July 31, 2014

Stadium Tech Report: An MSR Geek Sneak Peek finds fast Wi-Fi, lots of cell antennas at Levi’s Stadium

A Wi-Fi access point near a section sign.

A Wi-Fi access point near a section sign.

The historic idea that big, open-air stadiums are bad places for wireless connectivity may have finally met its match. Though it still needs a test when it’s full of fans, a sneak peek at the incredibly robust Wi-Fi and distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments in the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium should mean, at least for Niners fans, that poor connections at football games are a thing of the past.

Granted, our tour of the new stadium during its ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday wasn’t any kind of official unveiling of the much-hyped Wi-Fi and cellular networks inside. There weren’t any tech reps on hand, and there were many places throughout the building where it was clear that parts of the network weren’t yet turned on (along with many flat-screen TV mounts still waiting for their electronics). But just walking around inside the concourses and clubs, a trained eye could see Wi-Fi access points and DAS antennas just about everywhere you looked. And, wow — in areas where the network was live, the download speeds were off the charts — we recorded several readings of 60 Mbps or higher, including on the Levi’s sustainable-garden rooftop court.

On one hand, it’s fair to say that our walk-around tests don’t mean a thing, because the real chore for the Levi’s network is not to impress a few random guests, but instead to handle the huge loads brought on by a sellout crowd of 68,500 iPhone-toting football fans. Over the next month or so we’ll get some more chances for proof points, especially at the Niners’ preseason games, when we hope to see the ambitious on-demand instant replay app being put through its paces, while at the same time Niners fans use their phones to order food delivered to their seats. That’s a lot of potential bandwidth and interactions. But after our tour Thursday, we’re perhaps a bit less cynical than we were before about the network’s ability to handle such loads.

SpeedTest results from Wi-Fi network inside Levi's Stadium.

SpeedTest results from Wi-Fi network inside Levi’s Stadium.

Designed for networking from the ground up

Why? Mainly, it’s the fact that Levi’s looks like the proof of what is possible when you design a stadium from the ground up with connectivity in mind. Though we could in fact see many, many exposed APs and DAS antennas, none were overly obtrusive — in fact, they all looked like they had been mounted somewhere that was expressly designed for them to be there. I’m no network engineer, but the simple lack of a lot of exposed cabling around those antennas and APs says to me that the guts of the building may be as smart as the network. Under one overhang I did see a cable run that reminded me of a data center — a wire basket carrying fiber, with plenty of room for expansion, leading into holes in the concrete that weren’t close to being filled. Again: I carry no union card. But if I can see such things and figure them out, it seems like a lot of thought went into the Levi’s network that’s perhaps not as obvious as the APs and antennas. Which, of course, is a great thing for administrators and even better for users.

Watching the British Open live on a TV inside an elevator at Levi's Stadium.

Watching the British Open live on a TV inside an elevator at Levi’s Stadium.

What else did we see that was amazing, technology-wise? The sheer number of flat screen digital displays, especially when combined with the numerous large, comfortable lounge and club areas says to us that fans won’t miss much action even if they’re not in their seats. In the plush big-bucks clubs and even in the proletariat concrete concourses there was flat screen after flat screen (or at least the mounts where more TVs will be). It’s a simple but profound way to improve the fan experience, maybe a lesson learned from Candlestick, where fans congregated outside the few concession stands with TVs just to watch replays. Sure, the phone app may be one way to get there but my take from walking through Levi’s is that if you want to stand around and enjoy a beverage with friends you will still be kept up on the action even if your phone’s in your pocket.

Like we said — there is certainly more detailed information to come, and we are betting that the folks at Aruba Networks (the Wi-Fi gear supplier) and DAS Group Professionals (the neutral third-party DAS host) are chomping at the bit to talk about their deployments… let the free advertising of the antenna pictures below suffice for now. Though it’s just the start of our planned Levi’s Stadium network coverage, it was an impressive one, right down to the glasses of Iron Horse bubbly served at the post-ribbon-cutting reception. Salut, Levi’s and Niners!

(All photos credit Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report. Copyright 2014, Mobile Sports Report. Please do not use without permission.)

Wi-Fi access points visible on outside concourse structure

Wi-Fi access points visible on outside concourse structure

Two DAS antennas above a concession stand

Two DAS antennas above a concession stand

DAS antennas mounted under overhang.

DAS antennas mounted under overhang.

A guess, but looks to us like directional Wi-Fi AP (on the solar panel roof of the rooftop garden court)

A guess, but looks to us like directional Wi-Fi AP (on the solar panel roof of the rooftop garden court)

A Wi-Fi AP mounting location that says "Death Star" to us

A Wi-Fi AP mounting location that says “Death Star” to us

Just some of the flat-panel displays in the United Lounge.

Just some of the flat-panel displays in the United Lounge.

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi's

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi’s

Rooftop garden view. Butterflies and 60+ Mbps Wi-Fi!

Rooftop garden view. Butterflies and 60+ Mbps Wi-Fi!

Cool/scary view of the field from behind the lights, again on the rooftop garden area

Cool/scary view of the field from behind the lights, again on the rooftop garden area

What's behind the red DAS head end door? First rule of head end rooms, don't ask about head end rooms

What’s behind the red DAS head end door? First rule of head end rooms, don’t ask about head end rooms

Stadium Tech Report: Minnesota Twins tap InSite and TE Connectivity to get DAS ready for All-Star Game

Target Field, the downtown home of the Minnesota Twins. Credit: Minnesota Twins

Target Field, the downtown home of the Minnesota Twins. Credit all photos: Minnesota Twins

Even at a new stadium, getting the wireless network right is a constantly changing target. And for 4-year-old Target Field in Minneapolis, that meant an upgrade to the DAS not too long after the facility opened its doors.

“Nobody will ever have the perfect [network] install, and that’s part of the fun of it,” said John Avenson, vice president of infrastructure for the Minnesota Twins baseball club, in a phone interview with MSR. “The problem is not solvable as in, one year and you’re done. You need to be continuously improving.”

For the Twins, improving cellular connectivity was especially important since this year the club and the stadium will host baseball’s midsummer classic, the All-Star game. Thanks to help from InSite Wireless and DAS gear from TE Connectivity, Target Field’s DAS should be able to handle not just the overall growth in Twins fans’ wireless needs, but also the extra demands of a special event and all the selfies that go along with it.

“Fortunately, InSite and the carriers have been able to react quickly, and we should be ready for the test of the All-Star game,” said Dan Starkey, director for ballpark development and planning, in the same interview. “We’ll be ready to fully test the system.”

Wi-Fi and DAS, a perfect double play

Dan Starkey, director for ballpark development and planning

Dan Starkey, director for ballpark development and planning

As a new facility, Target Field was ahead of the curve when it came to Wi-Fi. On opening day the park had free Wi-Fi service for fans, with 225 access points initially available. “Back then that was a big number,” Avenson said. And while some carrier execs have been voicing an opinion that DAS is all that’s needed in a stadium, Avenson isn’t convinced.

“At this point you need both Wi-Fi and DAS,” he said.

Though the Twins do a good job of promoting the Wi-Fi service, most fans in stadiums everywhere usually default first to a cellular connection, either because they don’t know about the Wi-Fi, or don’t want to be bothered with the process or aren’t sure how to connect. Since people still think they should be able to send pictures or watch videos over a cellular connection, even at a crowded ballpark, that means the DAS – the Distributed Antenna System – needs to keep pace with all the smartphones and tablets being used.

“Some fans put their phones away [when they come to the stadium] but the younger crowd does not do that,” Avenson said. “Nothing interrupts their need for a good [wireless] experience.”

AllstarlogoAccording to Avenson, even before the facility opened the IT team new that they wanted a neutral host partner to lead the DAS effort.

“It just made sense to us,” said Avenson of having a neutral host DAS supplier, since as he said, carriers can be like siblings who have to share a bedroom. “InSite really enables the carriers, so they don’t have to fight with each other [over technology deployments].

Verizon Wireless and AT&T, the two biggest cellular carriers in the U.S., were on the neutral host DAS at the start, and were later joined by Sprint and T-Mobile. And even though the park is fairly new, Avenson said everyone involved realized quickly that wireless demands were growing, meaning that an upgrade was needed sooner rather than later.

According to the team, the most recent upgrades were to add MIMO capability for 1900 and AWS 2100 MHz bands, as well as adding four additional sectors in the bowl for AT&T. The new DAS can also support newer 4G LTE technologies, the Twins said.

“It’s just part of the evolution of DAS,” said Starkey. “Once we realized we needed additional coverage and capacity, InSite and the carriers acted quickly.”

Suite view of Target Field

Suite view of Target Field

The downtown difference

Like many other stadiums and large public facilities, Target Field had to be creative in finding space for the DAS head end equipment.

“In 2008 and 2009, we thought we’d fit it [the DAS head end] in a corner but it grew to a larger space and then that wasn’t big enough,” said Avenson, who added that AT&T and Verizon each have 10 to 12 cabinets of back-end gear for their DAS operations. “When the building was being built in 2008, the architects were not aware that we’d be needing more space. It’s amazing how much space and power a DAS takes at the head end.”

Adding to the complexity of the Target Field deployment is the fact that the field is in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, with large office buildings peeking over the roof of the stadium. According to Avenson, carriers and the team had to perform a series of reconfigurations to antennas both inside the park and out, so that the macro metro cellular network didn’t interfere with the DAS network inside the stadium.

“When the macro network wants to invade [the stadium] you have to push the macro network out,” said Avenson. “If you’re Miller Park [the baseball field in Milwaukee] and you have a big parking lot around the stadium you can control your own destiny. Parks in the middle of cities have a much different challenge.”

Editor’s note: This profile was originally published on May 1, 2014. It is also included in our Stadium Tech Report for Q2 2014, which you can download for free from our site.

Report excerpt: At Bat app driving the MLB digital experience bus

Editor’s note: The following excerpt from our MLB technology deployment analysis comes from our Stadium Tech Report for Q2 2014, which includes a wealth of information, research and analysis about the stadium tech marketplace. With a focus on Major League Baseball technology deployments, the report is available free for download so get your copy today. Enjoy the excerpt that follows.

At Bat driving the application bus

If there is one other thing that defines MLB’s digital advantage, it’s the league-wide requirement to use the MLB.com’s At Bat app as the only in-stadium app offered by every team. Though there is some grumbling heard from time to time from teams who want to innovate at a faster pace, for these early days of digital in-stadium experience having At Bat as a base is most likely a huge bonus, since it makes it easier for fans to learn how to find and use the features, no matter which stadium they are in.

Though we here at MSR are more in favor of an eventual open infrastructure – say, a package of MLB-approved APIs that third-party developers could use to bolster the At Bat ecosystem – in these days when fans are still learning how to connect to Wi-Fi and are still getting familiar with the idea of using their phones to purchase in-game seat upgrades or to order concessions, it’s probably not a bad idea to limit choices.

The interesting thing to watch may be to see if, in a few years, MLB has metrics to back up its all-for-one strategy, or whether the MLB digital team decides (like Apple and the iPhone) that opening up the platform could lead to more innovation. The good news for fans is, with better connectivity and more apps, going to games should be easier and more fun as time goes on.

Giants CIO Bill Schlough (left) talks with workers in the park's main DAS head end facility.

Giants CIO Bill Schlough (left) talks with workers in the park’s main DAS head end facility.

DAS upgrades are good news

Maybe the best news on the DAS front is what seems to be (finally) some benefit from the always-improving pace of technology – accord- ing to several teams we’ve talked to recently, a pleasant surprise that comes about during DAS upgrades is the fact that head end equipment footprints are actually decreasing, meaning that the space crunch often caused by DAS may be easing somewhat.

Of course, some of those space savings may be eaten right back up by additional carriers joining in, or by existing carriers adding more coverage support. A continued issue that we will keep watching is whether or not more teams and stadium owner/operators choose neutral third- party hosts for their DAS, or whether they trust that a single carrier will be able to balance the needs of all. In our interview with AT&T’s John Donovan for this issue he said that he doesn’t think any carriers want to use DAS deployments as a strategic advantage over others; we will track your stories and what happens in the wiring closet to see if his opinion reflects reality.

To read the rest of our analysis, download your free copy of our Stadium Tech Report for Q2 2014.

Report excerpt: AT&T’s Donovan talks stadium DAS

Editor’s note: The following excerpt from our exclusive interview with AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan comes from our Stadium Tech Report for Q2 2014, which includes a wealth of information, research and analysis about the stadium tech marketplace. With a focus on Major League Baseball technology deployments, the report is available free for download so get your copy today. Enjoy the excerpt that follows.

AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan

AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan

John Donovan: The ‘network chief’ talks about AT&T’s successful stadium strategy

In a strategy borne by necessity, AT&T has become far and away the leader in deploying distributed antenna system (DAS) technology in stadiums and other large venues across the country. In a recent phone interview, Mobile Sports Report spoke with the man behind the plan, AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan, who told us the hows and whys behind AT&T’s DAS strategy, and how AT&T is continuing to innovate to improve DAS performance. Donovan also offered some interesting insights about large-venue wireless consumption patterns, based on AT&T’s thorough and varied operator experience, which is likely second to none.

With 670 DAS systems deployed in large venues, including 150 in the past year, AT&T has no plans to slow down. In fact, Donovan said AT&T will deploy another 250 DAS systems this year, adding to its impressive totals for presence in large public venues. According to Donovan, AT&T DAS systems are currently active in 75 percent of the “big 4″ professional sports venues in the U.S. (football, baseball, basketball and hockey), a list thaat includes 90 percent of NFL stadiums. AT&T also has DAS deployments in a large number of top college stadiums, making Donovan confident that his company is far and away the top provider of enhanced cellular services in stadiums.

“We are absolutely crushing the competition on performance in venues,” said Donovan, who 5 years ago spearheaded a move inside AT&T to create a team that specifically targeted large public venues. Now, the fruits of that team’s labors are paying off.

Building the DAS group

The several-hundred strong group, which Donovan said included employees with experience in tower rental operations, building right-of-way negotiations, and “young, aggressive wireless” technicians, had a mandate, he said, to target all the premium venues in the U.S., and get them a world-class wireless architecture.

“The objective was, to wire them all, really,” Donovan said. Armed with a large budget (“in the early days, it was ulimited,” Donovan said), the group started ranking every large public venue, calculating stats like “seat minutes,” a value of how often a seat in a stadium would be filled.

“The Staples Center [in Los Angeles] blew everyone away — one year they had 367 events,” said Donovan.

The main reason why AT&T had to improve cellular connectivity at large venues had to do mainly with the company’s legacy as the initial, exclusive carrier for the Apple iPhone. Though Verizon Wireless and other carriers eventually got access to the iPhone in 2011, AT&T’s early lead meant that many iPhone owners were still AT&T customers — and according to Donovan, the kind of people who bought iPhones were also the kind of people who went to sporting events and concerts.

“In the early days, we were the only ones with the problem [of congestion in arenas],” Donovan said. “If you take the demographic of an event, and map it to the demographic of an iPhone buyer, you get a big overlap.” While AT&T may have only had 30 percent of the overall wireless market share, in some arenas Donovan said AT&T’s “internal” market share could represent as many as 75 percent of the fans in attendance.

In those early days of a few years ago, with many of AT&T’s iPhones still using older 2G and 3G technology, making them work in crowded arenas was a challenge, Donovan said.

“We were really forced to innovate around architectures and manage RF [radio frequency],” Donovan said. “We got really good at design.”

Fast-forward to 2014, and the team is in a much different space, innovating ahead of the curve instead of scrambling to respond to pressures. One example of the new thinking is the debut of some large, spherical antennas that AT&T used at the Coachella music festival in April.

“We had this huge thing that looked like a human-sized bowling ball with 12 [antenna] sectors in it,” Donovan said. “We’ve got a 20-sector version coming out next year.” AT&T in the last couple years has also debuted antennas that allow the carrier to focus signals into smaller geographical space, to better target the packed crowds in arenas and large venues.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at design,” Donovan said.

To read the rest of the interview, download your free copy of our Stadium Tech Report for Q2 2014.

Stadium Tech Report: Read why we think MLB is the sports digital experience leader

STRQ@_thumbIs there any doubt that when it comes to the digital fan experience, Major League Baseball is in first place? That’s the way we see things, and research we did for our second quarterly long-form STADIUM TECH REPORT issue bears that opinion out. Thanks to a far-sighted strategy that kept league control over all Internet content, and some innovative, forward-thinking technology leaders at several MLB teams, baseball is ahead of all other U.S. sports when it comes to delivering a consistent, enriched fan experience through technology. But will the lead last?

You can find some of the answers to that question in the second issue in our STADIUM TECH REPORT series which you can download for free right here. If you’ve already registered with us, all you need is a username and password; if you’re new to MSR, we just need an email address and title and you’re on your way to the best long-form compilation of research and analysis, as well as in-depth interviews with industry experts in the stadium technology marketplace. We’d also like to thank our Stadium Tech Report sponsors, which for this issue inlcude Crown Castle, SOLiD, Corning, ExteNet Systems and TE Connectivity — without their support, we couldn’t make all this excellent content free for readers.

AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan

AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan

MLB tech profiles, interview with AT&T’s John Donovan

What’s in our issue #2 of STR? Glad you asked! Inside the report our editorial coverage includes:

– MLB stadium tech research: This editorial research provides a technology update on stadiums used by all 30 MLB teams, gauging the level of deployment of Wi-Fi, DAS and beaconing technologies.

– MLB tech deployment profiles: These mini-case studies will take an in-depth look at technology deployments at MLB facilities including AT&T Park in San Francisco, Target Field in Minneapolis, and Miami’s Marlins Park. This issue also includes an in-depth interview with AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan, the man behind AT&T’s successful DAS deployment strategy.

– MSR exclusive stadium tech analysis: The report also includes MLB stadium tech analysis from MSR editor in chief Paul Kapustka, as well as a bonus mini-case study of DAS deployment at historic Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

White box at bottom is one of the under-the-seat Wi-Fi access points at AT&T Park.

White box at bottom is one of the under-the-seat Wi-Fi access points at AT&T Park.

MLB stadiums: Wi-Fi and DAS deployment is strong

Since last year, 8 more MLB teams have added fan-facing Wi-Fi to their ballparks, bringing the league total to a respectable 67 percent, with 20 out of 30 stadiums with Wi-Fi. On the distributed antenna system (DAS) front things are even better, with 25 out of 30 parks having enhanced cellular connectivity thanks to a DAS (our report currently erroneously shows that the Washington Nationals don’t have a DAS — we learned late this weekend that they do, so DAS is doing even better than we thought). Though the adoption rate is lower than that found in the NBA (where 26 of 29 stadiums have fan-facing Wi-Fi), baseball as a league does a much better visible job of promoting the service, which is more impressive when you consider that deploying Wi-Fi in an open-air arena is a considerably tougher task than in a building with a ceiling, like an NBA stadium.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the National League West Division leads the pack in MLB connectivity, with all 5 teams having both Wi-Fi and DAS deployments in their park. The adoption rate in that division may have something to do with other teams following what is perhaps the overall connected-stadium leader in any sport, AT&T Park in San Francisco. The first with Wi-Fi (since 2004), AT&T Park continues to lead in innovation and experimentation, as witnessed by their embrace of new tricks like under-the-seat Wi-Fi APs and the new iBeacon technology, which is being tested in 20 MLB parks this season.

All of this is explained in greater detail in our STADIUM TECH REPORT for Q2 2014 — so download your free copy today!

AT&T: Hoops fans use more data than hockey fans

In a somewhat-not-surprising statistical revelation, AT&T said that basketball fans used more wireless data on its network than hockey fans at the respective arenas during both leagues’ recent championship series.

Using measurements of only AT&T customer traffic from the AT&T digital antenna system (DAS) deployments in arenas in Miami, San Antonio, Los Angeles and New York, AT&T said that hoops fans at the NBA Finals had both higher average data consumption rates and peak data rates than their NHL-watching counterparts. And when it came to home-fan data use, Miami’s American Airlines Arena hit the highest mark, with an average of 177 gigabytes of data used at the two games played in South Beach.

Though the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title, fans at AT&T Center in Texas used an average of 138 GB of data. Miami’s arena also generated the highest peak data total of 223 GB of data. Of course maybe most of that was Miami fans using OpenTable to make early dinner reservations as the Spurs started blowing the Heat off the court.

On the frozen side of things, Los Angeles won both the real title and the data title, with fans in the Staples Center using an average of 98 GB of data during the three games there during the Stanley Cup Final. The average data usage in New York at Madison Square Garden was 83 GB of data on the AT&T network.

In defense of hockey fans, it’s really no surprise that they used less data since hockey games, especially playoff games, are mostly action and excitement, and not a million time outs. Plus, we all know that had the Chicago Blackhawks been rightfully in the Final to defend their title from last year, Da Hawks fans would have pushed everyone to shame with video renditions of the Chelsea Dagger. Next year.