although, as Cuban pointed out, "if someone really wants to steal plays, its a lot easier just to watch tapes of our games."
Guest access is key. Even if Internet usage doesnt happen during the game, it may bring customers to the game eventually.
The Wi-Fi network also means untethering the media.
"I want them to squat in the locker room or anywhere else and file stories," Cuban said. "That brings fans closer."
But will Wi-Fi bring the Mavs to the finals this year?
"Whatever it takes," Cuban said.