That problem and solution is now underway in Berkeley, at the University of California’s newly renovated Memorial Stadium. Though it now has a shiny new press box and suites on its west side, the 63,000-seat facility still has its old “big bowl” shape throughout the rest of the facility, an architectural quirk that leaves no place to put Wi-Fi antennas. To try and best overcome the design challenges, Cal and its partner AT&T are currently putting in place as big a DAS (distributed antenna system) as they possibly can, to bring as much cellular capacity as the stadium placements will allow.
At a press event Thursday to officially announce AT&T’s campus-wide Wi-Fi and DAS deployments — which are currently bringing welcome speedy connectivity to all the other parts of the school’s Berkeley footprint — Cal officials and AT&T execs noted that bringing better wireless to Memorial Stadium is also going to be a necessary evil, going forward.“We compete with the couch, and the HD TV,” said Solly Fulp, the Deputy Director of Athletics and Chief Operating Officer at Cal, at a quick press conference kicking off the Thursday events. “If we do not deliver an outstanding fan experience, people will do other things with their time.”
Right now, the wireless experience inside Memorial isn’t cutting edge. Basically a big concrete bowl filled with seats, Memorial has none of the overhanging levels that allow you to more easily attach antennas underneath, be they Wi-Fi access points or the small antennas used in DAS deployments. While the new press box and suites and internal construction improvements completed last year have brought the facility up to date on one level, for supplemental wireless coverage right now AT&T is using COWs (cell towers on wheels) in several spots around the stadium, covered with stealthy black cloth. But construction for a big, new DAS deployment is already underway.
According to AT&T, the low poles sticking up from the top of the bowl, currently used to house speakers, will by next season be equipped with DAS antennas focused down into the sections of seats. There will also be DAS antennas housed inside boxes mounted above tunnel entrances, and along the underside of the press/suite facility wherever possible. While Wi-Fi can typically support faster communications and more bandwidth, the DAS AT&T is putting in will support AT&T’s 4G LTE network, which is as fast as cellular gets. As in most stadiums we’ve talked to, putting in a DAS is priority one for wireless, since it helps eliminate the “no signal” problem common to big facilities that don’t have any extra cellular or Wi-Fi services.
AT&T, which will act as a neutral host for the Memorial DAS (meaning that other service providers can connect their back-end systems to the AT&T-installed antennas) is even getting creative finding space for its head-end gear, the routers and switches needed on site to help complete the cellular connections. In one concourse underneath the stands, AT&T and Cal are walling off a small part of the internal walkways to house the necessary DAS gear.From there, optical fiber will connect the stadium to a nearby AT&T central office, where more call processing can take place.
Will the big DAS be enough to keep Cal fans connected? From what we heard at Thursday’s press event both the school and the carrier think that the wireless networks will always be a work in progress. And according to Cal’s Fulp, better cellular is already one of the top three concerns voiced by season ticket holders.
“It’s the simple things that matter,” Fulp said, saying that for the most part, fans at games want to be able to contact people at home — “sending a text to the babysitter, saying you’ll be late” — or to share a picture or a video with friends who couldn’t be at the game. “People expect to be connected, and at sports events it’s amplified,” Fulp said.
When the members of Cal’s class of 2014 toss their graduation caps into the air next spring, Fulp wants to see a “best in class” DAS in action at Memorial. What will that take from partner AT&T? “Every place we can find to put an antenna, we will,” said one AT&Ter who showed us around Memorial. Sounds creative to us.
(all photos credit: Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report; user hint: click on photos to see more detail!)