September 3, 2015

Chicago Cubs tap NFL deployment expertise of Extreme, DGP for new Wi-Fi, DAS at Wrigley Field

Artist rendering of the proposed fan plaza outside Wrigley Field. Renderings courtesy of the 1060 Project.

Artist rendering of the proposed fan plaza outside Wrigley Field. Renderings courtesy of the 1060 Project.

The video boards above the historic ivy-covered outfield walls are only the first clue that this isn’t your grandpa’s Wrigley Field anymore.

And though you won’t be able to see it, new Wi-Fi and DAS networks are coming soon to the Friendly Confines, as part of the Ricketts Family’s ambitious remake of Wrigley Field and its surrounding area. And according to Cubs IT executives, the team is tapping firms with NFL stadium expertise to bring not just fast and thorough wireless coverage to fans, but also back-end ownership and analytics so that the team can more effectively track online activity to improve the fan experience as well as improve the team’s return on infrastructure investment.

Though Wrigley Field has had full fan-facing Wi-Fi for longer than most Major League Baseball stadiums — the AT&T-built network arrived in 2012 — with the major overhaul of not just the park itself but the surrounding areas outside beginning this offseason, it was time to rethink the team’s overall approach to wireless connectivity, said Andrew McIntyre, senior director of information technology for the Chicago Cubs.

As part of the team’s ongoing 1060 Project the Ricketts family (which owns the Cubs) is not only adding more concessions and other fan amenities to Wrigley, they are also building a fan plaza outside the main gate as well as building a retail/office building and eventually a boutique hotel on the edge of the famed ballpark property at Chicago’s somewhat slanted corner of Clark and Addison. (If you don’t get the “1060″ label, we suggest you ask Elwood Blues what the address of Wrigley Field is.)

“As it all starts looking more like a campus, it changes the dynamics” of how you provide wireless coverage to all areas, said McIntyre. As a regular attendee, speaker and steering council member of the SEAT Conference — the premier gathering of stadium technology professionals — McIntyre was well aware of all the new trends for large-venue Wi-Fi and DAS deployments, some of which were taking place in football stadiums across the country.

“We understood what was happening with other leagues in regards to Wi-Fi and DAS from what we saw at SEAT,” said McIntyre, in an interview at this summer’s SEAT Conference in San Francisco. “We started to evaluate those deployments and ideas as we were getting ready for our restoration.”

The Winners: Wi-Fi with a heavy side of analytics, and team-owned DAS

Cubs fans know how to enjoy a day at the park. Photo: Lisa Farrell, MSR

Cubs fans know how to enjoy a day at the park. Photo: Lisa Farrell, MSR

As major construction took place this past offseason, the Cubs de-activated the AT&T Wi-Fi network that had previously served fans inside the ballpark. Even though it doesn’t sound very old, McIntyre notes that many other stadiums around the country have had to completely overhaul Wi-Fi networks built just several years ago, due to the ever-increasing demand for more bandwidth and the rapid introduction of new phones and devices that fans are bringing to games.

“AT&T had previously controlled both the DAS and the Wi-Fi, and [to them] the Wi-Fi was kind of a ‘check the box thing,’ ” McIntyre said. “The scope [of the network] was just for Wrigley Field only. When we took down the Wi-Fi while we replaced the bleachers, we looked more toward the future.”

What McIntyre and the Cubs IT team saw was a future where Wi-Fi was used not only to provide connectivity, but to also provide a deep link between venue owners and operators and the digital activities of their visitors, through advanced analytics of Wi-Fi traffic. In the end the Cubs selected Wi-Fi provider Extreme Networks for the Wrigley project, in no small part due to Extreme’s experience in deploying Wi-Fi networks and Wi-Fi analytics inside numerous NFL stadiums.

“We saw patterns emerging in other leagues, and especially in the NFL, where the league and teams called out analytics,” said McIntyre. Extreme, which has a partnership deal with the NFL as its preferred provider of Wi-Fi analytics for its Purview software, has provided analytics help at recent Super Bowls in addition to being part of stadium Wi-Fi deployments for the New England Patriots, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Seattle Seahawks, among others.

“A lot of times talk about Wi-Fi is simply about coverage and capacity, and more, more, more,” McIntyre said. “The question of ‘what are you doing with the service’ becomes an afterthought.” McIntyre noted that in some cases, the NFL has deployed Extreme analytics on top of Wi-Fi infrastructure with gear from another manufacturer. “What they [Extreme] are able to provide [with analytics] is night and day compared to the competition,” McIntyre said.

Back of the iconic Wrigley bleachers, circa 2014. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Back of the iconic Wrigley bleachers, circa 2014. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

John Brams, director of Sports and Entertainment at Extreme Networks, called the coming Wrigley Field network “a signature deployment.” Wrigley Field itself is expected to have Wi-Fi service in time for the 2016 season, McIntyre said.

DAS: Neutral host instead of carrier-led

On the DAS side of the wireless equation, McIntyre and the Cubs team were impressed with the cellular network deployment at the San Francisco 49ers’ new venue, Levi’s Stadium, a deployment done by the lesser-known firm DAS Group Professionals, or DGP. While many may have first heard of DGP for its Levi’s Stadium deployment, DGP does have other large-venue experience, having built previous cellular networks for airports and the San Francisco Bay area’s BART light-rail service.

At Levi’s Stadium, DGP worked with the Niners to build a neutral-host DAS deployment that is owned and controlled by the team, an emerging trend for stadium owners and operators who don’t want to simply concede control to wireless carriers. Under a neutral-host deployment the owner or operator of the DAS typically builds a non-carrier-specific antenna infrastructure, and then charges wireless carriers to connect their systems to the back end of that network.

At a prior SEAT event McIntyre said the Cubs team talked to the Niners about why they went with DGP, and liked what they heard.

“The venue-owned DAS solution was a business model we liked,” McIntyre said, “It perfectly aligns with our strategy of being closer to the fan base and not one step removed.”

Steve Dutto, president of DGP, said the Cubs contract “validates our work at Levi’s Stadium.” The new DAS, McIntyre said, should be fully functional by 2017.

Artist rendering of the home plate view after all construction done.

Artist rendering of the home plate view after all construction done.

Huge jump in stadium Wi-Fi deployments, according to our latest State of the Stadium Technology Survey

2015_SoS_thumbA clear trend toward greater Wi-Fi and DAS deployments is the main point our “State of the Stadium” research tells us this year, especially with Wi-Fi, where now more than half of the venues surveyed said they have fan-facing Wi-Fi services to all seating areas.

To be precise, a full 65 percent of our respondents said they now have full-seating Wi-Fi services in their venues – a huge increase from the 35 percent number we saw in last year’s survey. Full-stadium DAS deployments increased as well, with 80 percent of respondents claiming stadium-wide DAS deployments this year, up from 71 percent in the 2014 survey.

Input for the survey came from more than 100 respondents representing arenas that host the top U.S. professional league teams, including the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, as well as top U.S. university facilities for basketball and football, European and U.S. professional soccer teams, professional golf and car-racing venues. The data provide a clear snapshot of how teams are deploying technology to both improve the fan experience while helping increase business opportunities.

And thanks to a sponsorship from Mobilitie, the entire report can be downloaded for free from our website.

Why more Wi-Fi?

Why the sudden shift to more Wi-Fi deployments? Most likely it was the maturation of plans that had been in the works for several years, speeded up no doubt by the ever increasing demands for mobile data connectivity. Even facilities that have had Wi-Fi services for years noticed that over the past year data usage has climbed even as the number of connected users plateaued; what that tells us is that the trend of devices and apps to stay well ahead of the networks’ ability to keep up still has legs, and will likely keep climbing for the near future.

For more analysis and a breakdown for each category, download the report now to get the only independent, numbers-based research available for the stadium technology marketplace.

Digital Bridge acquires ExteNet Systems in $1B recapitalization deal

Telecom investment group Digital Bridge Holdings has acquired DAS deployer ExteNet Systems in a recapitalization deal valued at around $1 billion, a move that buys out all previous investors and makes ExteNet a part of Digital Bridge’s pool of telecom-infrastructure companies.

A good writeup of the deal can be found over at RCR Wireless but from a stadium-infrastructure standpoint there doesn’t appear to be any change in ExteNet’s existing strategy path, since CEO Ross Manire will be staying to lead the company. ExteNet, which installs neutral host DAS deployments in stadiums and also provides DAS infrastructure deployments for cities, has installed networks at ballparks like the Miami Marlins’ Marlins Park.

We’re hoping to speak with ExteNet folks sometime soon to try to find out how much of the $1 billion went toward buying out previous investors, and how much will remain on hand to help run the business. Stay tuned on yet another big-bucks consolidation event in the stadium tech marketplace.

Wi-Fi deal at Houston’s NRG Stadium looks like it’s going to 5 Bars… is Ruckus involved as well?

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 11.43.48 PMWe knew the Houston Texans were getting Wi-Fi put in at NRG Stadium this year, but until we saw this report on by reporter David Barron we didn’t know that integrator 5 Bars will be leading the deployment, with stadium management firm SMG chipping in for some of the projected $2.9 million cost, according to the story.

The report from Houston, which apparently got its information from a meeting of the directors of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., says that the deal for 5 Bars still has to be ratified in August, so we may not be at the end of this story yet. Industry sources recently interviewed by Mobile Sports Report have tabbed Ruckus Wireless as the main Wi-Fi gear supplier for the 71,500-seat NRG Stadium deployment, which makes sense since Ruckus and 5 Bars worked together for the recent Wi-Fi deployment at Angels Stadium in Anaheim. Neither Ruckus nor 5 Bars would confirm any details, however (like the cost — does $2.9 million for Wi-Fi sound low to anyone?), so the Ruckus part of the story remains a rumor until we hear more.

We’ll try to round up more details on this story after we recover from a whirlwind couple days at the recent SEAT 2015 conference in San Francisco — according to another Houston Chronicle report, Verizon has installed a new DAS at the stadium, which will be the host venue for Super Bowl LI in February of 2017.

All-Star Wi-Fi: Cincinnati crowds used 4.3 TB over All-Star Game activities

Fans at All-Star Game taking pictures of Pete Rose. Photo: Screenshot courtesy Fox Sports/Cincinnati Reds

Fans at All-Star Game taking pictures of Pete Rose. Photo: Screenshot courtesy Fox Sports/Cincinnati Reds

Like a player added to the roster just before game time, the new Wi-Fi network at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati handled some all-star traffic levels, carrying a total of 4.3 terabytes of data over the three separate events that made up Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game festivities earlier this week, according to IT execs at the ballpark.

Though it only came online a couple weeks before the big event, the GABP Wi-Fi network held up admirably for the big game, carrying 2.36 TB during Tuesday night’s main event, according to Brian Keys, vice president of technology for the Cincinnati Reds. Almost another 2 TB was recorded during the ancillary events, the futures game and the Home Run Derby, proving once again that “big event” crowds like their Wi-Fi and are adept and finding and using in-stadium wireless networks. We don’t have DAS stats yet but it’s an easy guess that all four DAS deployments inside the stadium also carried significant traffic loads during the All-Star activities.

In a phone interview Friday, Keys said that the peak concurrent Wi-Fi user number hit 9,700 at one point during the actual All-Star Game, with a total of 12,000 unique Wi-Fi connections over all of Tuesday night. And even though the game attracts a national audience, the hometown fans provided the biggest traffic surges during Cincinnati Reds-specific moments — like at the end of Monday’s Home Run Derby when local hero Todd Frazier won in dramatic fashion, and when former Reds star Pete Rose had a brief pre-game introduction.

“Especially when Todd [Frazier] got up to bat, that really tested the limits of our [bandwidth] pipe,” Keys said. The Rose introduction, he said, put similar stress on the 576 Wi-Fi access points, but with Keys’ staff as well as a special group from Wi-Fi gear provider Cisco on hand to help out, the new network performed in big-league fashion, Keys said.

During construction, the IT team had to overcome one structural hurdle, namely the lack of any railings in the lower bowl to mount Wi-Fi APs on. Keys said some of that was solved by putting APs at the bottom of seating rows pointing up, and using overhang space for other antenna mounts. The Great American Ball Park did not use any under-seat APs, Keys said.

Pete Rose. Photo: Screen shot of Fox Sports broadcast courtesy of Cincinnati Reds.

Pete Rose. Photo: Screen shot of Fox Sports broadcast courtesy of Cincinnati Reds.

Though the ballpark had explored putting Wi-Fi in last season, the initial deployment was stalled last summer due to what Keys called contract issues. But with the All-Star game coming this season, the park re-started its Wi-Fi deployment, which was part of the Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) plan to bring Wi-Fi to all parks for this season. Keys said the new network deployment began in March and finished up on June 26, giving his team a few home dates to kick the tires and tune it up quickly for its big event.

Going forward, Keys said the four-DAS deployment — with four sets of antennas and four different headends — will be consolidated into a single, neutral host DAS operation. Keys is also looking forward to adding features enabled by the Wi-Fi network, like expanded food ordering and greater use of beacon technology. “It’ll be great to add more things to improve the fan experience,” he said.

All-Star Game has DAS Grand Slam: Four different DAS systems online at Great American Ball Park

Google Map screenshot of Cincinnati riverfront area, showing Paul Brown Stadium and the Great American Ball Park. Somewhere in between is a DAS headend.

Google Map screenshot of Cincinnati riverfront area, showing Paul Brown Stadium and the Great American Ball Park. Somewhere in between is a DAS headend.

Call it the DAS grand slam — to cover wireless customer demand, the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati has four separate DAS deployments, one for each of the major U.S. wireless carriers, which are probably all getting a workout at tonight’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Brian Keys, vice president of technology for the Cincinnati Reds, confirmed Tuesday that there are four separate DAS (distributed antenna system) networks in the ballpark, one each for AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile. Through several interviews Mobile Sports Report was able to confirm that Solid is providing the gear for the Verizon DAS, and another source said that ADRF is providing the DAS for Sprint.

We also had a long interview with the folks at TE Connectivity, who initially installed a 2G/3G/4G DAS in the venue in 2011, and recently upgraded that DAS, adding support for the 2100 MHz AWS spectrum. And while TE Connectivity was not at liberty to name the carrier for which it provides the DAS, by process of elimination we are fairly confident that their customer is AT&T. T-Mobile, which is also on its own DAS in the park, is also believed to be a Solid customer but we haven’t yet confirmed that fact.

Why are there four systems in Cincinnati? We haven’t yet had a chance to talk to Brian Keys (he’s been a little bit busy this week) but it’s fairly likely that it was just a fairly normal occurrence in the DAS world — one big carrier doesn’t want to join a DAS already installed by another big carrier, so it just funds its own. At the Great American Ball Park, Verizon’s decision to build its own DAS may have been in part because the carrier already has a DAS headend facility nearby, serving Paul Brown Stadium, the GABP’s riverfront neighbor. In fact, the Solid folks told us Tuesday that both the baseball DAS and the football DAS for Verizon are served out of the same facility, which makes sense.

The TE Connectivity DAS, for the client it couldn’t name (AT&T!), was also recently upgraded to cover areas outside the stadium, including the parking lots, a trend we are seeing more of as venues realize that fans want connectivity the moment they arrive, not just when they’re in their seats. We’ll try to get more details on this somewhat unique DAS situation — which was also apparently approved by the technical and business folks at MLBAM, which helped bring a Wi-Fi upgrade to the park this past offseason — but for the meantime, let’s just be glad that customers of all four of the major U.S. carriers had DAS support at Tuesday’s All-Star Game — in their own private and separate ways.