We might be one of the only news outlets who care more about the wireless networking at Super Bowls than the game itself, but for many in the stadium tech industry the biggest single game in America’s most popular sport is always somewhat of a wireless watershed. Perhaps at no other event do attendees spend so much time shooting selfies and posting them as they do from the site of Super Bowl Sunday. Even in the expected cold, it should be no different this week at Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where game time is scheduled for around 6:30 p.m. Eastern.
But well before that, fans will be testing the Verizon-built Wi-Fi network and both of the big carriers’ DAS deployments inside MetLife. According to reps from both companies that we spoke with last week, the carriers are ready.
Verizon spokesman David Samberg told us via email last week that an upgrade of the Verizon DAS in MetLife this past season means there are now more than 500 DAS antennas inside the facility. See some of the photos provided by Verizon that show the clever hiding spots Verizon engineers have found over the last 18 months as they’ve added capacity to a network built just a few years ago.
AT&T has also put in a brand-new DAS over the past year, with another 500-plus antennas of its own. “For the last year or so we’ve been working on our pre-game and game day network playbook in an effort to provide the best possible wireless experience for our customers,” said Michael Maus, assistant vice president of network services at AT&T, via email. “In anticipation of the huge volume of data and voice usage expected [for the Super Bowl], we’ve built a new state of the art antenna system inside the stadium, we’re rolling in portable cell sites both at the stadium, and to support the tailgate areas, and we’ve augmented coverage in New York City to support the activities there.”For Verizon’s own customers, 4G LTE capacity at MetLife has been quadrupled since last year, according to Samberg, who said that all stadium upgrades were completed by October, giving Verizon multiple chances to test its system against crowds at New York Giants and New York Jets home games. So far, Samberg said, so good.
More traffic than last year’s Super Bowl already
While yours truly opined earlier this year that this year’s Super Bowl might not set a wireless traffic record, we didn’t take into account some simple numbers — mainly, that MetLife Stadium’s official capacity of 82,566 is bigger than the Superdome’s 72,003. So, even if it’s cold, having 10,000 more people on hand probably means more bandwidth consumed, even if this year’s game doesn’t have a power blackout in the second half. (And even if it does, Samberg said the network shouldn’t go down since Verizon has backup power supplies on hand.)Our only problem with record wireless numbers from Sunday’s game is that we probably won’t ever see an actual number, since Verizon historically shies away from providing a score. Instead it just issues press releases saying things like “way more traffic this year than last!” and then expects us all to believe that without numbers. The good news for fans at the game is that the in-stadium Wi-Fi network, also built by Verizon, is free and open to customers of all carriers, or basically anyone with a device that has a Wi-Fi chip. But Verizon, like big competitor AT&T, has been beefing up its DAS installations significantly because most people try cellular first, even at stadiums, before instructing their phones to find a Wi-Fi network. AT&T, to its credit, usually does deliver a wireless scorecard quickly after big events. So at least from AT&T’s perspective we should find out if this year’s game sets another record.
Aside from the stadium improvements, Verizon will be showing a demonstration of a technology this week that could make DAS more of a competitor to Wi-Fi on the high bandwidth side of things. Called LTE multicast, the technology basically establishes set channels for LTE devices that will “broadcast” video, like a TV channel. (This idea is similar to the StadiumVision Mobile technology Cisco uses at stadiums like Barclays Center.) Theoretically, LTE multicast could let fans use a cellular connection to view multiple video streams, something you would need to use Wi-Fi for it to have any chance of working. But the multicast demo won’t take place at MetLife, but instead at Bryant Park in Manhattan this week. If you are in the city, check out the demo and let us know what you think.
No NFL Mobile at MetLife
And here’s something else you won’t be able to use at MetLife during the Super Bowl: Verizon’s own NFL Mobile app, which outside the stadium will be the only smartphone platform you’ll be able to watch the game on. (The Fox streaming site and app will only work with tablets and desktops or laptops, per the league’s rights agreement with Verizon.) Next year, the rights for NFL Mobile will change and if the local game (like, say, the Super Bowl) is on TV, you’ll be able to use NFL Mobile to watch it even if you’re at the stadium. But not this year! (To give one answer as to why, if you are at the game, you might want to watch it on your cell phone, we say: Bathroom or beer lines!)
More stadium infrastructure photos below: