With a capacity of 90,000 people, Wembley can accommodate more fans than any other stadium in the UK. But Wembley doesn’t just want to have a large capacity for putting bums on seats. Now, with the help of technology partner, EE, it’s looking to greatly enhance the capacity of its networks.

A number of stadiums around the world, including Liverpool's Anfield and Manchester City's Ethiad, have already rolled out in-stadium wi-fi so fans can do things like upload content to social networks and listen to radio commentary while they’re watching a match. But Rob Ray, the Football Association’s CTO, has plans to go one step further.

“We want Wembley to be the best connected stadium in the world,” he told journalists this week in an EE box next to David Beckham’s.

In a bid to achieve this, Wembley announced in February that it was embarking on a six year partnership deal with EE, which was recently ranked as the UK’s leading mobile operator.

Under the deal, EE’s branding colours can be found splashed across the gigantic stadium (including its iconic arch, which has been fitted with 270 colour-changing LED floodlights). However, a behind-the-scenes tour paints a more detailed picture.

Deep in the depths of the stadium, a telecoms equipment room is predominantly filled with EE’s networking gear, while the big screens have also been hooked up to EE’s network so that fans can post messages directly from the EE Wembley app on their smartphone or tablet. Then there’s the NFC-enabled turnstiles, which can also read bar codes that EE has also helped to implement.

But EE is planning to bring a “new wave” of technologies to the stadium over the next few years that push the boundaries even further, particularly in terms of networking. 

The operator said it wants to use the stadium as a testbed for a number of new technologies it is working on, including a 400Mbps 4G network, which it claims will be the world’s fastest, surpassing the ultra high-speed networks in the likes of South Korea and Japan.

“Wembley for us is the mother ship of our network,” said Mansoor Hanif, director of radio networks at EE. “It’s where our customers can touch it and feel it and interact with it.”

From Tech City to Wembley

But before Wembley gets a 400Mpbs network, it will be hooked up to the 300Mbps network that EE deployed to the startup community in East London’s Tech City last November, albeit with limited take-up because it was only compatible with two Samsung devices.

The operator said fans with Cat 6 standard smartphones will receive 300Mbps inside the stadium before the end of 2015, while fans with Cat 9 phones will receive 400Mbps in 2016 or 2017. 

Hanif explained that stadiums are ideal places to test the networks.

On match day the network has to be able to deal with up to 90,000 people, some of whom will bring more than one device, but then at other times of the week there is next to nobody in the stadium, he said.

“Do you build a massive pipe for one minute a week or do you find ways to manage that traffic?” he asked, possibly referring to the minute after a goal is scored when large numbers of people take to social networks and attempt to make calls. “That’s a massive technical challenge.”

While 300Mbps and 400Mbps aren’t available yet at Wembley, EE has started making some steps towards upgrading the stadium’s infrastructure, adding 5MHz of 3G capacity and offering 20MHz on 4G.

Since the partnerhip was established half a year ago, EE said more than 1.7TB of data had been downloaded on its network and 900GB had been uploaded, suggesting that upstream speeds are now just as important as downstream. EE added that only one percent of phone calls had failed since then, which is claimed to be a remarkable achievement.

EE said Wembley visitors will receive 400Mbps speeds by 2020, just in time for the Euro 2020 semi-finals.

Wembley is also planning to introduce mobile ticketing so that the FA can gain more information on each person that passes through its turnstiles and ultimately provide them with more targeted marketing. At £916 million, Wembley is one of the most expensive stadiums in the world and therefore needs to maximise its profits wherever possible in order to cover construction costs.

The push to make Wembley one of the best connected stadiums in the world while providing fans with the best possible digital experience comes as Old Trafford issues bans on using iPads and laptops in the ground.

“Interrupting the customer experience is not what we’re about at all,” said Ray. “I understand it from a rights perspective, but you have to move on from that.”

So is Wembley already the best connected stadium in the world? “It’s very hard for us to say we’re number one now as there’s no benchmark,” said Ray. “We’re comfortable we will be.”   

Hanif added: “We see Wembley in 2020 as being a portal to the future. This is a gathering place for people who love sport and technology. It’s like the Stonehenge of the future.”

Image credits: EE/Wembley