App boosts football fans’ mobile internet signal in crowds

New technology is promising to tackle poor mobile internet access at busy football matches by allowing fans to share phone signal.

The British-designed app creates a network between users’ mobile phones when they are in a participating stadium that let’s them access certain information – such as live score updates and match commentary – even when most users have little or no 3G or 4G signal.

Six football clubs are launching their own version of the app – which is inspired by the way devices in space communicate – as a trial for the first two months of the upcoming 2014/2015 season, which will be made available free to fans.

‘Typically when you go to a football match you’re in a crowd of 30,000 people and those people are all contesting for the available basestation bandwidth,’ said Dr Ian Wakeman, founder of the company behind the app, TribeHive.

Football app
TribeHive is available to fans of six clubs.

‘Most people can’t get a connection and you have a really bad experience on your mobile phone. TribeHive uses software rather than hardware to build a network directly between all of the mobile phones running the app and shares the connectivity you can get to pull down updates.’

The TribeHive platform relies on a connection method called Wi-Fi Direct, a feature of modern smartphones that allows different kinds of devices to speak to each other without a central router, in a similar way to Bluetooth but with faster data transfer.

This allows participating devices to form an ad-hoc network. When a phone using a TribeHive app wants to access a certain piece of data but cannot connect to a mobile basestation, it can instead receive it from another phone on the network that already has the data or that has a working 3G or 4G link.

The technology only boosts download speeds for information available through the app itself – which also includes league tables, club information and messages from Twitter – and not general signal performance for other functions of the phone.

With a typical internet connection, a device such as a smartphone requests data from a server and maintains a link until all the information has been transferred.

The TribeHive app instead forms a delay-tolerant network – a concept developed to allow communication with and between space craft – meaning the phone makes a single request for the data and the other devices in the network send it when it becomes available.

TribeHive claims this means data should be downloaded within 30 seconds – much more slowly than those with 4G connections are used to but much faster than the speeds typically available on phones in a large crowd that effectively all join a virtual queue for access to the internet.

The company also says the app increases battery use by around five to 10 percent but that users can limit the amount of data their own phone downloads on behalf of the network – and even choose not to donate any signal and only to receive from other users.

The technology is possible due to the Wi-Fi functionality built into the latest Android and iOS operating systems. However, TribeHive claims it is the first company to make delay-tolerant networking available to the general public in this way – and as a result had to carry out significant work to adapt the basic Android/Apple protocols into a stable system.

Five Championship clubs (Birmingham, Bolton, Brighton and Hove Albion, Middlesbrough and Watford) and Premier League team Queens Park Rangers (QPR) have issued personalised versions of the app for Android and iPhone for the two-month trial, and TribeHive hopes the platform could be rolled out across the league. Clubs pay for the basic platform and for each time the network is used, which will be at all home and away matches during the trial.

The company was spun-out from Sussex University and has received funding and business mentoring from the Royal Academy of Engineering via an £85,000 Enterprise Fellowship awarded to Wakeman last year.