September 25, 2016

Twitter’s NFL streaming debut fails on Tweet front; will AT&T and Verizon eventually dominate mobile device NFL streaming?

Twitter’s debut in live-streaming NFL games had good video, but the accompanying Twitter feed — which users couldn’t configure — left many observers wanting more. Will Twitter ever be able to deliver, or will physics keep Twitter from being able to add anything special to mobile-device sports streaming? In the latest STADIUM TECH REPORT PODCAST, co-hosts Phil Harvey and Paul Kapustka dissect Twitter’s streaming issues, and wonder when people will realize that AT&T and Verizon may be the eventual winners in the NFL streaming battle with their Sunday Ticket and NFL Mobile platforms. Listen now!

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Here is the link to the podcast on iTunes!

Verizon drops data charges for live NFL streaming via NFL Mobile app

Screen Shot 2016-09-09 at 10.28.58 PMAre you ready for football? And are you ready for cellular company wars around viewing football on your phone? Verizon kicked off the 2016 NFL season with an announcement Friday that it would no longer charge its customers for data used while watching live NFL games via the NFL Mobile app, perhaps the biggest sign that the battle we predicted is now fully underway.

From our perspective, some of the most-read stories in Mobile Sports Report history have been posts wondering about how much data customers might use watching a live football game on their phones. The answer now, for Verizon LTE customers, is easy: It’s zero. You will still need to pay $1.99 a month this fall to watch RedZone on your phone (to us, RedZone is even better than specific live games), but watching the live local and national-broadcast games (like Sunday night games and Monday Night Football) won’t chew up any of the gigabytes in your data plan.

Whether or not this type of “free programming” will spark any net neutrality debate is best left for other outlets, though it’s hard to think of a type of programming more popular than live NFL action. In the meantime, our guess is that the wildly popular NFL Mobile app (Verizon never releases figures on how many users it has for NFL Mobile, but if you start your guessing between 5 and 10 million you might not be far off) will get even more popular, and the promotion should help sell a lot of fence-sitters this weekend on buying with Verizon, just to get even the app’s limited NFL schedule for basically free.

The promotion may not even cost Verizon much when it comes to minutes, since many NFL Mobile veterans I know (some of whom are already tweeting in agreement to the next statement) almost always seek a Wi-Fi connection when they are streaming NFL Mobile games, because better bandwidth and no data charges. But it’s a hell of a selling point and one we kind-of predicted when we foresaw cell-phone NFL battles between Verizon and its NFL Mobile deal and AT&T’s new ownership of Sunday Ticket thanks to its DirecTV purchase. Too bad the user numbers aren’t ever made public, because it’d be cool to see how many fans are streaming NFL action live on their phones.

We still haven’t been able to get an answer from the NFL or Verizon on another rumor we heard this summer, that RedZone action would be available for free to any fans inside NFL stadiums on game days. Many stadiums already have that ability via apps built by YinzCam, which has a rights agreement with the NFL to allow RedZone viewing in some stadiums. Maybe MSR readers across the country could chime in on whether or not they can see RedZone at their stadium, and we can crowd-source a list. Or we could all just watch more football. Stay tuned, because it’s our guess that this won’t be the last you hear on this front this season.

Remember: You can’t watch NFL Mobile live games on your tablet, because Verizon’s rights package only includes cellular phone-type devices. And be prepared for service to suck this Sunday, because these opening-day things never seem to work out for Verizon and the NFL. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

Twitter and the NFL: What does the deal mean for team apps and mobile video? Stadium Tech Report Podcast No. 3 tells you!

Episode 3 of the STADIUM TECH REPORT PODCAST is live, in which hosts Phil Harvey and Paul Kapustka discuss the NFL’s Thursday Night Football streaming deal with Twitter, and what that deal means for both team stadium apps in particular and for mobile video use in general. Take a listen and let us know what you think!

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST: Here is the link to the podcast on iTunes!

Let the NFL streaming battles begin: AT&T brings live streaming to basic Sunday Ticket plan

Screen shot of DirecTV Sunday Ticket app for iPad

Screen shot of DirecTV Sunday Ticket app for iPad

If you are a regular MSR reader you may remember that when the AT&T/DirecTV acquisition came to pass, we wondered how long it would take before AT&T and Verizon started battling each other in the quest to bring live NFL action to fans on their phones. The answer: wait no more, the battle’s here.

Today, AT&T announced that all subscribers to the DirecTV Sunday Ticket plan “will be able to stream Sunday afternoon out-of-market football games to almost any device” when action kicks off this fall. Previously, Sunday Ticket subscribers had to shell out about an extra hundred bucks to get the Sunday Ticket Max package, which offered streaming. Last year, the basic Sunday Ticket package was about $250; so far we can’t find a price for this season (and we don’t want to hunt through all the splash screens trying to get us to sign up for DirecTV services). Suffice to say it will still be a premium product, but one that many NFL fans can’t live without.

According to AT&T, live streaming via the Sunday Ticket plan was up 35 percent last year, a figure that doesn’t surprise us at all. We’ve been tracking Verizon Wireless and its NFL Mobile package of live-streamed games (which varies but usually includes Monday, Thursday and any weekend games, as well as Sunday out-of-market games) for some time now, and posts about NFL Mobile typically draw the highest traffic to our site. Verizon has never released subscriber numbers for NFL Mobile, but if you guessed it was among the most popular sports apps out there, you would probably be right. Even at $1 billion for four years, the rights fees seem a bargain for Verizon.

DirecTV pays the NFL more (about $1.5 billion a year, according to reports) but it gets more; NFL Mobile is exclusive to cell phone devices, meaning you can’t use it on tablets or PCs. And now thrown into the mobile mix is Twitter, whose reported $10 million deal with the NFL for Thursday-night games also includes the rights to stream to cell phones and any other device. Anyone else out there want to play?

Why is NFL action so popular on mobile devices? Mainly, I think, because of several factors, including fantasy betting and the fact that the screens have gotten so big and sharp, you can actually watch a game on a phone and it’s not painful. As many of us mobile-NFL freaks know, the best part of the deals isn’t necessarily the games themselves, but instead it’s access to the NFL’s RedZone channel, which keeps you up to date on action all across the league (and despite its name, it offers way more than just plays “in the red zone.” They try to keep live action going at all times, and NO COMMMERCIALS makes it a football junkie’s dream).

Plus, on the West coast, RedZone will often just show all of later games since there are fewer contests to jump in between. I don’t know how many people will sit every Sunday through several games on the couch, but if you can watch a few minutes or a final drive while you’re somewhere else it’s pretty addictive.

No news yet this year from Verizon on what the NFL Mobile package of games might look like, but stay tuned: This battle is just getting started. Good news is, more competition means more access and lower prices for fans. That’s something we can all cheer, no matter which teams we root for.

Twitter to stream NFL Thursday night games to all platforms, including smartphones

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.00.55 AMThe big news from the NFL today was a deal signed with Twitter, under which Twitter will get to stream live NFL Thursday Night games online to any connected device, including smartphones. To us, that last bit is the most interesting part of the deal since it breaks the previous stronghold held by Verizon Wireless and its NFL Mobile deal, under which Verizon was previously the sole provider of live NFL action to smartphones.

While many NFL games have been streamed by various entities online — including recent years’ playoff games, the Super Bowl and Monday Night Football — for most of those “broadcasts” you could only watch on a phone-type device if you were a Verizon customer and used the NFL Mobile app. The only exception we know of for U.S. fans was the extra-price DirecTV Sunday Ticket package, which also allowed for mobile viewing; but for free online action, you could typically only watch on a PC, connected TV or a tablet — smartphones were the exclusive domain of Verizon.

Under the Twitter deal, fans who are Twitter users will be able to watch Thursday night games free of any other charge, on tablets, PCs, connected TVs and smartphones, according to a release today from the NFL and Twitter. In addition to live action, the league and Twitter promise pre-game extras like Periscope broadcasts from teams and players, meaning you will get low-quality jittery interviews instead of professionally produced material. But we jest. The Periscope broadcasts could be cool, especially if they are on the field where fans never really get to be.

The Twitter deal follows on the heels of last season’s Yahoo-streamed game, which attracted 15.2 million viewers. It will be interesting to see what the numbers are for Twitter this year, since the Thursday night games will be available on regular TV from both NBC and CBS, which have five games each, as well as on the NFL Network, which will simulcast all games on Thursday nights.

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!