Miami Dolphins go long on multiple social-media platforms for Gase intro

The team website was just one of the vehicles the Miami Dolphins used in their multi-platform social media campaign for the hiring of Adam Gase. All images: Miami Dolphins (click on any photo for a larger image)

The team website was just one of the vehicles the Miami Dolphins used in their multi-platform social media campaign for the hiring of Adam Gase. All images: Miami Dolphins (click on any photo for a larger image)

Intelligent marketers of professional sports know they have to get their messaging to where the fans are – the stadium, their living rooms, and in today’s world, their smartphones. Small wonder, then, that the NFL’s Miami Dolphins chose multiple social media outlets in early January to introduce their new head coach, Adam Gase, in a multi-platform, social-cast event.

The Dolphins engineered a live Q&A session and broadcast the press conference with Gase that spanned Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, Meerkat and Snapchat. This multi-platform event, the first of its kind in professional sports according to the Dolphins, included video and text chat and was intended to reach online fans and encourage engagement, said the event’s planners, Jason Jenkins, senior vice president of communications and community affairs for the Dolphins, and Surf Melendez, managing director of content and creative services for the team.

Joined by his wife, Jennifer, and their three young children, Gase told fans that outside of football, he was most looking forward to the Miami weather. “It was 15 degrees when we left” Chicago, he said, where he’d been working as the Bears’ offensive coordinator. By the end of the press conference, the Dolphins’ Facebook video page registered more than 100,000 views, with a peak of approximately 11,700 simultaneous viewers, according to the Dolphins’ press office.

“The whole point of [of the social-cast] was to make sure that we were using our brand and all our platforms in an innovative way,” Melendez said. “Whenever we communicate or get the brand out there, we try to be innovative, this time with a live, social broadcast.” The team also streamed Gase’s introduction on its website and the Miami Dolphins official smartphone app; Melendez said the intention wasn’t to bypass the general media but to complement them.

md2“We have the luxury of experimenting and innovating because our owner, Stephen Ross, and CEO [Tom Garfinkel] are there supporting us,” Jenkins added. “This is a new place to be.”

Technical challenges for new approaches

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A new place, and a challenging one, at least technically. Melendez said the first requirement was making sure they had enough smartphones for all the different platforms. “We needed the right people and the right devices to make sure we got the right shot, that the audio was good, that someone was posting and someone else was monitoring the feed,” Melendez explained.

He and his department are constantly experimenting with these different technology to improve or fine-tune performance. “We had a dry run [for the Gase introduction]. But once it’s go-time, things happen, like Wi-Fi,” he laughed.

Live video was another of the Dolphins' social-media tactics

Live video was another of the Dolphins’ social-media tactics

Still, the approach seemed to be a hit with Dolphins’ fans. “As we were broadcasting live, the responses were, ‘Wow, this is tremendous, they’re getting me in there’ [the Dolphins’ offices],” Melendez said. “This is a new and fresh place to be.”

In addition to reach, impressions and views, the Dolphins are closely monitoring how social media grows the brand and creates new revenue. Like most businesses, the Dolphins conduct regular lead-generation campaigns; most have been telephone-based, according to Melendez, but that is quickly changing.

“We’ve done a couple dry runs on social media, where you can put out a call to action and target a specific audience for leads,” he said. “The response was 4-5 times as fruitful for good, qualified leads.”

As a new medium, social media requires continuous education with the Dolphins’ partners on how to use the platforms. “We then educate our sponsors that social does X, Y and Z and how that benefits them,” Melendez said.

But the door for social education swings both ways, according to Vince Pannozzo, social media manager for the Dolphins. “We work with the team and with Facebook and Twitter directly to talk about personal brands as well as best practices,” he said.

“Cheerleaders, too,” Jenkins hastened to add.

The next big test of the Dolphins social strategy will come when the NFL’s free agency begins in mid-March. “That’s going to be a fun time to tune into what we’re doing,” Melendez said. “Generally we’re taking a step back at the content we’re creating overall and how we’re broadcasting, quote unquote, because we’re looking at how to serve up things that we used to do on more traditional avenues. It will look different next season.”

University of Wisconsin takes on Wi-Fi, Badger Game Day app upgrades

Camp Randall Stadium, University of Wisconsin. Photo: Dave Stluka

Camp Randall Stadium, University of Wisconsin. Photo: Dave Stluka

Sports fans at the University of Wisconsin have been enjoying a nice technology two-fer for the last 20 months: In addition to new Wi-Fi and beacon technology at its largest sporting venues in Madison, Wisc., the university also released v3.0.2 of its Badger Game Day app which adds live and archived video, among other features, for fans and their smartphones.

Jim Roberts, director of technical services for the university’s athletic department, described this as a happy coincidence as opposed to a larger strategy to bring sports technology to the Badger faithful. “Knowing that the new Wi-Fi system was coming, the group working on the app upgrade was able to incorporate more features, knowing fans could take advantage of the improved Wi-Fi and not rely solely on cellular data plans,” Roberts said.

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The Wisconsin venues are Camp Randall, a bowl-style football stadium with a capacity of 80,321; and nearby Kohl Center, used for hockey, basketball, concerts and other live events with room for 17,230. The LeBahn Arena, built for women’s ice hockey with a capacity of 2,273, is also included. In part because of their proximity, Roberts and his team used the upgrades to replace and enhance the underlying infrastructure for the venues – core switching, Wi-Fi access points, an IPTV system, cabling, electrical power and HVAC improvements — $11 million for the whole package, according to Roberts.

“Due to the expected size of the population connecting to Wi-Fi, we had to upgrade the entire network,” he explained, adding that the previous 10/100 Mbps backbone with Gigabit Ethernet uplinks and its 32,000 MAC address capacity was insufficient for the job.

“We upgraded our core to some pretty big Cisco routers at each venue that could handle 128,000 MAC addresses, with 10-gigabit fiber to all 33 telecom rooms within the Camp Randall complex,” he said; they also added about 1,100 wireless APs. Camp Randall got upgraded during the summer of 2014; the Kohl Center and LeBahn were done a year later.

Kohl Center

Kohl Center

Camp Randall proved to be the largest test, both from an engineering and design perspective. Built in 1917, its open bowl lacks the overhangs from which RF engineers love to hang antennas and other infrastructure.

“The east side of the bowl became our biggest challenge with getting the signal to penetrate deep enough into the sections,” Roberts said, adding that the problem was especially acute for seats closest to the field, where the first few rows are tarped over. Initially, APs were installed below the tarps, but the signal only carried 10 rows back.

“We ended up mounting the APs on the front, 4-6 feet up from ground level,” and above the tarps, he explained. “They don’t affect the sight lines for spectators. But getting the APs to shoulder height from waist height definitely helped us get it back to row 25.”

APs were also mounted just above the entry tunnels, where the hardware and antenna could be attached to railings and concrete. Cisco is the University of Wisconsin’s AP vendor; the deployment uses Cisco model 3700s.

Wi-Fi install over a VOM at Camp Randall (click on photo for a larger image)

Wi-Fi install over a VOM at Camp Randall (click on photo for a larger image)

Roberts and his team also ran into some structural issues with waterproofing and cabling that kept them from putting in more APs in the student section. They had to re-calculate where the APs would go; consequently, coverage can be spotty in the student section, which is exacerbated by the high density of phones in that part of the stadium. AT&T and Verizon both have DAS infrastructure in Camp Randall that helps coverage, but Roberts and his team are looking at long-term solutions for Wi-Fi coverage in that section and throughout Camp Randall.

The University of Wisconsin worked closely with AmpThink on a facility-wide Wi-Fi analysis, according to Bob Lahey, a network engineer in the athletic department. AmpThink did the design and tuning and worked out some issues in advance. “Our facilities staff and [AmpThink] discussed locations for best coverage and worked through the aesthetics before we started the project,” Lahey said. AmpThink was also onsite during the first year to see how the Wi-Fi performed with people in the bowl. “You can only figure out so much without people there,” Lahey laughed.

Getting Online at Camp Randall

The stadium’s fan-facing wireless network, Badger WiFi, is a captive portal that asks users for their name, email address and zip code. There are also two boxes: one, users must check to agree to terms and conditions of service; the second allows the university to send them emails, and by default, the second box is checked. “Our plan is to send them email surveys and allow them to remain on the system and not have to re-authenticate every time they come to one of our buildings,” Lahey said. “But if they uncheck, they have to re-authenticate.”

The university does no bandwidth limiting or throttling back usage once users are logged in. “We’ve got dual 10-gigabit links and 100-gigabit to the world, so we’re not too concerned about overall bandwidth,” Lahey said. “We limit each radio in the AP to a maximum of 200 clients. It doesn’t happen often, but we see it occasionally.” Camp Randall users normally get at least 1 Mbps bandwidth — plenty for checking scores or posting to social media, Lahey added. Kohl Center users average 40-60 Mbps because the venue is less dense.

Screen shot of Wi-Fi portal login

Screen shot of Wi-Fi portal login

At present, 65-70 percent of Badger Wi-Fi clients are on 5 GHz spectrum rather than 2.4 GHz. Roberts finds the 5 GHz band easier to manage, and said users get a better experience. “If we have problems with wireless, it is most times an older couple with their iPhone 4,” Roberts said. “APs can only do so much, but sometimes a phone [using 2.4 GHz spectrum] will want to connect with an AP a half mile across the field rather than one that’s 10 feet away.”

He also said the maximum number of unique clients for Camp Randall is about 26,000, or 37 percent of the crowd. “We assume that’s going to keep growing and we’ll have to augment the system,” he said. “At some point we won’t have enough access points.”

Game Day Gets a Badger Refresh

Concurrently, the Badger Game Day smartphone app was getting new features like live video replay and interaction with Bluetooth-based beacon technology. The app’s first iteration was initially for football, then expanded to all 10 sports that sell tickets; the latest version embraces all 23 sports at the University of Wisconsin, men’s and women’s. “Not many schools have all their sports represented, so while the traffic may not be high on rowing, it’s a great recruitment tool,” said Ben Fraser, director of external engagement for the athletics department. “So it helps there with the coaches sending out links or for parents and other supporters.”

It also helps with fans. “Collegiate and professional sports venues are looking for how to keep fans entertained and also allow them to participate in the game via social media and other methods,” noted Tam Flarup, director of the athletic department’s website services. When there’s break in the action, Badger fans are busy posting to Facebook, Instagram and of course, Wisconsin’s infamous Jump Around. “Twitter’s also allowing Periscope live video in its tweets now,” Flarup added. “Our fans will like that – it keeps them in the stands with a great game day atmosphere and experience.”

The university developed the first two iterations of Badger Game Day internally but chose to outsource the upgrade to sports-app developer YinzCam in June 2015 and gave them a tight deadline to meet — Aug. 30, just in time for Badger football season. YinzCam delivered on time, and then met an Oct. 15 deadline for revisions and tweaks, Fraser said.

Badger Game Day now includes live video replay from four different camera angles; YinzCam’s secret sauce makes streaming video across Wi-Fi more efficient. “Video would have been impossible without the Wi-Fi investment we made,” Fraser said.

Unlike previous iterations that only allowed the participation of a single sponsor, the new Badger Game Day app gives the university the ability to sell individual pages and sports, Fraser said.

Game day beacon message to app

Game day beacon message to app

Perhaps the leading edge of Badger Game Day is its use of Bluetooth-based beacon technology and messaging with geo-fencing. Gimbal Inc. worked with the university customize the technology; Fraser and his team did some social media messaging to alert fans to the feature and to remind them to turn it on.

The first remote use of messaging with beacons and geo-fencing was in Dallas for Wisconsin’s season opener in Dallas at AT&T Stadium; the feature was then used continually at both Camp Randall and the Kohl Center.

“We continued to use this messaging on the road for the Holiday Bowl in San Diego,” Fraser said. “Messages varied from welcome messages that were linked to videos from our players, to informational messages that informed fans about events, to scavenger hunts that engaged our fans at these sites.”

When users first download the app, there’s a proximity allowance message that they must activate to receive beacon messages. So far, the university has sent out 46 unique messages, 21 of which were geo-fenced. At each home game, they geo-fence Camp Randall with a welcome video from players; they reached an average number of 1,160 fans per game with these welcome messages and videos.

“We’re still learning how fans are using [beacons and Bluetooth], and we’re trying not to hit them with too many ads,” Fraser said. By building their trust, it encourages fans to leave their Bluetooth on for the signal to find them. “And we are looking for ways to improve it,” he added. Potential future additions: Features that show the length of lines at concession stands and restrooms, and an online lost and found. They’re also looking for more robust scheduling information inside the app — such as which broadcast network is carrying the game, along with links to Wisconsin’s video stream and live stats.

App development and a new server cost the university about $100,000, according to Fraser and Flarup. Since August 2015, there have been 123,000 downloads of Badger Game Day and nearly 1 million page views. Average time spent per game on the audio feature of the app is about 14 minutes. There’s more room to grow as fans continue to download and use the app; there’s plenty of revenue upside as well as sponsors discover multiple avenues for their messaging and content.

Stadium Tech Report: Los Angeles Dodgers hit it out of the park with Cisco, Aruba Wi-Fi

Dodgers Stadium, the SoCal baseball shrine. All photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Dodgers Stadium, the SoCal baseball shrine. All photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk, Ralph Esquibel recalled playing outdoors while inside the Dodger game was on the radio. “I knew from the kinds of noises coming out of the house how the game was going,” he laughed. Esquibel, now vice president of IT for the Los Angeles Dodgers, may have wished for some similar indicators or guideposts as he began the wireless retrofitting of Major League Baseball’s third oldest stadium (after Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field) in early 2011.

Esquibel faced multiple challenges with Dodger Stadium. First, there was all that concrete to push signals through or around. There was the size of the Chavez Ravine venue and its far-flung parking lots, spanning more than 350 acres. The stadium also has few overhangs, a favorite place to attach Wi-Fi access points or distributed antenna system (DAS) gear. Then there’s Dodger Stadium’s capacity — 56,000 seats – the largest in the league and almost 30 percent larger than the average MLB stadium (42,790).

Esquibel’s biggest hurdle? ” Trying to achieve the network that we wanted but also maintain an appropriate budget for the solution,” he said. While Esquibel would not specify what the Dodgers spent, he did allow that it was “an 8-figure project.”

Coverage challenges in the best seats

Initially, the best seats in the house presented a coverage challenge; field and club level seats along the third- and first-base lines and the dugout lack any overhangs. So while phones in those sections could receive a short, directional beam sent from across the outfield, the upstream signal couldn’t get back to the AP across the field, said Esquibel.

Ralph Esquibel, VP of IT for the Dodgers, with the new Wi-Fi relief pitcher mobile.

Ralph Esquibel, VP of IT for the Dodgers, with the new Wi-Fi relief pitcher mobile.

“We wanted to guarantee a premium experience, regardless of the seat,” said Esquibel, who joined the Dodgers 6 years ago after working in IT at Toyota and Honda. So by using what he calls “a hybrid approach,” Wi-Fi APs and antennas are installed overhead where possible, but also under seats and in staircase handrails that divide the stadium’s steep aisles.

All told, nearly 1,000 APs from Cisco and Aruba Networks blanket Dodger stadium, its concession areas and parking lots. Horizon Communications helped the Dodgers with design and installation of the Wi-Fi and DAS.

The under-seat APs/Wi-Fi antennas on the club level are housed in NEMA enclosures about every 15 seats, set eight rows apart. Esquibel was concerned about losing real estate under those seats; he also didn’t want to create any potential trip hazard for fans. In addition, the Dodgers use Cat 6A cabling, whose thickness and rigidity couldn’t run up a stepped incline. Consequently, they drilled through concrete to snake the cabling through from the clubhouse underneath. “There’s no visible conduit leading into the enclosure,” Esquibel explained. The profile and footprint of the enclosure still leaves space for fans to place belongings.

Handrail Wi-Fi enclosure

Handrail Wi-Fi enclosure

It’s the same modus operandi for the enclosures housed in the stair rails, except there are two APs in larger enclosures at the top of each staircase on the reserve level and upper deck, then a single AP per enclosure as the stairways descend. Some 290 APs offer coverage on the reserve level, which by itself has a greater capacity than nearby Staples Center (18,118 seats), Esquibel told Mobile Sports Report. After 2 years of use, there have been no issues with the AP enclosures. “We power-wash the seats and stands after games and [the enclosures] are very resilient against the sun, water and wind,” Esquibel said.

He also acknowledged some early challenges with Wi-Fi. Part of the issue was working with Cisco’s CleanAir technology, which is supposed to minimize RF interference, if not eliminate it altogether. If an AP starts broadcasting over a frequency in use by another AP, for example, CleanAir helps it find another frequency. It took a few months to fully tune the network; some directional antennas needed a 10-degree adjustment, Esquibel said. Another challenge was having APs from more than one vendor. “If your network is 100 percent Cisco and all leveraging the same controllers, [CleanAir] will work perfectly,” Esquibel said. “If you have a mixed environment that pushes Wi-Fi in certain locations, it becomes a problem — there’s competition for frequencies.”

Coordinating the APs

A third-party leveraging a non-public frequency would switch channels, for example, causing the APs for public use to also switch channels. “What we had was a lot of bouncing back and forth,” Esquibel said, which affected performance. “So we assigned channels and frequencies for each AP, which still requires a lot of coordination.”

Under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure

Under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure

Since 2013, the stadium has been carved into 24 DAS sectors. AT&T, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless are the carriers presently using the DAS; Ericsson makes the DAS antennas. Stubborn Sprint relies on a tower adjacent to the stadium.

Dodger fans average anywhere from 500-655 megabytes of data use per game, according to Esquibel. During a busy game, the wireless networking accommodates 16,000 concurrent users; a slower event clocks in at 4,000-8,000. To test upload speed, Esquibel will push a 50MB video to Facebook. When there’s lots of available bandwidth, he gets 60 Mbps performance; on the low end, it’s closer to 4 Mbps. Esquibel said users are mostly streaming and posting videos and photos to social media; Dodger Stadium is the second most Instagrammed site in southern California, after Disneyland, Esquibel added.

The Dodgers have their own version of Ballpark, the in-stadium MLB app, which offers video replay and highlights; in-seat ordering of food and drink in certain areas; and stadium mapping. Check-ins on Ballpark are handled through a network of 44 iBeacons, which takes advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) technology. Between Ballpark and social media activity, Dodger fans have run up as much as 700 MB data usage during games — and the network is ready if more demand is needed.

“We don’t do any rate limiting, so if we consume all our bandwidth we get a free upgrade, thanks to a clause in our agreement with our ISP, AT&T,” Esquibel explained.

To ensure a family-friendly and wholesome environment, the Dodgers use Palo Alto Networks 5020 firewalls for content filtering. “As we developed our SLAs, it was one of the first issues to pop up — no sexual content, no malware/phishing, and no illegal drug sites,” he said.

What’s on his wish list for the future? “I’d like geo-fencing within the Wi-Fi network so if I see someone enter a club, I can say hi or welcome them, notify them of specials, or flag points of interest around the stadium,” Esquibel said, like the World Series trophy case or giveaway locations for promotional items. Alongside all the other applications, wireless can be used as guideposts for fans and visitors to Dodger Stadium.

Stadium Tech Report: Los Angeles Angels and 5 Bars build ‘wireless halo’ of Wi-Fi & DAS for Angels Stadium

The iconic sign outside the "Big A," aka Angels Stadium of Anaheim. Credit all photos, even tilted ones: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

The iconic sign outside the “Big A,” aka Angels Stadium of Anaheim. Credit all photos, even tilted ones: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Every baseball team wants to notch a win on opening day, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are no exception. So while the number of runs scored was important to Al Castro, the franchise’s IT director, his eye was also on wireless performance in Angels Stadium, since 2015 will be the first full season with both Wi-Fi and DAS technology in place. The Angels may have lost their opener against the Kansas City Royals, but their wireless networks scored big by handling more than 1.3 TB of data that afternoon.

“Fans expect connectivity these days,” Castro told Mobile Sports Report during a tour of Angels Stadium, aka the Big A, which was built in 1966. Once the home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the stadium went through and extensive renovation in 1997-98 and now seats about 44,000 for baseball and serves 3 million visitors annually. “If they’re going to come to a ballgame for four hours,” said Castro of today’s fans, “they won’t tolerate not being connected.”

Adding wireless to the ‘Big A’

To get the wireless ball rolling last year, teams of engineers on scaffolding started on the uppermost tier of the Big A (the “View Level”) to mount DAS and Wi-Fi antennas to the stadium canopy. Working from outermost edges of the C-shaped stadium, two sets at of scaffolding at each end leapfrogged each til they met in the middle – a five-week process, according to Castro.

Angels IT director Al Castro, in front of his wireless deployment map

Angels IT director Al Castro, in front of his wireless deployment map

The 15-zone DAS network went live in June 2014 with Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile on board; Sprint is expected to add some antennas in the next several weeks. Currently, there are 122 DAS remotes in 33 locations. Angel Stadium Wi-Fi went live in September 2014 and now counts more than 400 access points around the stadium, according to team figures. Ruckus Wireless is the Wi-Fi vendor; the DAS gear is from Teko Telecom, now part of JMA Wireless.

The Angels worked closely with technology partner 5 Bars, a builder of turnkey wireless networks for sports venues’ wireless needs. Castro would not disclose the budget for the wireless upgrades at Angels Stadium.

In addition to using Major League Baseball’s Ballpark app, Angels fans can post to social media, surf the Web and check email from the stadium’s wireless networks. On the stadium’s club level, spectators can wirelessly order food and beverage from their seats; Legends, which operates the stadium’s concessions, uses an unpublished SSID for 150 wireless-enabled moveable cash registers and more than two dozen handheld point-of-sale devices. Similarly, TicketMaster has its own invisible SSID for wireless scanning of tickets at the stadium’s entry gates; the SSID for the press box is also masked, according to Castro.

Hiding in plain (or painted) sight

The DAS antennas and APs have been strategically installed and well concealed; they’re as discrete as chameleons. Working with Ruckus gear, 5 Bars installed narrow-beam, sectorized-beam and high-capacity APs, all centrally managed by Ruckus’s SmartCell Gateway 200.

A nice view of the field -- with antennas in silhouette

A nice view of the field — with antennas in silhouette

The Angels also use SmartCell Insight, a reporting and analytics package that helps the team track number of unique connections to the Wi-Fi during the course of a game, device types, total and average data uploaded and downloaded, and their speeds, Castro said.

Angel Stadium Wi-Fi has been engineered for 20,000 simultaneous users; there’s no throttling of user bandwidth and no filtering for streaming media like Spotify — “yet,” Castro was quick to add with a laugh. Download speeds vary depending on crowd size, according to Tommy Taylor, senior manager, engineering services for 5 Bars. For a game with 36,000 in attendance, for example, average download speed for devices using 2.4 GHz bandwidth is 8-12 Mbps, while 5 GHz connections can run as fast as 18-24 Mbps. On the traffic side, currently the network is seeing upload volume of about 20 percent of the download average volume, Taylor said, in an email to Mobile Sports Report.

The Angels will continue to fine-tune the network and add or re-point APs as necessary. “We are in the process of adding additional APs to cover some areas that, when the stadium is full, do not receive the high level of coverage we are targeting to provide,” Castro said. Those additions should be done by mid-June. Management has an eye on monetizing the network through sponsorships, and extending the in-seat ordering system beyond the club level of the ballpark, according to Castro.

He also wants to add streaming video to the network so that fans can watch replay from multiple angles, which Castro described as “a good incentive — something you can’t get at home.” He also intends to expand his use of analytics and report generation on a game-by-game basis. It’s the sort of thing that the owners and managers of the team are increasingly interested in, Castro added.

Stadium Tech Report: Indian Wells Tennis Garden serves up an ace with Ruckus Wi-Fi for BNP Paribas Open

Indian Wells Tennis Garden, home of the BNP Paribas Open. Credit all photos: IWTG (Click on any photo for a larger image)

Indian Wells Tennis Garden, home of the BNP Paribas Open. Credit all photos: IWTG (Click on any photo for a larger image)

In tennis, a player gets two chances to serve the ball in. Mark McComas, lead project manager for the public Wi-Fi installation at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in southern California, knew he’d have just one shot to get it all to work properly.

McComas, VP for systems integrator West Coast Networking of Palm Desert, Calif., began working on a wireless system to handle IWTG’s administrative and corporate offices as well as handle box-office scanning in July 2013. But then a smartphone app for the famed BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament with schedules, results, player bios and live streaming video got added to the mix, and IWTG’s public Wi-Fi network wasn’t so much born as mushroomed into being.

At this year’s tournament, where play in the women’s main draw started today, the 400,000-plus fans who attend over the two weeks of play will be able to once again use the app to enhance their on-site visit, with features like live video from different courts, updated stats and play-by-play audio coverage. It all runs on the free Wi-Fi service available at the venue, a project McComas and West Coast Networking helped deploy in time for last year’s event.

Building a net for tennis fans

McComas, working with engineering help from Hewlett-Packard, went to work building out the venue’s network elements, spending slightly more than $1 million along the way on things like:

— The design and installation of wireless switches, antennas and 138 access points from Ruckus Wireless;

PR view of the BNP Open app. Usually you can't see the Wi-Fi!

PR view of the BNP Open app. Usually you can’t see the Wi-Fi!

— Ensuring sufficient bandwidth for the BNP Paribas smartphone app, developed by The App Company of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

— Figuring out how to stream video from the four stadiums, and whether they should produce their own video locally; pick up feeds from the Association of Tennis Players and the Women’s Tennis Association; or work with a third-party. (They went with the ATP/WTA feed.)

— Configuring the subscriber gateway from RG Nets, Reno, Nev., that rate-limits onsite users to 5 Mbps upstream and 5 Mbps downstream.

In addition to staff and thousands of spectators to satisfy, there was also the man who owns IWTG and the BNP Paribas tournament: Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, who’s not exactly known for initiating group hugs. According to McComas, the tournament staff was great to work with and very technology-fluent. “They gave us the tools and expected us to perform and do it right the first time,” he added.

Fine tuning the bandwidth

McComas also credits all the vendors involved for their input and cooperation. As a result, the network easily handled the demands from densely packed users and the steep pitch of each stadium. Predictably, that’s where the toughest engineering problems emerged. “The biggest problem was density and co-channel interference at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz,” McComas said. “We used directional antennas and a corkscrew pattern in the upper and lower levels of Stadium 1 and Stadium 2, with directional antennas pointing at banks of seats.”

Overhead view of the IWTG complex

Overhead view of the IWTG complex

The capacity of Stadium 1 is 16,000 fans; Stadium 2 has 8,000 seats.

In addition, if a user connects at 2.4 GHz, if their device can support it IWTG pushes them to 5 GHz, which McComas said was critical since the overlap on the 2.4 GHz part of the spectrum is only three channels.

Another critical piece in the network was the platform from RG Nets, which in addition to rate-limiting, also handles clustering, failover and load balancing. McComas said the box acts as a “captive portal,” so that once the user connects there and agrees to the terms and conditions, they get Internet access based on a group policy that throttles their connection. “Public Wi-Fi needs rate-limiting,” he said. “You could make the best wireless network out there, but if you’re not throttling the connection on a per-user basis, you’re going to fail.”

Video streaming, video encoding and app hosting are all handled off-premises; that reserves bandwidth and processing power for onsite users, rather than hosting those functions for the entire world, McComas said.

In 2014, McComas said IWTG had as many as 9,000 concurrent users on the tournament app, accounting for nearly 3 TB of data per day from the public Wi-Fi network alone. “It was insane how may people downloaded the app and were using it,” McComas laughed. In addition, IWTG had 4 Gbps of fiber in 2014 dedicated to the public Wi-Fi network; McComas said they’ll bump that up to 5.5 Gbps this year. They’re also adding about 20 additional APs around the venue to relieve potential congestion points.

“It was very clear that the Indian Wells organization wanted to do it once and do it right the first time, and also accommodate their growth over the next 10 years,” he added. “We engineered the network for growth.”

Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based writer who’s covered IT and networking for more than 20 years. He is also founder and chief jarhead of Paragon Jams.