The Premier League ground of Anfield, belonging to Liverpool Football Club, has been boosted with connectivity thanks to the deployment of Xirrus Wi-Fi arrays.
The Centenary Stand, which was expanded in 1992 to mark 100 years of Liverpool playing at the ground, holds almost 12,000 supporters, along with the executive boxes, TV studios and police operations. It now also hosts the club’s first attempt at a public Wi-Fi roll-out.
Overseeing the project was Andy Robinson, head of digital media and technology at Liverpool FC, who spoke to Computer Weekly about his team and the deployment of this latest move forward.
“On the IT team, there are 20 in total and we are a full service department – not just support for when your laptop is broken,” he said.
“The team is split between infrastructure, such as keeping the lights on, and change – a team of developers and project managers looking forward, [although] we do outsource or go to agencies when we have to.”
Robinson said the biggest problem facing a football club from an IT perspective is what goes on beneath the surface.
What most people see as 11 guys running around on a field is actually very different, with lots of mini businesses running behind the scenes
Andy Robinson, head of digital media and technology, Liverpool FC
“The main challenge is the sheer diversity of the business,” he said. “What most people see as 11 guys running around on a field is actually very different, with lots of mini-businesses running behind the scenes.”
From retail and hospitality through to media and soccer schools, every part of the extensive organisation need to be catered for and it is up to Robinson and his staff to “join the dots” with technology.
However, the Wi-Fi deployment was not driven entirely by the business – the club wanted to look out for its fans.
“We are focused on improving the fan experience at Anfield, not just with technology,” added Robinson. “We recently opened a sports café for example and have been moving to a stage where we are almost ticketless now at the venue. Wi-Fi is an extension to this.
“It is seen nowadays as a commodity. People just expect to have it wherever they are – the theatre, a restaurant or a football ground – so we needed to pursue it.”
Although the club examined a number of providers, the history that Xirrus came with won it over.
“We wanted to pick someone with a background, not just with football but with other large venues and Xirrus had a good range of case studies at scale,” said Robinson.
As well as scalability, there was a need for reliability, with such a large number of people trying to connect to a network and wanting to get good service.
Read more case studies on public Wi-Fi
But, the deployment of the 50 wireless arrays also needed to fit in with the history of the club and the somewhat-dated surroundings.
“The way the arrays are configured means the technology is attached to the arrays themselves, making things a lot easier for cable runs,” said Robinson.
“Anfield is an old stadium and is not really designed to have this type of technology, so it was great to be able to minimise the impact of deploying these arrays.
“Wi-Fi standards are also changing and with Xirrus arrays, we are able to switch out certain components rather than ripping out huge parts of it, making the future proofing and the lack of disruption much [improved].”
Robinson and the IT team began looking for the prospective partner in the summer of 2012, meaning the whole process took less than a year.
“Once we had decided [on Xirrus], we initiated standalone testing of the hardware,” said Robinson.
“We analysed the airwaves to see what they were doing and where there would be any spectrum clashes or crossovers. Then we moved to the detailed planning stage of what was needed.
“It wasn’t just deploying the arrays. We had to perform upgrades to our core network infrastructure to make sure it could manage it. Then we moved to closed trials and betas during match days and up until now have just been making sure the system is fine-tuned and ready for launch.”
And the launch comes this Sunday during Liverpool’s home game against West Ham. But, how will the users of the Wi-Fi really benefit?
The beauty of the Wi-Fi is it benefits both the fans and the club
“The beauty of the Wi-Fi is it benefits both the fans and the club,” said Robinson.
“The fans get the commodity access they expect so they can get online at games, but they also experience additional access to things like match statistics, food and drinks offers, betting and, of course, social media, which we encourage so we can get feedback from them.”
However, the organisation of Liverpool FC will benefit too.
“From a club perspective, it means we can understand what the fans like and don’t like, we can get more data on them from the one-time registration we ask them to complete to get onto the network and we have the chance to showcase our partners and sponsors through advertising,” he said.
The service will be free to begin with, but Robinson said he and his team were keen to explore a number of avenues that could lead in further monetisation of the network.
“Initially, it will be entirely open and free to use [but] how we move the experience forward depends on how it is used,” he said.
“Maybe we could build in certain components depending on what tickets you have or ask supporters to pay extra for instant replays.
“We have lots of ideas, in fact we almost have too many, and the difficulty will be picking which ones to take forward and try out with the up and running network.”