NFL Gameday Frequency Coordinators
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Keeping the lines of communication clear on gameday.
Doppler radar from local TV stations and a network’s experiment with using cameras in end zone pylons have interfered with the NFL’s sideline Wi-Fi, which is needed for getting play photos to the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablets on each bench.
And it all happened because too many people were trying to communicate using the same channel and frequency during an NFL game.
Preventing such interference — or clearing it up quickly — is the job of one of the NFL’s unsung heroes: the gameday frequency coordinator. These specialists track and manage hundreds of frequencies and thousands of in-stadium frequency-dependent devices. They also account for interference from sources outside of the stadium, such as TV stations and special events.
“Right now, our duty is to cram 500 MHz of users into 25 MHz of spectrum,” the NFL’s lead frequency coordinator, Karl Voss, said in a May 2014 interview with Audio Gloss, a blog published by RF Venue, an audio technology company. “Everybody seems to think that [radio frequency] is their God-given right. And essentially the job of the coordinator is to make sense of that — to try and give as many people tools that they need to do their job within reason.”
Quarterbacks, defensive play-callers, coaches and game officials all depend on coordinators to ensure that their systems are interference-free. So do TV and radio broadcasters and reporters, medical and security personnel, staff who use the NFL’s instant replay and injury video review systems, concession operators, cleaners, halftime entertainers and many more.
Coordinators start preparing well before the game, collecting requests from users for a designated spot on the spectrum, entering them into a database or spreadsheet and assigning frequencies. They don’t all get what they ask for — media requests alone can be voluminous — so coordinators must prioritize and, if necessary, cajole users into cooperating to make maximum use of what’s available.
Demands have gotten so high, Voss told RF Venue, that coordinators now are forced to do “time division” — assigning the same frequency to multiple users for use at specific times. They also might provide two users the same frequency at the same time, but with the usage restricted to physically separated zones to avoid interference.
On gameday, Voss said, everyone assigned a frequency enters the stadium at the same gate, where coordinators or assistants check that all devices are on their assigned frequencies. Devices are tagged to identify where and when they can be used.
Before the game, coordinators usually scan the most critical frequencies, check in with news crews to root out unregistered devices such as wireless microphones and introduce themselves to key league, team and broadcast personnel. By kickoff, they settle into a reserved seat with an unobstructed view of the field, an Internet connection, a telephone and enough countertop space to accommodate their equipment, which includes a frequency counter and a scanner/receiver.
When problems arise during a game, coordinators or their assistants identify the source with spectrum analyzers and direction-finding equipment. They have become more proactive, using the equipment to spot and correct potential frequency conflicts before problems arise, said Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s chief information officer.
On the field, the NFL has a fail-safe for its coach-to-player communications: a backup frequency for each team, which can be used during the game with NFL Football Operations approval. If a coach’s belt pack is affected by interference, sideline technicians maintain coach-to-coach communications by connecting the pack to a 100-foot cable for a wired connection.
When gameday coordinators identify the source of a frequency interference problem, they don’t mess around.
Most issues can be resolved without conflict; that is the desire of coordinators, who try to reason with the unregistered users they refer to as “Coord-Nots.” But the NFL’s Game Operations Manual specifies that if someone is using an uncoordinated device, the coordinator will determine if a frequency can be assigned to it. If not, the user will have to use a hard wire — “or be directed to the club’s wireless coordination contact to have his/her credential removed, denying him/her access to the stadium.” The NFL even maintains a database of repeat offenders who are at risk of losing their privileges for a longer term.
The integrity of the game and the seamlessness of the event depend on it.