April 23, 2014

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?

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.

Artemis Networks adding stadium Wi-Fi market to its targets

When Artemis Networks came out of nowhere a month ago, we speculated that if their new wireless technology worked as advertised it could bring a “welcome revolution to stadium wireless networking.” Apparently, lots of stadium folks thought the same exact thing. And they’ve kept the Artemis office phone ringing off the hook ever since.

Though stadiums weren’t part of Artemis’ original plan, after a month of fielding calls from and taking meetings with multiple interested stadium owners and operators, company CEO Steve Perlman said his small crew is now busy working to also make its gear work with Wi-Fi, to better answer the growing need for connectivity inside large public venues.

pCell antenna from Artemis Networking

pCell antenna from Artemis Networking

In an in-person interview earlier this week with Perlman at the Rearden Companies facility in downtown San Francisco, Perlman said he and the Artemis crew “had no idea” that the stadium networking market even really existed, or that it would be so very interested in something that could possibly ease a lot of their connectivity pains.

“It came down on us like a ton of bricks,” said Perlman of the outpouring of demand from venue representatives. And while Perlman prides himself in having his team “solve the hard problem first” of getting its new technology to work with cellular LTE signals, the request for a Wi-Fi version from stadim operators and owners — available preferably yesterday — has the Artemis team working hard to add Wi-Fi support to its product’s repertoire.

Solving for congestion and interference

If you’re unfamiliar with the Artemis idea, at its simplest level it’s a new idea in connecting wireless devices to antennas that — if it works as advertised — turns conventional cellular and Wi-Fi thinking on its head. What Perlman and Artemis claim is that they have developed a way to build radios that transmit signals “that deliberately interfere with each other” to establish a “personal cell,” or pCell, for each device connecting to the network.

(See this BusinessWeek story from 2011 that thoroughly explains the Artemis premise in detail. This EE Times article also has more details, and this Wired article is also a helpful read.)

Leaving the complicated math and physics to the side for now, if Artemis’ claims hold true their technology could solve two of the biggest problems in wireless networking, namely bandwidth congestion and antenna interference. In current cellular and Wi-Fi designs, devices share signals from antenna radios, meaning bandwidth is reduced as more people connect to a cellular antenna or a Wi-Fi access point. Adding more antennas is one way to solve congestion problems; but especially in stadiums and other large public venues, you can’t place antennas too close to each other, because of signal interference.

The Artemis pCell technology, Perlman said, trumps both problems by delivering a centimeter-sized cell of coverage to each device, which can follow the device as it moves around in an antenna’s coverage zone. Again, if the company’s claims hold true of being able to deliver full bandwidth to each device “no matter how many users” are connected to each antenna, stadium networks could theoretically support much higher levels of connectivity at possibly a fraction of the current cost.

Add to that the fact that Artemis isn’t just a technology theory, but instead something far closer to a finished product, and you can understand the stadium network crowd’s desire to learn more. What makes pCell technology especially appealing is the fact that it supports existing phone and wireless device technology, so users don’t need new devices. Stadiums and arenas would need to install pCell antennas and back-end computing gear, but Perlman also noted that pCell technology could exist alongside current Wi-Fi and DAS implementations, with handoffs to either one. That means a stadium could deploy pCell as an add-on technology to help fill in coverage gaps and not as a rip-and-replace, a try-it type business situation which could make Artemis even more appealing to the large-venue market.

First-hand knowledge of the problem

Though it was the solving for the increase in overall mobile data use that helped push former QuickTime developer and WebTV entrepreneur Perlman and his team through the more than 10 years it took them to develop pCell, Perlman said he should have figured out the stadium issue after his own experience this past football season.

Perlman, who attended the Rose Bowl game between Stanford and Michigan State on New Year’s Day, told a story about his brother going to get some food from the concession stand early in the contest. After his brother left the seats, Perlman decided he wanted some french fries to be added to the order, so he sent his brother a text message with instructions to add fries to the shopping list.

“He came back with the food but in the heat of the game I forgot all about the fries, which he didn’t get,” Perlman said. The reason why? Perlman’s text message didn’t reach his brother’s phone until 45 minutes after it was sent — an experience still too common at many stadiums these days.

While Perlman expects Artemis to provide some of its initial products to cellular service providers later this year, the demand to solve stadium networking problems may end up pushing Artemis more quickly into the arena business, assuming it can modify its gear to work with Wi-Fi, along with LTE, signals. While the company has some doubters — perhaps normal for any new technology with such far-out claims — at the very least it has the confident, previously successful Perlman at its helm, and an incredibly impressive set of demonstrations of its technology available for interested parties.

Whether or not those demonstrations become part of working, production networks is the next step ahead of Perlman and his crew, a path you can be sure we will be watching closely. Along with many of our readers in the stadium networking marketplace, we are sure.

AT&T running ads about DAS in stadiums… MSR approves

Sure this is an AT&T ad. But an ad about putting in DAS at a stadium? Who would run a copy of this except us? Enjoy all you antenna geeks out there. And… there’s gotta be work for the fan, maybe conduit work? C’mon DAS dudes, let me in on the fun!

You had me at “Do you know how to optimize a 9-beam multi-beam antenna system?”