Engaging fans in an interactive and immersive match-day experience starts with the network. 5G is about more than just speed, it’s about what we can create with all the new technologies that are promised with it — and for sports fans it’s a particularly exciting time. This next generation of services will certainly be a game-changer, and many sports clubs, venues, and franchises are already exploring what the match-day experience of the future might look like.

For instance, Verizon and NFL created a developer contest for a 5G-enabled video game, and the winner will unveil the real-time experience for fans to play at the Super Bowl. The Sacramento Kings have built an AR-designed stadium as the NBA streams games in virtual reality. FIFA created augmented reality selfie-filters for fans to take photos with their favorite players. These technology integrations are just beginning.

Imagine a stadium full of AR headsets or screens, where fans can pull up stats and data that are overlaid on the field and players or switch the settings to see an entirely new perspective of the field in real time. Many telco providers are experimenting with interactive services and many pundits are predicting the development of services such as those described above.

But there is a note of caution here. Yes, we can develop these services. But 5G is not a panacea. Some careful thought will be needed to plan the stadium networks of the future.

Minimizing latency

Sports stadiums accommodate tens of thousands of fans. Delivering AR and real-time information that is synchronized with the play on the field will require ultra-low latency applications. While 5G does deliver low latency, it will not be enough on its own. Sending traffic back and forth — through pre-aggregation and aggregation networks — to a central application will take too much time.

Edge computing, on the other hand, allows applications and information to be brought closer to the users — hosted in the stadium itself, for example — dramatically reducing the data path and improving latency as a result.

Edge computing also has another advantage. The stadium of the future will likely have thousands of sensors covering everything from fire detection to door control, atmospheric conditions to facial recognition. For convenience, many of these sensors will be battery powered. With shorter paths and connection times, edge computing will reduce the energy used and dramatically increase battery life.

Ensuring performance

With tens of thousands of fans potentially sending and receiving information, video feed bandwidth will be a major consideration. Control and user plane separation (CUPS) technology will be key to delivering the performance they expect. CUPS allows the user plane be placed closer to the application it supports, while the control plane remains in a central location. The technology is particularly good for video traffic.

While providing a high-performance experience to fans is clearly important, there will be some applications where maintaining a specific performance level is absolutely critical. For example, emergency services located inside or outside the stadium will require uninterruptable communications with their bases and may even require higher bandwidth for new services such as video walk-through of medical procedures. At the same time, outlets such as food franchises and souvenir stores will require reliable connections for validating credit cards and analyzing customer behavior to create personalized offers.

Network slicing technology can be used to meet these diverse requirements. It allows operators to run multiple services — each with their own attributes in terms of throughput, quality of service, latency and security — over a single physical network. As a result, they can economically meet the needs of fans, emergency services, concessionaires and other interested parties within the stadium.

Rethinking security

With thousands of sensors and devices connected to the network, applications that are hosted closer to the users, and services split across a variety of user planes, traditional security strategies — based on monitoring and managing traffic centrally — will not be sufficient. They will only add latency and negate many of the key advantages of 5G.

To meet the new demands of scalability, performance, quality of service and latency, network security will need to be applied at multiple levels — associated with a network slice, service or resource, for example – and make use of both physical and virtual network functions. To achieve this, a unified and connected security strategy that provides system-wide visibility of all domains will be required.

Coping with complexity

Achieving all the potential benefits of 5G will require a new transport network that can support the new technologies involved — edge computing, control and user plane separation, network slicing and a multi-level, connected security strategy.

This, combined with the sheer magnitude of new connections, will lead to greater complexity in the network and mean that traditional management techniques and the manual provisioning of services will simply not be feasible or economic. Coping with the complexity will require high levels of automation, combined with seamless management and control.

Bottom line

5G is a potential game changer for delivering an interactive and immersive experience for live sports fans. However, to gain the maximum benefit, clubs, venues and franchises will need to ensure they plan their networks carefully in advance and utilize the latest technologies that are available.

Jim Benson is the Director of Global Product Marketing for Mobile/5G Solutions at Juniper Networks.