February 14, 2016

Stadium Tech Report: Connectivity soars at Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Field at Mile High

Panoramic view of Sports Authority Field at Mile High from the top seats. All photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Panoramic view of Sports Authority Field at Mile High from the top seats. All photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

On most of our stadium visits, we have to wait until we get inside the venue to start testing the network. At Sports Authority Field at Mile High, however, we barely got out of the car before the Wi-Fi auto-connected — at superb speeds. Nothing like a network that announces itself before you get in the door.

The parking-lot connection — at a download speed of 45.48 Mbps and an upload speed of 53.35 — was the first clue that football fan connectivity is taken seriously in Denver, especially so if you have Verizon service. While the stadium’s Wi-Fi network is currently only available to Verizon customers — more on this later — full DAS participation by the three other major U.S. wireless carriers means that pretty much any visitor to the venue is going to have good, if not great, connectivity for their mobile device, no matter which service they use.

Inside the stadium, a trained eye can spot many different types of DAS and Wi-Fi antenna placements, under overhangs, on towers, on ceilings and on walls; and thanks to a first-person stadium tech tour conducted by Russ Trainor, vice president of information systems for the Denver Broncos, we got to learn about a wide range of not-so-noticable antenna deployments, including in railing enclosures and on field-level walls, all part of an ongoing plan to try to stay ahead of the still-growing demand for mobile data from sports fans who come to the games.

The parking lots just outside Sports Authority Field have good Wi-Fi coverage as this light pole shows.

The parking lots just outside Sports Authority Field have good Wi-Fi coverage as this light pole shows.

The day we visited, during the last regular-season game on Jan. 3, was important for the Broncos as a team since their 27-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers gave Denver home-field advantage through the playoffs, an edge that helped the team reach its eighth Super Bowl. But even as he celebrated his team’s win, Trainor was happy for another reason: the bye week gave him and his team more time to light up some new Wi-Fi and DAS antenna placements, to better handle the expected and eventual playoff data crush.

“You can never have enough APs,” Trainor said.

Good Wi-Fi, but still only for Verizon customers

Opened on Aug. 11, 2001, with a concert by the Eagles, the then-named Invesco Field at Mile High replaced the old Mile High Stadium in basically the same spot, sitting at 5,280 feet above sea level. Seen by many on TV when it hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the acceptance speech of then-Sen. Barack Obama, the “new” Mile High has seen more than 12 million fans come through its doors since it opened for a variety of sports and entertainment events.

But true high-speed wireless for fans didn’t take root until 2012, when a revamp led by Verizon Wireless and the Broncos’ IT staff added a Cisco-based Wi-Fi network to the stadium with 500 access points, designed to serve 25,000 concurrent users and also designed to be “open,” allowing any other carrier to provide access to its customers by negotiating a deal with Verizon. While Trainor said the option still remains open and talks with some of the other carriers are underway, none have yet signed on — making the Wi-Fi network a fast playground for Verizon customers, who apparently are in the vast majority in the Denver region.

Sorry, AT&T customer, no soup for you

Sorry, AT&T customer, no soup for you

We don’t have any exact proof of that thinking, but statistics from the recent AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field — a 20-18 Denver victory over the New England Patriots — seem to show Verizon customers in a bit of a majority. According to Verizon, its customers at the game used a total of 2.87 terabytes of data, with 1.7 TB on the Wi-Fi network and another 1.17 TB on the Verizon LTE DAS network. AT&T, by comparison, said its customers used 819 GB on the AT&T DAS network that day. So either there are more Verizon customers at the stadium on game days, or Verizon customers use more data because they have more network options; take your pick.

With our Verizon iPhone 6 Plus in hand, we found great connectivity on Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere we roamed. After finding our way from the parking lot to the press box, we got a signal of 46.46 Mbps down and 46.90 up, this from the regular fan network in the stands and not from the press-only Wi-Fi network.

While roaming through the plush United Club we got a speed test of 33.36/35.19, a figure that Trainor said could change on any given game day — “when it gets cold outside, this place fills up,” he noted — and then later when we walked up to the top, 5th-level concourse, we still got a Wi-Fi signal of 34.96/30.40 on the walkways behind the seats. During second-quarter action we even sneaked up to the nosebleed seats in section 501, one of the ski-slope steep sections near the stadium’s top edge — and still got a Wi-Fi signal of 10.28 Mbps/5.00 Mbps.

According to Trainor, the upper seats are among the toughest challenges for Wi-Fi reception, especially those in the “bulge” areas in the middle of the stadium where on both sides the sections curve upwards, adding more seats. Though the light structures that wind all the way around the stadium do provide good spots for antenna mounts, the bulge areas are harder to reach, and in the near future Trainor and his team will keep experimenting with other methods of deployment, like railing enclosures and row-end mounts they have used successfully for both Wi-Fi and DAS in other areas of the stadium.

Lots of antennas visible in this overhang area

Lots of antennas visible in this overhang area

One interesting architectural quirk of the stadium — its use of metal decking instead of concrete — actually helps the wireless deployment team, Trainor said. Installed to mimic the metal upper deck at the old Mile High Stadium — where Broncos fans would do the “Denver Stomp” to produce thunderous noise — the metal construction acts as a barrier to keep Wi-Fi signals from the bowl from interfering with those from antennas inside suites and concourses, Trainor said.

While most of the stadium has favorable locations for overhead antennas — there are three main levels of seating, providing two expansive overhangs covering about 80 percent of the seating area — some typical problem places like seats near field level and in the no-overhang South stands have required some creative thinking, an excercise that never really ends.

“We started with 500 Wi-Fi APs, and we’re now at 640, and by the time we get it [the current plan] all built out we’ll have about 850 to 900 total,” Trainor said.

DAS deployments a mix of connectivity

On the DAS side, Trainor said that the four major carriers — Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — are all present inside the stadium, with different antenna placements in different numbers. In some instances, all the carriers use “neutral” antennas, mainly in areas where there isn’t enough room for exclusive deployments. But in other areas, the carriers have installed their own antennas, an arrangement that allows them to replace and upgrade them as necessary at their own discretion, Trainor said.

Field-level Wi-Fi AP (small white box next to right leg of Peyton Manning fan)

Field-level Wi-Fi AP (small white box next to right leg of Peyton Manning fan)

We didn’t have a Sprint or T-Mobile device on hand, but our AT&T Android phone had good connectivity everywhere we measured, including a 4G LTE signal of 27.94 Mbps down and 6.86 up in the press box, and signals of 47.83/6.37 on the same 5th-level concourse area where we tested the Verizon Wi-Fi.

All the carrier back-end gear is housed in a brick building built outside the southeast side of the stadium, Trainor said, since there wasn’t room inside the stadium structure itself. DAS and Wi-Fi antennas also exist in great number in the vast parking lots that directly surround the stadium, as well as in the “fan zone” gathering area outside the South stands.

Like with the Wi-Fi, Trainor and his team are always planning for more DAS capacity, even if contracts aren’t signed yet. On the new railing enclosures they are installing, the Denver IT team builds in enough space for both DAS and Wi-Fi, even if only one network is using the deployment to start with. Again, you can never have enough antennas — or enough places to put them.

YinzCam app and Cisco SportsVision

Rounding out the mobile-device offerings is not one but two YinzCam team apps, one for use at outside the stadium and the other one for live game-day offerings, with a geocache feature that allows the team to provide content it has stadium rights to, like the NFL’s RedZone channel. Both apps have live links to the Broncos radio coverage from KOA Radio, and the in-stadium instant replay feature worked superbly during our visit, showing plays in seconds and often before they appeared on the stadium’s big screens.

In the concourses we recognized the split-screen capabilities of Cisco’s StadiumVision technology, which can direct programming to all the TV screens inside a stadium. Another nice touch in the United Club was a circular charging station, with tabletop space so fans could have a place to put food and drink while waiting for their devices to juice back up. “We are always looking for ways and configurations to allow fans to recharge their devices,” Trainor said.

With all its different parts, the wireless deployment at Sports Authority Field at Mile High adds up to a favorable fan experience, one that clearly has the ability to keep getting better on an incremental basis. But like their Super Bowl team, Denver fans should be happy with what they have right now.

MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Railing antenna enclosure. Some of these have both Wi-Fi and DAS.

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App promo on the scoreboard

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Panoramic view of the stadium and the city

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South stands have a horse and Wi-Fi antennas on the top of the scoreboard

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Cisco SportsVision in action on 6-panel display

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DAS antennas on end-of-row railing area

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Game on, phones out!

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Antennas covering the concourse area on second level

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More SportsVision and Wi-Fi deployment in the United Club

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Only accept on the scene reporting!

Stadium Tech Report: Wi-Fi arrives at the Green Bay Packers’ legendary Lambeau Field

Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, now has Wi-Fi for fans. All photos: Green Bay Packers (click on any photo for a larger image)

Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, now has Wi-Fi for fans. All photos: Green Bay Packers (click on any photo for a larger image)

When most NFL fans think of the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field, they think of frozen tundra – of Vince Lombardi roaming the sideline in his thick glasses and peaked hat, with visible breath coming through the face masks of behemoth linemen on the field. In the stands, they see the venerable fans braving the cold of northern Wisconsin in their snowmobile suits, with mittens wrapped around a bratwurst and a beer.

But do they think of those same Packers fans pulling out their iPhones and Samsungs to take selfies, and posting them to Instagram or Facebook? Maybe not so much.

The reality is, however, that in 2015, football fans in Green Bay are pretty much like fans anywhere else when it comes to wanting to use their mobile devices while at the game. So to make sure the Lambeau Field fan experience remains at the top of the league, the Packers teamed up with Extreme Networks and Verizon Wireless to bring a fan-facing Wi-Fi network to Lambeau this season, one that will likely be heavily used even at the risk of frostbitten fingers.

Editor’s note: The following profile is an excerpt from our most recent Stadium Tech Report, THE PRO FOOTBALL ISSUE. To get all the profiles in one place as well as our featured reports, interviews and analysis, download your free copy of the full report today.

Bringing the beast to the bowl

With more than 1,000 Wi-Fi access points installed throughout the stadium, the already-live network in Green Bay is the culmination of a 2-year project that started with an overhaul of the venue’s distributed antenna system (DAS), a task completed last year by Verizon, which acts as the DAS neutral host.

According to Wayne Wichlacz, director of information technology for the Packers, the second step of putting in and turning on a full-stadium Wi-Fi network required a lengthy search and qualification process, to ensure that the partners could deliver in the face of big challenges that exist in bringing wireless technology to a historic and legendary facility like Lambeau Field.

Wi-Fi APs visible on press box structure

Wi-Fi APs visible on press box structure

Even the most casual of NFL fans probably has some knowledge of Lambeau Field, which has known more than its share of history since opening in 1957. The glory years of the Packers of the 1960s, when coach Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr won the first two Super Bowls, helped cement the Green Bay “Titletown” lore, and the famous “Ice Bowl” game of Dec. 31, 1967, between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, gave birth to the “Frozen Tundra” nickname for the big concrete circle on Lombardi Avenue.

That big bowl, which has been added to significantly since its opening, now can seat 81,435 fans, making it the third-largest in NFL seating capacity, behind only AT&T Stadium in Dallas and MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Though Lambeau Field previously had Wi-Fi networks for internal business purposes as well as for some suite and premium seating, bringing Wi-Fi to the full stadium was a task of a different magnitude, Wichlacz said.

“It’s a different beast to bring [Wi-Fi] to the bowl,” Wichlacz said.

The two big challenges for Wi-Fi deployment at Lambeau revolved around aesthetics and placements; as a historic and legendary structure, extreme care needed to be taken to make sure Wi-Fi gear placements didn’t detract from the visual experience and old-time charm. And just to make that first task tougher was the challenge of finding enough places for Wi-Fi APs in a facility that is mainly a big open bowl, without much overhang space for mounting.

And don’t forget about the large amount of metal-bench seating, which took away the opportunity to install under-the-seat APs.

“There’s just not a lot of levels [in Lambeau] for us to do things,” Wichlacz said. “It was a real installation challenge.”

After putting out an RFP that took all the necessary considerations into play, Wichlacz said the Packers evaluated proposals from all the major players in the large public venue Wi-Fi gear market before finally settling on Extreme, which has a solid history of NFL stadium deployments. After picking Extreme in the middle of last year, construction got underway in early 2015, Wichlacz said.

On the Extreme side, the company knew it was deploying on the NFL equivalent of hallowed ground, said Norman Rice, executive vice president for marketing at Extreme.

“A lot of additional work went into the design, in part because Lambeau Field is a historical site and such an iconic part of the landscape in the NFL,” Rice said. “We did a lot of unique stuff to get to what a Packers fan expects.”

Yellow paint and handrail enclosures

If most NFL fans are familiar with the Packers’ traditional gold and green colors, so now are the Wi-Fi deployment teams from Extreme and the Packers, who spent a good part of the deployment time painting APs to blend in to the stadium scenery. That meant green for antennas mounted up against certain building sections, and the bright yellow for the handrail antennas that Extreme used to help bring signals down into the rows of the bowl.

“We did a lot of unique stuff,” said Extreme’s Rice. “There are some pretty cool enclosures, where the yellow blends right into the walls.”

“If you’re looking for it, you can probably find it,” said Wichlacz of the painted antennas. “But it blends in pretty good.”

Lambeau bench seating with railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs

Lambeau bench seating with railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs

To gain some important real estate for wireless components, the Packers and their partners actually relocated the team’s signage listing the names of Packers inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, raising it up one level and using it as a way to mask Wi-Fi and DAS gear.

“You can actually see the [names] better now, and we were able to put Wi-Fi and DAS antennas in there,” Rice said. “It’s a nice piece of work.”

All the aesthetic work had to also be blended with the technical requirements of antenna placement, to ensure good coverage without interference. Jacque Vallier, the Illinois/Wisconsin regional executive director of network for Verizon Wireless, compared Lambeau Field to the older college stadiums, the large concrete bowls that are among the hardest structures to bring services to.

“It definitely was an RF and engineering challenge,” said Vallier of the DAS design. Vallier said that AT&T is currently a client on the Verizon neutral DAS, which uses CommScope gear. The DAS also covers the parking lot areas outside Lambeau Field, where tailgating is a high art.

Separate SSID for Verizon Customers

Like other NFL deployments where Verizon is a major sponsor, the Lambeau Field Wi-Fi network will have two separate SSIDs, one reserved for Verizon Wireless customers, and the other for everyone else. According to Verizon’s Vallier, the Verizon subscribers will have access to about 40 percent of the Wi-Fi bandwidth, with some devices supporting automatic authentication to the service. Verizon and Extreme have a similar deployment at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

According to Extreme’s Rice, the mix of network usage is tuned to ensure that all fans who are seeking Wi-Fi connectivity will have more than enough bandwidth. Both the Verizon-specific network and the public network (which run off the same Wi-Fi gear) will meet or exceed the NFL’s Wi-Fi requirements, he said.

“It’s done to ensure Verizon customers have a good connection, but not at the expense of other users,” Rice said of the split SSIDs. Verizon, which is a big sponsor of the NFL in general (including its $1 billion payment for live-action rights on smartphones for its NFL Mobile app), is also a sponsor of Wi-Fi networks at NFL stadiums in Detroit and Denver.

As a final Green Bay touch, the Extreme “Wi-Fi coaches” program, which trains people who wander the stands on game days helping fans to get connected to the network, will use area high school students as “coaches,” fitting right in with the family-friendly atmosphere that the Packers are famous for.

“It’s really going to be cool to tie the coaches program to the community through the schools,” Extreme’s Rice said. “It’s great fun to be part of that.”

Can’t test the network until the stadium’s full

When it comes to large public venue deployments, there is the Wi-Fi network you design on paper, the network you build, and then the network that happens when the venue fills up with users. Thanks to the mid-year completion of the Lambeau Field network, Wichlacz and his IT team were able to test the Wi-Fi network in several “beta” situations, which included a Kenny Chesney concert and a Brett Favre celebration that filled the bowl.

Wave the flag, Wi-Fi has come to Lambeau Field! Photos: Green Bay Packers

Wave the flag, Wi-Fi has come to Lambeau Field! Photos: Green Bay Packers

“Testing network theory versus having people [using the network] is night and day,” Wichlacz said. Live tests, he said, “give the engineering folks the ability to test and tweak. It’s definitely helpful to have those events.”

And if there was any doubt that fans at Lambeau Field want to use their devices, Verizon’s Vallier can help end the debate.

“During the second preseason game we saw more than 500 gigabytes of traffic [on the DAS],” Vallier said, noting that totals so far are pointing to be one-and-a-half times bigger than in 2014.

And though Wichlacz is reticent to provide exact Wi-Fi data usage numbers, Extreme’s Rice said one of the Packers’ preseason games recorded “one of the highest [Wi-Fi usage] numbers we’ve ever seen.”

That figure seems to answer a question Rice said the team had asked itself earlier, about whether or not the Green Bay Packers and their fans needed stadium Wi-Fi. “There was a time when they [the Packers] had a big question, about if it mattered,” Rice said. Now that the Wi-Fi network is in, he said, “it’s amazing to see how much people use it.”

Wichlacz noted that Packers fans may not need to worry about frozen fingers, since the team has more home games earlier in the season this year. But he also remembers Verizon stats from the DAS last season that showed usage didn’t go down that much when the temperature got cold.

So – if you make it to Lambeau Field from now on, make sure you soak in the atmosphere and if you care to, share it with the world via Wi-Fi – something you can do now with ease thanks to the hard work from the Packers and their partners.

“For our whole team here, it’s been a labor of love,” Wichlacz said. “We spent a lot of hours working on this. We’re excited to launch it, and correct it as we go.”

New Report: Green Bay’s Lambeau Field leads new NFL Wi-Fi deployments

Wave the flag, Wi-Fi has come to Lambeau Field! Photo: Green Bay Packers

Wave the flag, Wi-Fi has come to Lambeau Field! Photo: Green Bay Packers

When most NFL fans think of the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field, they think of frozen tundra — of Vince Lombardi roaming the sideline in his thick glasses and peaked hat, with visible breath coming through the face masks of behemoth linemen on the field. In the stands, they see the venerable fans braving the cold of northern Wisconsin in their snowmobile suits, with mittens wrapped around a bratwurst and a beer.

But do they think of those same Packers fans pulling out their iPhones and Samsungs to take selfies, and posting them to Instagram or Facebook? Maybe not so much.

The reality of 2015, however, finds us with fans in Green Bay being just like fans anywhere else — meaning, they want to be able to use their mobile devices while at the game. As the cover story of our most recent Stadium Tech Report series, we explore the details of bringing Wi-Fi to historic Lambeau Field, where late-season texting might carry the threat of frostbitten fingers.

Our PRO FOOTBALL ISSUE has 50-plus pages of insight and how-to explanations that in addition to Green Bay’s work also cover some interesting Wi-Fi access point hiding tricks practiced by the IT folks at AT&T Stadium, and a recap of Levi’s Stadium plans as it gets ready to host Super Bowl 50. Plus team-by-team capsule descriptions of stadium tech deployments for all 32 NFL franchises. It’s all free to you, so download your copy today!

The NFL haves and have-nots when it comes to Wi-Fi

PRO_FB_ThumbWas it really three long years ago that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued an edict calling for Wi-Fi in all 31 NFL stadiums? While we’re almost there, it’s not quite everywhere yet and during the course of preparing this year’s PRO FOOTBALL ISSUE we found ourselves wondering how many of the current NFL stadium Wi-Fi networks are really up to snuff. Sure, there are leaders in the networking space, as teams with lots of money or recent Super Bowl hostings seem to be in a bit of an arms war when it comes to installing robust wireless networks. Teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers, the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots and a few others come to mind when you are making a list of top networks, and you can probably add Green Bay’s 1,000-plus AP deployment to that tally.

But what about the balance of the league, which now has some kind of fan-facing Wi-Fi in 25 of its 31 venues? While those that don’t have any Wi-Fi at all are somewhat understandable (mainly due to questions about imminent franchise relocation), what about the stadiums that put in Wi-Fi a few years ago, or only put in a limited amount of technology? With no end in sight to the increasing demands for wireless bandwidth, how soon will the older networks need revamping? Including the DAS deployments? Those are questions we’ll keep asking and looking to answer, as we’ve already seen some public reports about Wi-Fi networks falling down on the job. The best place to start, of course, is with the report, so DOWNLOAD YOUR COPY right now!

Thank the sponsors, who let you read for free

Reporting, writing, editing and producing all this content has a cost, but thanks to our generous (and increasing!) list of sponsors, our editorially objective content remains free for you, the reader. We’d like to take a quick moment to thank the sponsors of the Q3 issue of Stadium Tech Report, which include Mobilitie, Crown Castle, SOLiD, CommScope, TE Connectivity, Aruba Networks, JMA Wireless, Corning, 5 Bars, Extreme Networks, ExteNet Systems. and partners Edgewater Wireless and Zinwave. We’d also like to thank you, our readers for your interest and continued support.

As always, we are here to hear what you have to say: Send me an email to kaps at mobilesportsreport.com and let us know what you think of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series, and whether or not the Wi-Fi at your local NFL stadium is a division winner.

Verizon makes live NFL action via NFL Mobile free to all customers; RedZone still $1.99 a month

Screen shot of NFL Mobile app showing possible live games to watch.

Screen shot of NFL Mobile app showing possible live games to watch.

If you’re a Verizon Wireless customer, watching live NFL action on your smartphone just got a lot easier and perhaps cheaper. For the 2016 pro football season, Verizon will give all its customers free access to the schedule of live NFL games available via the NFL Mobile app, eliminating a $5 fee that used to be charged to non-premium plan users.

Though every game isn’t available, the NFL Mobile live schedule is pretty good, as it includes Sunday Night Football games, Monday Night games, Thursday night games and Sunday local games and also preseason games like tonight’s action. Also free is non-live action programming from the NFL Network, but if you want the prize catch — the NFL Network’s RedZone Channel — you still need to pay an extra $1.99 a month, and it’s a good idea to register NOW as Verizon has a history of having technical difficulty when people call on opening day.

(Don’t say we didn’t warn you!)

And, as always, though the games are free the data usage is not, so if you are on cellular games will count against your service plan; our best suggestion is to find free Wi-Fi.

If you are a savvy NFL watcher, you know that the RedZone Channel is the “secret” extra window to live action, especially on the West coast where we would often see entire games shown on RedZone simply because there weren’t other games to switch back and forth to. If you are a customer of any other cellular service, you are mostly out of luck in getting live football on your phone, since Verizon has an exclusive $1 billion deal with the NFL to be the sole carrier of live action on phone-type devices for another 2 years.

What’s still a muddle is whether or not you will be able to watch live action via NFL Mobile when you are at an NFL stadium, something we are working on trying to find the answers to. Neither the league nor Verizon has ever offered up anything like a guide to whether or not you can use the app to watch other games while at a game, even though with fantasy football it’s a good bet that many NFL ticketholders would like to have access to games other than the one they are attending. You can blame local and stadium broadcasting rights for most of the places that block NFL Mobile live games, along with substandard wireless services, but our hope is that the situation will improve as more teams put in Wi-Fi and upgrade their DAS.

You may also see a message prompting you to sign up for a new $99.99 (or so) package called Game Pass, which is a new all-inclusive video subscription deal from the league that includes live game audio and a lot of other features, but no live game action. Look for more info on that package and a revamped NFL Mobile app next week, and let’s all cross our fingers and burn incense to hope that Verizon added a server or two so many of us aren’t frustrated when the footballs fly.

Super DAS: Crown Castle’s neutral host infrastructure aims to keep Super Bowl XLIX fans connected, inside and outside the stadium

Editor’s note: This story is part 1 of a series of profiles of the providers of the extensive Distributed Antenna System (DAS) deployment for Super Bowl XLIX at and around the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. and other parts of the Phoenix city area as well. Stay tuned all week as we highlight how DAS will keep Super Bowl fans connected, no matter where they roam in and around Phoenix and Glendale this week and weekend.

University of Phoenix Stadium getting its Super Bowl on. (Click any photo for a larger image) Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

University of Phoenix Stadium getting its Super Bowl on. (Click any photo for a larger image) Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

When is a big air-fan vent not an air-fan vent? When it’s a fake vent covering a hidden cellular antenna, put there to keep people from noticing the technology that’s keeping their cell phones connected. Before kickoff at Super Bowl XLIX Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz., many fans outside the University of Phoenix Stadium will walk right by a faux vent and its sheltered equipment, never knowing the attention to detail that goes into a major-venue Distributed Antenna System (DAS) deployment.

But to stadium technology connectivity professionals, such leaps of aesthetic deception are just part of a day’s, or perhaps month’s, DAS deployment work. For neutral host DAS provider Crown Castle, the fake vents on the shell of the University of Phoenix Stadium — and the powerful antennas behind — are just one part of a massive project to ensure there is excellent mobile-device connectivity both inside and outside the Super Bowl stadium, so that fans never get a dropped signal anywhere between the parking lot and their prized seat.

During a recent press tour, a small team of Crown Castle employees showed off some of the upgraded DAS network deployed at the University of Phoenix Stadium as well as in the surrounding Westgate Sports and Entertainment District, a sort of open-air mall that stretches from the UoP Stadium past numerous attached restaurants and stores, also encompassing the Gila River Arena, home of the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL. Over the past year or so, Crown Castle has been upgrading the DAS inside and outside the arena, throughout the mall areas as well as into the huge parking lots that surround it and the football stadium, bringing connectivity to phones being used by customers from all the four major U.S. wireless carriers.

Since the mall and all its food outlets are conveniently located a short stroll from the stadium, it’s a good bet that a large portion of the Super Bowl crowd will spend time wandering around the Westgate area before and after the big game. Thanks to Crown Castle’s efforts, there shouldn’t be many connectivity problems, as antenna deployments on light poles, building rooftops and — yes, even behind fake vents — should be able to keep devices on the cellular networks without a glitch.

Game day connectivity starts in the parking lot

Since we couldn’t actually spend much time wandering around the stadium itself — even three weeks before the big game, the facility was already on NFL security lockdown — most of the Crown Castle tour consisted of walking around the Westgate mall/neighborhood, hearing about the various methods Crown Castle used to locate the necessary DAS antennas. In all, there are five separate DAS networks Crown Castle is responsible for in the area around the stadium: The football stadium itself; the Gila River Arena (which we will profile in an upcoming feature on hockey stadiums); the Westgate shops and restaurants; the nearby Renaissance Hotel; and the surrounding parking lots.

Parking lot light poles, Westgate entertainment district. Can you spot the DAS?

Parking lot light poles, Westgate entertainment district. Can you spot the DAS?

The curious start of the tour in a far-flung parking lot made sense when we found ourselves next to a small DAS equipment box and a light pole with multiple antennas (which had not yet been covered with their final aesthetic sheaths). Aaron Lamoureux, program manager for Crown Castle’s small cell solutions, served as tour guide, and said that for the Westgate area alone there were 18 individual node locations, with about 52 antennas total. Some were located on light poles, some on rooftops, and some along walkways between buildings, to conquer the unique RF characteristics of the open-air/large building outdoor mallish area that is Westgate. (See photos for DAS geek views)

For the University of Phoenix Stadium itself, Crown Castle deployed 228 DAS antennas inside (more on this in an upcoming profile) and at 21 different locations outside the stadium, 13 of those on parking lot poles and 8 mounted on the building itself. Why building-mounted antennas? If you’ve never been there, the University of Phoenix Stadium has a large plaza area on one side, which is used for pre-game activities like rallies, bands and other walk-up amenities where fans gather before entering. The challenge for Crown Castle was finding places to deploy antennas at a low enough height to cover crowds of people standing in one location. While some parts of the building allowed for regular antenna placements, a big part of the plaza faces part of the stadium wall that is a sheer sheet, with no aesthetic place to mount a DAS antenna — unless you add a fake vent or two to the existing design, that is.

Keeping everyone happy is part of the neutral host job

See the big air vents? Nobody would tell us which ones were 'faux vents,' there to hide DAS antennas

See the big air vents? Nobody would tell us which ones were ‘faux vents,’ there to hide DAS antennas

To people outside the industry it might seem silly to go to such lengths just to keep folks from noticing antennas, but anyone who’s deployed a network for a detail-oriented building owner knows why aesthetics are important. That’s why you paint antenna enclosures to match the surrounding walls, or build sheaths to keep wires and other obvious gear out of main sight. It’s part of the art of wireless network deployment, and not as simple as it sounds. Experience counts.

The complex owner and operator relationships involved in the stadium and surrounding-area DAS also seem tailor-made for a big, experienced provider like Crown Castle, which has a long history of deploying and operating multiple-tenant networks. With five different landlords and four different carriers, being the neutral DAS host for this year’s Super Bowl is a task with many moving parts; but, as Mike Kavanagh, president of sales for Crown Castle’s small cell solutions, said, “We understand how to run networks, how to manage them and deal with carriers. It’s high touch and very fluid. But we know that business.”

COMING UP NEXT: What’s inside the network inside the stadium.

MORE PICTURES BELOW! (Click on any picture for a larger image.)

Sky Harbor Airport: Ready for Super XLIX

Sky Harbor Airport: Ready for Super XLIX

Verizon's NFL Mobile ads were in airport walkways well before the Big Game

Verizon’s NFL Mobile ads were in airport walkways well before the Big Game

If you stumble off the escalator, Bud Light is there to catch you

If you stumble off the escalator, Bud Light is there to catch you

The Westgate uber-mall should see a lot of fan activity (and connectivity) on game day

The Westgate uber-mall should see a lot of fan activity (and connectivity) on game day

Here's the official Super Bowl replay HQ (actually a place with DAS antennas on the roof that you can't see)

Here’s the official Super Bowl replay HQ (actually a place with DAS antennas on the roof that you can’t see)

Mama Gina's will offer you pizza and DAS on the roof

Mama Gina’s will offer you pizza and DAS on the roof

More DAS antennas, on a Westgate walkway

More DAS antennas, on a Westgate walkway

Outside UoP Stadium, where the architecture allows for DAS antenna placement

Outside UoP Stadium, where the architecture allows for DAS antenna placement

Close-up of that placement. Still pretty well hidden.

Close-up of that placement. Still pretty well hidden.

Parking lot light mounts. These will have sheaths by Super Sunday.

Parking lot light mounts. These will have sheaths by Super Sunday.

Here's the remote equipment box that powers the light pole antennas. Also scheduled for more concealment.

Here’s the remote equipment box that powers the light pole antennas. Also scheduled for more concealment.

Every artist leaves a signature...

Every artist leaves a signature…

YinzCam’s Super Bowl stadium app will have instant replays, Super Bowl commericals, stadium maps and more

Screen shot of Super Bowl app for this year's game.

Screen shot of Super Bowl app for this year’s game.

We’ve been waiting for official word on what the YinzCam-developed app for the Super Bowl will look like, and though there’s no press release the page where we are guessing it will eventually be available is offering some details, like the availability of instant replays from different camera angles, video of Super Bowl commercials, and stadium maps.

On the Seahawks.com site we found a good how-to story for fans going to the game, which included a link to this page, where we are guessing the Super Bowl stadium app will be available for download. Here is the boilerplate:

New for Super Bowl XLIX, the Super Bowl Stadium App Presented by Verizon aims to take the fan experience inside University of Phoenix Stadium to the next level. Features that will enhance Super Bowl ticketholders’ experiences include exclusive in-stadium video content such as Super Bowl commercials and replays from four different camera angles, stadium seating and concession maps, once-in-a-lifetime gameday opportunities visible only to fans inside the stadium and the option to receive up-to-the-minute gameday notifications. Available on iOS, Android and Windows. Goes Live 23rd January 2015

(Looks like the app is already available in the App Store and in Google Play, but nothing is live; we downloaded the app and the only three buttons available, for highlights, commercials and memories, all say they will be available on Feb. 1 at the stadium, so no idea what the “goes live” on the splash page above means yet.)

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 11.40.41 PMYinzCam founder and CEO Priya Narasimhan had told us earlier this year that a Super Bowl app was in the making, and apparently it will contain features found in some of the latest YinzCam app deployments, such as the Seattle Seahawks’ new stadium app, which has multiple camera angle replays. The Super Bowl app is different from the Arizona Cardinals’ regular stadium app, which was also built by YinzCam, which also features instant replays.

We were able to download the app for iPhone (it’s free) and apparently you will need to be connected to the stadium Wi-Fi (which has the clever SSID of “Stadium WiFi”) in order to view highlights and other video options.

The good thing for fans at the big game, there will be plenty of networking horsepower to keep the app running, no matter where you are. If you’re inside the stadium there is a new Wi-Fi network and a refurbished DAS deployment to keep fans connected; stay tuned next week for our big breakdown of DAS deployments and carrier plans to keep the Super Bowl crowds super-connected.