April 24, 2014

Stadium Tech Report: Boingo brings Wi-Fi, DAS to Air Force Academy stadiums

Falcon Stadium, Air Force Academy

Falcon Stadium, Air Force Academy

Perched dramatically in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the architectural gem known as Falcon Stadium is a great place to watch Air Force Academy football games. As a place to install a new wireless network, however, it’s not quite a beautiful site.

“It looks beautiful from the highway, but it’s not modern,” said Dermot “Derm” Coll, CEO of the Air Force Academy Athletic Corporation, in a recent phone interview. Though its many of its 46,692 seats offer soaring views across the field and across the plains and foothills just north of Colorado Springs, Coll said the stadium, which was built in 1962, was something of a black hole when it came to cellular or wireless communications.

Over the past few years as smartphones have become popular, Coll said fans were frustrated by their inability to make calls or connect to the Internet, and even staffers on site couldn’t communicate wirelessly. “Fans wanted to do what they do at home, so we saw a great need” for better connectivity, Coll said. And thanks to a new deal with Boingo Wireless, fans and cadets and any other visitors to Air Force Academy sports facilities will soon have both high-speed Wi-Fi and cellular DAS connectivity, which should make communications as pleasing as the mile-high views. In addition to Falcon Field, the deal also calls for Wi-Fi and DAS networks inside the AFA’s Cadet Field House, a cavernous 1960s-era building that hosts a basketball arena, a hockey arena and an indoor track.

Historic landmark status a challenge

Coll, who runs the organization that deals with all the business activities for Air Force athletics, said that signing the deal was the easy part of the long-planned installation. What proved tougher was bringing new wireless technology to facilities that were not only built in the ’60s, but also had historical landmark status.

“It was really challenging just to do things like run cable,” said Coll. “We had to be a little bit creative.”

Clune Arena, Air Force Academy

Clune Arena, Air Force Academy

Doug Lodder, vice president of business development at Boingo Wireless, said installers had to hide some Wi-Fi antennas behind specially designed shielding that sported the Air Force Academy lightning-bolt logo, so as to blend in with Falcon Stadium’s distinctive architecture. “There were not a lot of places to hang stuff,” Lodder said.

For the 5,900-seat Clune Arena for basketball and the 2,500-seat Cadet Ice Arena, there were similar challenges. “The Fieldhouse is pretty old and dated, a real Cold War building,” Coll said. “It was not great for tech to prosper there.”

Yet to show how tech-savvy fans have become, Coll said that a small Wi-Fi network installed for internal use was seen by fans who were looking for SSIDs they could connect to.

“We got beat up because people could see the SSID and wanted access to the [internal] Wi-Fi,” Coll said. “So we knew fans had the desire to connect.”

Boingo’s airport rep helps land the deal

When it came to finding a provider for the DAS, Coll said the Academy wanted a neutral third-party host and Boingo fit that bill.

“Boingo gave us a great opportunity without having to go with one carrier over another,” Coll said. Though carrier hosts will often pledge that all their competitors will be welcome to join a carrier-built DAS, Coll didn’t want to have to worry about whether negotiations might keep one provider or another from joining the enhanced cellular network.

“You don’t want to [have to] hope your carrier is on the tower,” Coll said.

Boingo, which provides Wi-Fi service to Denver International Airport, was no stranger to Coll and the Academy.

Cadet Field House, Air Force Academy

Cadet Field House, Air Force Academy

“We knew their reputation, and they brought a lot to the table,” Coll said. The network at the Academy facilities will be free of charge, unlike some other Boingo public Wi-Fi deployments (such as at Chicago’s Soldier Field) where fans are charged a small amount for network access. The network inside Falcon Stadium is scheduled to be live in time for this year’s spring graduation ceremonies; Coll said the Academy is also looking into the possibility of having Boingo provide more wireless services to the rest of the campus, which is widely spread out through the hillsides just north of Colorado Springs.

Though the Academy has a game-day app, according to Coll you couldn’t really do much with it at the stadium because of the connectivity problems. In the near future, Coll said the idea is to bring more live info to the app, including updated stats and video replays.

“In the past you could sit in Falcon Stadium and launch the app, and not much would happen,” Coll said. “Now we’re looking forward to seeing it perform on game day.”

AT&T’s DAS and Wi-Fi network traffic for Final Four hits multiple Terabyte levels

AT&T StadiumWant to host a big sporting event? You better have a big network. Down in Texas, where everything’s big, AT&T had to go as large as possible to keep fans at the recent Final Four connected. According to AT&T, traffic on its cellular and Wi-Fi networks in and around AT&T Stadium surpassed terabyte levels during college basketball’s biggest weekend, with just over a TB of traffic on cellular and more than 4 TB on the stadium’s Wi-Fi network.

Granted, holding the final games of the college basketball season in a football stadium is sort of a guaranteed way to push the envelope when it comes to fan-phone traffic. With 79,444 fans at the semifinal games on April 5, this year’s event set a new record for most people at a college hoops game. Understandably, cell phone traffic also set records as according to AT&T its total data usage on cellular networks inside the stadium for all three games was 885 GB, up from 667 GB used at last year’s tourney in Atlanta and up from 376 GB used 2 years ago in New Orleans. When you throw in data usage at connected areas like the stadium parking lots, AT&T reported 1,268 GB of traffic, which is a massive amount of selfies.

And remember, this is JUST AT&T traffic. No telling how much T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon customers generated. Anyone at those companies want to let us know, please do so and we’ll add it all up.

In its press releases before the game AT&T made some noise about how it was doing cool things to prepare for the tournament crowd, like putting “stealth” DAS antennas below the court. Any hoops/hockey stadium IT director knows what’s going on there; when you put a basketball court into a facility that has normally wider fields (football or hockey rinks) you have a huge problem bringing connectivity to the VIP courtside seats. Hence, the solution for the Final Four: antennas below the court. Something that will probably be copied in a lot of arenas around the country.

On the Wi-Fi side, AT&T has one of the bigger and better Wi-Fi networks inside its namesake stadium, and it was put to heavy use as well. According to AT&T its stadium Wi-Fi network carried 4,035 GB of traffic total for the three games. Is your network ready for that kind of pressure? How high will this usage surge go? Have we seen the top yet or are connected fans just getting started?

Can the NBA’s stadium networks handle live Google Glass camera views?

STR coverThe news that NBA teams are now partnering with San Francisco’s CrowdOptic to deliver Google Glass views to stadium big screens is a pretty interesting development to contemplate, on the heels of our Stadium Tech Report for Q1 2014, which looks at wireless network deployments in NBA stadiums. Done in a team-approved, controlled fashion, a few Google Glass streams could be pretty interesting. But CrowdOptic’s capabilities, as I understand them, are much bigger, and could theoretically allow for fans to see what other fans are seeing, if both are wearing Google Glass. The question we have for that latter idea is: Can the stadium networks handle all that traffic?

A good place to start to figure out the answer to that question is by downloading our Stadium Tech Report for Q1 2014, available free right now from our site. The 35-page PDF report delivers a capsule profile of each and every NBA team and whether or not it has Wi-Fi and DAS services in its stadiums. In our research we found Wi-Fi to be almost universal, with 79 percent — or 23 of 29 NBA facilities — all having fan-facing Wi-Fi. There is also a DAS (Distributed Antenna System) for enhanced cellular in almost every arena, and the ones that don’t have it are either installing it now or plan to soon.

But can those networks handle a crowd of Google Glass wearers, all broadcasting video of their court views? A good question for the next report, maybe. But you’ll need to know what the current network deployment situation is first, so… DOWNLOAD THE REPORT!

Stadium Tech Report: St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome taps Mobilitie for DAS deployment

Edward Jones Dome

Edward Jones Dome

You can add the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis to the list of large, public facilities with a common No. 1 complaint from visitors: Why doesn’t my cell phone work?

“People get really anxious when they can’t get a signal,” said Marty Brooks, senior vice president and general manager of the Edward Jones Dome and the adjacent America’s Center convention complex. “It’s been our number one complaint, that people can’t connect.”

To address its connectivity issues, the team in charge of IT at the 66,000-seat stadium that is home to the NFL’s Rams and the adjacent 500,000-square-foot convention center enlisted wireless infrastructure supplier Mobilitie to install a neutral-host distributed antenna system (DAS), which should be operational this summer. At that point, cellular reception for customers of all the major carriers should improve drastically, even in the concrete hallways and closed meeting rooms of the connected facilities.

“Like many facilities that are 10 years old or older, we were not prepared for the [wireless] demands that the public and our clients have brought,” Brooks said in a recent phone interview. “It was a no-brainer for us to upgrade. We knew we had to.”

DAS first, another common theme

Marty Brooks, senior vice president and general manager, Edward Jones Dome

Marty Brooks, senior vice president and general manager, Edward Jones Dome

Aside from the connectivity issues, the deployment schedule Brooks and his team chose – DAS first – is also in line with many other facilities. Though Wi-Fi services often get more public attention due to the perhaps wider understanding of the technology, according to Mobile Sports Report’s 2013 State of the Stadium Technology Survey, most large public facilities that are installing new wireless infrastructure put a priority on DAS, perhaps because it alleivates the most pressing problem, that of having no connection at all.

“Our first priority was to address [basic] cellular, because we felt we could mobilize that deployment faster,” said Brooks. Though the facility, which opened in 1995, also hopes to bring Wi-Fi in, Brooks said the early negotiations confirms his beliefs that installing Wi-Fi is a longer process.

“We hope to get Wi-Fi installed in a couple years,” Brooks said. “But DAS will bring an immediate marked improvement.”

Staying in Neutral

Though the largest wireless carriers in the U.S., especially AT&T and Verizon Wireless, often like to lead or build DAS installations they are a part of, Brooks said that the St. Louis arena and convention center – which is owned by the St. Louis Regional Sports Authority and operated by the St. Louis Convention/Visitors Bureau – knew it wanted a third-party DAS operator.

“We felt the [DAS] backbone should be built like Switzerland,” said Brooks, who said that carrier groups were not even allowed to bid for the system’s construction. In the end the complex went with Mobilitie, a firm whose long track record of putting DAS into large public venues helped Brooks and his team move confidently forward.

Christos Karmis, president, Mobilitie

Christos Karmis, president, Mobilitie

“Mobilitie has good relationships with all the carriers, and they had the experience we were looking for,” Brooks said.

“Our focus has always been to be a good partner with [wireless] carriers,” said Christos Karmis, president of Mobilitie, in a recent phone interview. One of the benefits a facility owner or operator gets when they work with a neutral provider like Mobilitie is the accumulated knowledge gained by doing many large-venue deployments, and the internal resources to have staff who knows the differences in needs between the major carriers.

“We have people who are 100 percent dedicated to each of the different carriers, and how their technology changes from year to year,” Karmis said. “You have to stay up to speed or even ahead of it. If not, you end up in a situation where [the DAS] is not deployed right and the carriers don’t move onto the system.”

Antennas easy, cabling hard

According to Brooks, the easy part of the DAS installation is the deployment of the actual antennas. The hard part, he said, is stringing all the cable necessary to bring signals to the antennas, especially in the “dark” areas like long concrete-walled hallways and the convention center’s many internal meeting rooms.

Edward Jones Dome at night

Edward Jones Dome at night

“Pulling all the wire is very difficult and time consuming,” Brooks said. “We need to make sure that the media members who are working back at the end of dark corridors, or the suite holders in the backs of their suites, all have the ability to connect with their cell phones. Same with the all the attendees in our convention halls. We need to bring [wireless] access to all the inner spaces of a steel and concrete building.”

For its DAS operations, the facility has a 1,700-square foot enclosure with all the necessary HVAC and electricity. Brooks said stadium owners and operators need to “be creative” in finding spaces for DAS gear, which has only grown larger the past few years with the 4G LTE network deployments from all the major carriers.

Planning for crowds beyond the game

Unlike other stadiums that exist by themselves, the combination of arena and convention center makes for some unusual crowd gatherings, Brooks said, including a half-dozen or so times a year when the 66,000-seat stadium is at capacity while another 25,000 to 30,000 people are at the convention center.

But just like they expect their team to win no matter who the opponent is, Brooks said Rams fans also expect their phones to work on game day – and they aren’t shy about letting his team know if their performance isn’t a winning one.

“There’s such a level of expectation for the service we have to provide – and the fans are not shy about letting us know,” Brooks said. “But we told them, we’re committed to making this happen.”

AT&T Park gets more Wi-Fi, new DAS backend, and iBeacon… plus seat upgrade app

Generally recognized as perhaps the best-connected sports stadium anywhere, AT&T Park in San Francisco will greet fans for the 2014 baseball season with upgrades to make the technology experience even better than before, with upgraded Wi-Fi and DAS, as well as Apple’s new iBeacon technology.

In a press release sent out earlier this week the Giants said that they and partner AT&T had been busy this offseason adding upgrades to the Wi-Fi network that has hosted more than 1.85 million visitors since it first went online in 2004. According to the Giants the park now has 1,289 access points for its free Wi-Fi service, second in number only to the Dallas Cowboys’ home, cavernous AT&T Stadium in Dallas.

On the DAS side of things AT&T Park now has a completely new headend system that fully supports both AT&T and Verizon versions of 4G LTE signals. According to the release T-Mobile and Sprint services will join the DAS later this year.

Like many other MLB parks the Giants’ home will now feature Apple’s iBeacon technology, which is basically low-power Bluetooth connections that can communicate with nearby Apple iOS7 devices. Though phones may now run out of juice quicker at the park if you need to leave both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on, it should be interesting to see how fans respond to the iBeacon deployments, whether they find them helpful or annoying. MSR will keep following the iBeacon deployments through the year, and we encourage any and all fans who use the system to tell us how it worked.

This year the Giants will also be working in partnership with the Pogoseat app for instant at-the-game ticket upgrades. The feature will be available in the Giants version of MLB’s At the Ballpark app, where Giants fans will be able to search for better seats to pay for while at the park. Of course you can always try the time-honored method of just sneaking into empty seats in later innings of the game, but there is no app for that.

AT&T upgrades DAS for 4G LTE at FedExForum in time for NCAA Sweet Sixteen

When tonight’s games in the Sweet Sixteen round of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament South regional tip off, fans at FedExForum in Memphis, fans there with AT&T cell phone contracts will benefit from a recent upgrade to the arena’s Distributed Antenna System (DAS) to support AT&T’s new 4G LTE service.

If you read through our latest Stadium Tech Report for Q1 2014, you would know that FedExForum already has public Wi-Fi service as well as a DAS; the new AT&T upgrade specifically targets Ma Bell’s new 4G LTE network, which runs on different frequencies than AT&T’s older cellular channels.