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Internet radio on your mobile phone at the football – does it work?

Posted on Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 at 1:34 pm. #


As the football season gets underway again, it’s interesting to think about the many people who listen to the radio while watching a match.

The enjoyment of watching football is normally enhanced rather well by listening to the commentary on a radio. The commentators generally have a better view, and have a wealth of research that keeps you informed. And, of course, when it gets later in the season, it becomes important to monitor the radio to get the other scores.

We’re repeatedly told by technology journalists – or some radio analysts – that the future of radio is online through a mobile phone. So, let’s see how this works for listening to the radio in a football match.

A football ground is a comparatively small area to squeeze a lot of people in. Manchester United’s ground, for example, fits around 55,000 75,000 people. In and around Old Trafford football ground (M16 0RA), there are five mobile phone masts: all owned and operated by Vodafone (who once sponsored the Manchester United shirts). If you’re on another network, there’s an Orange, Three and T-Mobile mast a quarter of a kilometer away, on the A56; and on the other side of the canal there’s an O2 mast.

Including Tesco Mobile, which uses its network, O2 has a 29% market share: and if Manchester United fans are representative of the market as a whole, that means 21,750 people are connected to that cellsite.

A typical 3G cellsite has, according to Fujitsu, 21 meg of bandwidth available to it (fig3). 21 meg doesn’t appear to go particularly far between 16,000 people. O2′s setup appears to have three frequencies at the same cellsite, which might mean 63 meg is available in total – if I’m right, that means 2.8kbps for everyone. Assuming the cellsites can manage. Which it looks as if, in the real world, they can’t – even for dull things like posting tweets.

A posting on the Vodafone forum appears to suggest that data connections are regularly shut off near football stadiums. On the O2 forum, it appears even SMS’s have issues: and internet is ‘really poor’, according to the poster. And he’s – heh – in Old Trafford.

So, capacity is clearly an issue. Any chances of listening to internet radio, via a mobile phone, in a football ground? I’d be surprised if it were possible.

But even if it were: would you want to? In many cases, internet broadcasting adds a significant delay to the audio. Advanced radio apps like TuneIn Radio buffer the audio inside your phone, to even out connection problems: which only means the audio is even later. Listening to commentary five seconds out of synch with what you can see on the pitch is hardly a good experience. Even if you can get the audio after all.

So: what’s the future for fans who want commentary in the sports ground?

It’s kind of got to be broadcast radio, hasn’t it? FM, AM, or DAB are all virtually instantaneous, and have no capacity problems. Listening for two hours won’t flatten your mobile battery, either. Can the data-connected mobile phone ever replace this technology?

(Going to the match this weekend? I’d be really interested in your real-world experiences. Please do post them below.)


commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Old Trafford now has a capacity and average attendance of around 75,000.

commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 1:47 pm

This season Sheffield Wednesday launched an earpiece offering commentary at matches. I think it works on a short distance AM frequency:


They do a similar thing for snooker at the Crucible, too.

Personally, I’m not sure how much having commentary at a football match you are attending adds to the experience (I prefer to listen to banter from people around me and also the general crowd atmosphere). So I’ve not tried it at Hillsborough.

martin steers
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Some very interesting number crunching..

As a Community Station that does coverage of Luton Town, we receive a huge amount of listener feedback and support locally and all over the world..

We have even had a couple of blind supporters who wish they could pick us up on away matches.. So the problems outlined above are a problem for listeners such as this.. (we cant afford to license or run local coverage for away matches).. Would be interesting to know if there might be a local wifi solution that might be an option?

Or even ultalow powered FM (the unregulated type)

Richard Leeming
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 1:56 pm

The Emirates has a capacity of 60,000 and is usually full (insert Arsenal-supporter-only joke here) … it’s almost impossible to even tweet during the game, or surf the mobile internet. (I’m on an O2 iPhone) my friend in the next seat seems to manage surfing the BBC site on his Blackberry …

There’s no wifi and the 3G signal is flaky – I’ve had better luck switching 3G off and relying on the iPhone’s Edge connection … strikes me that investing in WiFi would be a good thing for Arsenal to look at. Maybe they could do that instead of buying some players …

Jim Hunt
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Over the past five years, I’ve setup systems for journos and the FAI doing live commentary over the web from Croke Park (Cap: 80,000) and the Aviva Stadium, (Cap: 55,000) in Dublin. It has been more a good than bad experience, but it’s not without it’s risks.

Often, due to sponsorship agreements, you can be severely limited in your choice of ISP if you’re going to use the internet connection supplied. Bearing in mind, you’re probably always going to use the same internet connection as all the other media outlets in the press box, so if it’s DSL, you are going to have issues with the contention ratio which will make your broadcast un-listenable, especially at half-time when everybody is filing for the web editions of their publications, at the same time.

As for 3G, oddly I’ve only ever seem to have had issues with it in the hour or so up to kick-off. From about five minutes after, throughout the rest of the game, it’s usually stable with no interruptions. I’ve found this to be the case with O2 and Meteor but I haven’t tried the rest.

Bearing in mind we would have been broadcasting for people not at the stadium, so lag issues weren’t a huge problem, but I’m sure they must have occurred, whether over 3G or the supplied fixed line connection. If I was broadcasting to just the crowd in the stadium, my preference would always be for RF. I wouldn’t even look at an IP data connection


Marc Settle
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Further to Richard’s comment re Arsenal…

As an o2 iPhone owner as well, I was moderately surprised at how often I actually got 3G from the ground on Saturday. Last season, it was “seldom” to the point of “never” during a game, but on this occasion I was able to tweet and look at websites pretty much whenever I tried (something of an indictment of the game, come to think of it…)

commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Very interesting article. Do you think the upcoming technology LTE will improve the possibilities?

Jim Hunt
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 3:32 pm

LTE can’t be any worse, but I suppose it depends on the sponsorship agreements at the stadium in question. If they exclude particular mobile operators, you could be left in the same situation of only being able to use one particular operator, or chancing your arm and hoping that the other operators masts are close enough to be usable.

Bottom line, it just depends.


Roy Martin
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Radio Rovers in Blackburn has been broadcasting at every home match for the past 18 years on AM around Ewood Park.

A large amount of fans take a small mediumwave radio to the match with them, or people travelling by car can tune in too.

It starts a few hours before the match and stays on for a few hours after, including full commentary.

Terrestrial radio is the way forward..

Scott C
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 5:01 pm

It’s not suggested in the post, but thought I would just mention that – obviously – the whole crowd won’t be trying to listen online during a match – not everyone in the crowd at a match listens to AM/FM radio now – and from my previous experience, there’s not a *huge* number of people that do.

Also, does mobile access not now mean people’s behaviour changes? I’d have thought that most people are listening whilst at a match to hear the scores of other games – but there’s not actually a need to stream or listen to a commentary when you can access a webpage with all the scores, tables, stats – during a match. And so mobile access means people listen less by whatever method – because they don’t need to anymore – ?

Do any grounds offer any form of free or paid for Wi-Fi? I’m sure they must. It has been a while since I last went to a match…

Jonathan Breeze
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Radio City has broadcast football commentary for many years on terrestrial radio.

Under Premier League rules we’re not allowed to stream commentary online and offer alternative listening on the web and via our mobile apps during games.

However, as a new offering for this season, we’ve launched the online Radio City Sports Centre where we provide minute-by-minute text commentary on every Liverpool and Everton game. This commentary aims to reflect our legends (John Aldridge and Graeme Sharp) on-air opinions – they are as passionate about their club as our listeners and we see them as a big draw for listeners. It includes short audio clips of commentary highlights on demand, moments after it is broadcast. We are also fully integrating this service with social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

As well as the text commentary, we have launched podcasts of our popular sports output and promote in-sync listening (particularly for pubs) by asking people to turn down the sound if they’re watching the match on TV and turn up Radio City 96.7 on their terrestrial radio.

The aim is to drive more people to listen to Radio City Sport during the match and provide football coverage on-air and online that is more local and more passionate than anyone else in Liverpool.

James Cridland
commenting at August 23rd, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Those who’ve responded saying “how about wifi” might like to consider that you need a wifi setup that a) has more than 100Mb of bandwidth available to it, and b) can cope with thousands of connections at the same time. (Since, while most wouldn’t listen to a streaming radio service, many will be getting automated emails, web surfing, etc).

Both are theoretically possible, but not especially easy to do.

Jonathan Marks
commenting at August 24th, 2011 at 12:17 pm


I agree with James that the bandwidth needed for such a short time kinda makes the wifi business model hard to justify or would make it too expensive. digital radio is the only way to scale such a challenge if the idea would be reach many devices simultaneously with audio as well as a data service. But smart device is probably going to be expensive – not the sort of thing I’d take to a football match unless I really wanted to lose it. Mind you, I just love the sports radio headphones that the Chinese dream up.Look on the site above (I think the catalogue is now defunct) and scroll down. Dare you to wear ‘em.

commenting at August 24th, 2011 at 1:13 pm

At White Hart Lane, 35,000 capacity with full 3G signal it is often impossible to send a text message after kick off, let alone tweet, facebook or even begin to think about streaming audio.

Bill Moore
commenting at August 24th, 2011 at 4:24 pm

The most immediate problems in the US that favor connected FM over internet when watching a game live:

1. Many major league sports are not streamed for free.
2. The internet delay makes listening useless.

As an illiterate sports fan I love listening to sports announcers explain the players and the game.

Unfortunately, Major League Baseball streaming is not allowed except thru their subscription app. However many affiliates don’t bother to block the stream during the game so it’s not hard to find (at least using TuneIn radio which has the games and affiliates).

But once found most stations are 20-40 seconds behind real-time, so you are hearing color a few pitches back. I’ve not tried listening with the MLB app to see how much delay it ads, but anything over a second is annoying.

Of course FM sounds fantastic with almost no delay, you hear the bat in the stadium and in your headset at the same time.

Bill Moore, Founder TuneIn

commenting at August 25th, 2011 at 8:06 pm

In venues with the budget, high-density Wi-Fi is increasingly the technology of choice. 3G just doesn’t scale as well.

However, the problem with Wi-Fi is that, typically, a single wireless access point can only cope with 50-100 people connected to it. The answer is, therefore, to set up your wireless access points so that they only cover very small areas of the venue, run them on low power, and install lots and lots of them.

There are already venues with this technology (see, for example, http://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/sports/stadium_wifi.html) and typically it is being driven by US sports venues who want to enhance the fan experience through live video replays and game statistics (US sports fans love their statistics). It’s also beginning to find favour with the mobile network operators who see it as a way to offload traffic from their 3G infrastructure.

I’ve not heard anyone yet talk about using it for audio streaming services. That might reflect the buffering delay issue, although that’s less of an issue where the venue controls the whole IP path between encoder and end-user device, and can apply QoS to it.

It’s expensive and, in the UK, I would expect that only the biggest football clubs and other major venues will be able to find a business case for it. But it’s not impossible.

Phil Edmonds
commenting at August 27th, 2011 at 7:36 am

This all comes back to the old argument that there are some things that are done better as ‘broadcast’ rather than a ‘one to one’ data link.

Interestingly in your example of Manchester United, it appears that Manchester United Radio is no more. Now they were stuck out in the wilds of AM, so that would mean bring along a separate radio, rather than use the FM tuner in your phone. (Obviously Man Utd commentaries are often available elsewhere – a luxury not applicable to every team.)

As for others comments about broadcasters using Audio over IP codecs to broadcast from sports venues over mobile networks – you often have more luck on this as most “public” use of the mobile data networks are downloading, the upstream does suffer from as much capacity issues.

commenting at August 31st, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I recall the O2 venue being particularly bad for O2 mobile internet coverage when I was there in the summer. Brilliant advert for the network.

Mike Peters
commenting at September 3rd, 2011 at 1:23 am

I’ve actually discussed this issue with Orange as I’ve had terrible problems while trying to use mobile internet in the stadium during Everton matches despite me (apparently) having full signal.

I’m not trying to stream audio but rather use the BBC’s excellent live matchday service or Sky Sports Football Centre App to keep tabs on the other scores.

They told me that they only have a certain amount of bandwidth per transmitter and that the sheer volume of people trying to access the network makes it impossible to provide us with a full service. They also told me that what handset you are using has a bearing on how likely you are to be successful in accessing the network. Apparently an iPhone requires more ‘juice’ so they (the iPhone) are more likely to be successful.

As someone who pays to have unlimited internet access on my mobile contract, having it restricted during one of the times it is important for me to use it is highly unsatisfactory.

The reason I would rather use a text service than listen to the radio during the match is simple – it’s nigh-on impossible to hear anything through a pair of headphones when 40-odd thousand people are screaming & shouting, whereas reading something is no problem whatsoever.

That said, listening to Radio City is a crucial part of my pre & post match routine as they provide team news & reaction quicker than the aforementioned text services & apps.

Mobile Internet Broadcasting: Will it Ever Match Terrestrial? | Right Click I.T Blog
commenting at November 29th, 2011 at 1:52 am

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