July 6, 2015

Grateful Dead fans use 4.5 TB of Wi-Fi during Levi’s Stadium shows

The magical "rainbow" at June 27 Grateful Dead concert at Levi's Stadium. Credit all photos: Levi's Stadium

The magical “rainbow” at June 27 Grateful Dead concert at Levi’s Stadium. Credit all photos: Levi’s Stadium

Fans at the two Grateful Dead concerts at Levi’s Stadium last weekend used a total of 4.5 terabytes of data on the stadium’s Wi-Fi network, not near a record total but about the same each night as a regular NFL crowd Wi-Fi total from the past season, Niners officials said.

Roger Hacker, the 49ers’ senior manager for corporate communications, said the fans attending the “Fare thee Well” concerts last weekend used 2.37 TB of Wi-Fi data on Saturday June 27 and another 2.13 on Sunday June 29, both marks well below the 4.5 TB record set by the WrestleMania 31 event in March. The separate Dead concert totals were also below the 3.3 TB mark set during the Niners’ home football opener last Sept. 14 against the Chicago Bears.

Grateful Dead stage view

Grateful Dead stage view

According to Hacker the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network saw 17,824 unique users on Saturday and 23,152 on Sunday, roughly around 20 percent of attendance each night (the stadium capacity for the show was reported to be 80,000+). The concert also saw the second use of the new Levi’s Stadium on-field temporary Wi-Fi network, which serves the temporary seats set on the stadium’s field. The 41 extra Wi-Fi APs, Hacker said, supported another 989 users Saturday and 1,050 users on Sunday. The field network used a mix of APs installed on the sideline walls as well as APs mounted on railings and underneath the floor surface.

Though there were more users on the network Sunday, there was more data used Saturday, most likely because of a somewhat magical rainbow that appeared over the stadium during the show, an atmospheric event that triggered the highest peak rate of usage, 2.29 Gbps. While the Levi’s Stadium app also was supporting in-seat food delivery for the concerts, Hacker did not have any food ordering stats to share.

Deadheads found the Wi-Fi at Levi's Stadium

Deadheads found the Wi-Fi at Levi’s Stadium

Twitter, Live Nation and Aruba are investors in $9 million Series A round for Levi’s Stadium app developer VenueNext

Screen shot from VenueNext's Levi's Stadium app

Screen shot from VenueNext’s Levi’s Stadium app

Almost as interesting as today’s news of a $9 million Series A venture round for Levi’s Stadium app developer VenueNext is the list of participants in this round of funding, which includes Twitter Ventures, Live Nation Entertainment and Aruba Networks, among others.

While there’s also an interesting story to be mined about lead investor Causeway Media Partners, whose managing partner Mark Wan is one of the San Francisco 49ers’ “one percent” minority owners, the other listed investors offer an interesting take on VenueNext’s potential future beyond its current single client, Levi’s Stadium.

In a press release announcing the funding, VenueNext CEO John Paul said the funds would be used mainly to expand the VenueNext team to support deployments of venue apps for 30 different new clients before the end of the calendar year. Though VenueNext has yet to name a client other than Levi’s Stadium, its upcoming list is expected to include not just sports stadiums but entertainment venues as well, a facet which partially explains the potential investment interest for Live Nation.

Aruba Networks, now owned by HP, is the gear used in the Wi-Fi and beacon networks at Levi’s, which are integrated tightly with the app, so perhaps the Aruba investment is a small way to gain influence at venues still considering Wi-Fi infrastructure purchases. And while we caution that all this is guesswork at this point, Twitter Ventures’ interest in VenueNext is most likely related to the app’s ability to integrate live video, which at some point could conceivably come from the phones of Twitter users via Vine or Periscope. Like we said, interesting partners to have!

Midseason version of Levi's Stadium app, with clearer icons on main screen

Midseason version of Levi’s Stadium app, with clearer icons on main screen


Much different approach

While VenueNext is still a newcomer in the stadium-application marketplace — trailing far behind established players like YinzCam and MLBAM in numbers of deployed apps — its approach to embracing a small number of fan-focused and revenue-generating features like concessions, ticketing, replays and loyalty programs is much different than most stadium apps, which have historically tried to cram as many features in as possible. VenueNext’s top calling card right now may be the in-seat food and merchandise delivery feature it implemented at Levi’s Stadium last year, impressive mainly because of its advertised ability to reach every seat in the 68,500-seat stadium (which worked pretty well for football games but not so much when hockey crowds showed up).

But what may prove more interesting and useful to other potential clients are VenueNext’s integrated ticketing and marketing-analysis features, which not only make it easier for fans to purchase and redirect tickets, but also allows teams to build databases with rich information about fan purchasing preferences.

On both fronts, VenueNext was successful at Levi’s Stadium last season, with the app accounting for more than $800,000 in food and beverage purchases (according to VenueNext) while also registering more than 200,000 unique users, who are all now a part of the Niners’ marketing database. And while the instant replay feature didn’t get as much fan traction as was originally thought, its backbone systems were impressive in action, and were witnessed last season by a weekly parade of IT guests from interested teams.

Originally conceived and funded by Aurum Partners LLC, an investment entity controlled by the Niners’ owners, VenueNext is part of a sports/technology group of investments by Causeway (including SeatGeek), a boutique-ish firm whose partners have a long history in investment and finance, including being owners of the Boston Celtics. Wan will also join VenueNext’s board as part of the investment round, according to VenueNext.

UPDATE: Wan wrote a post on Medium about the investment.

(VenueNext image parade follows. Credit all Levi’s Stadium photos and app screenshots: Paul Kapustka, MSR. Credit John Paul photo: VenueNext. Enjoy!)

First replay tablet app, which adds info about the play

First replay tablet app, which adds info about the play

Second replay tablet app, which adds a thumbnail to the replay

Second replay tablet app, which adds a thumbnail to the replay

Photo of directions function in Levi's Stadium app.

Photo of directions function in Levi’s Stadium app.

Probably the first time many fans heard the term "NiNerds" (Nov. 23, 2014)

Probably the first time many fans heard the term “NiNerds” (Nov. 23, 2014)

NiNerd sporting the new neon vest.

NiNerd sporting the new neon vest.

John Paul, CEO and founder, VenueNext

John Paul, CEO and founder, VenueNext

Season opener issues: Picture of app late in the first half.

Season opener issues: Picture of app late in the first half.

Thinking out loud: Stadiums need better game-day online response teams

Avaya Stadium offers an online welcome

Avaya Stadium offers an online welcome

Maybe I just haven’t been to enough stadiums, but in the ones I visited over the last year I was struck by the fact that none of them seemed to have any kind of a place for live, updated game-day information where fans could find the kind of answers that might really improve their attendance experience.

In visiting various professional and top-level collegiate venues and interviewing representatives of other stadiums I continue to be impressed by the depth and breadth of technology deployments and of some apps that deliver advanced services, like Levi’s Stadium’s food delivery or the various live-replay systems in place at schools like Baylor and Nebraska, as well as at numerous pro venues. But I’ve yet to find a stadium, team or school with what seems like a simple thing to do — either to have a constantly updated “daily news” stream about game-day issues, or better yet, a rapid-response team on either social media or email to answer simple questions like, where should I park, and which gate should I go to?

Sometimes it seems like the simplest things are being overlooked when it comes to stadium technology, and I’m wondering why no such services seem to exist. Are they too costly? Or just not thought of as necessary? Or are stadium owners and operators not really paying attention to what happens on game day?

Why can’t all fans get the ‘suite’ treatment?

I don’t think the last question is true, since I did have the privilege of attending one Niners game at Levi’s Stadium this past season as the guest of app developer VenueNext, an experience that included a pass to the company’s corporate suite. As you can probably guess, having a suite-level pass is indeed a “suite” way to see a game. Almost all of your concerns and needs are taken care of, from the already paid-for drinks and food to the comfortable seating, and there is no shortage of stadium staff around to answer any questions you might have about where to go or how to find things.

One for the road at the BNY Club, Levi's Stadium

One for the road at the BNY Club, Levi’s Stadium

Fans with “regular” passes, however, simply don’t have many similar options for assistance, especially outside the stadium gates, where perhaps help is most needed. I know teams and stadiums (like Levi’s) do a good job of making maps and guides available online, especially for season ticket holders, but those resources typically aren’t designed for viewing on mobile devices, especially in a low-connectivity or bright-sunlight outdoor situation. Others that are designed for mobile apps, like Avaya Stadium’s “Ava” character, only offer canned information, and not a question-and-answer service.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a rapid-response Twitter handle or a regularly updated Twitter feed to answer questions like “where is the best place to park for seating in Section X,” or “which lots are less full,” or “which lots offer the fastest exit after the game?” Such a service could be incredibly helpful for the huge numbers of fans who only attend a small number of games, who might be making such decisions at the last minute and may have never been to the stadium before.

Feed me, keep me warm and dry

I really could have used such an informative service at the College Football Playoff championship game, which I was able to attend via a last-minute media invite from AT&T. Though my pass included access to the game (and more suite-level pampering) I didn’t have any special treatment getting to the event, so my game-day travel experience was probably very similar to many of the thousands of Ohio State and Oregon fans who had likely never been to AT&T Stadium before. Like many others, I decided to get to the stadium early, both to avoid any kind of parking crush and to bathe in whatever pre-game atmosphere might emerge. Three things I wasn’t prepared for came back to chomp me in the behind: Freezing cold weather, the lack of anywhere outside the stadium to get out of said cold weather, and the lack of any kind of online information to assist in the situation.

Fans freezing outside waiting for the CFP game to start

Fans freezing outside waiting for the CFP game to start

Though we were smart enough to grab lunch beforehand at a nearby bar and grill, my friend and media buddy Phil Harvey and I were only vaguely aware of the fact that the doors to the stadium weren’t going to open until 5:30 p.m., two hours before the scheduled game start, something we hadn’t really counted on when we drove over to park at 2 p.m. Our thoughts of being able to wander around and check out tailgate parties — or the underpublicized outdoor “festival” being put on by the NCAA and its sponsors — were negated by the chilling, biting wind, which whipped mercilessly throughout the acres of parking lots surrounding the stadium.

Like many others that day, we wound up spending some unplanned shopping time in the nearby Walmart, mainly to get out of the chill. We also ended up being frustrated with thousands of our newest closest friends, when the ticket gates apparently opened at 4:30 — only to find ourselves “in” the event (having gone through security and ticket checking) but still outside the doors, jammed onto the outdoor patios where we had to wait for another hour. The only good part of being crushed cheek to jowl is that being packed together did help keep all of us somewhat warmer.

Bargains available at the AT&T Stadium Walmart.

Bargains available at the AT&T Stadium Walmart.

Sure, we should have been smarter and maybe asked more questions beforehand but during the hours of unpleasantness all I could think of was why someone from the game or venue wasn’t outside watching what was going on, or doing anything to help rectify the situation. Even a simple official message of “we aren’t opening the doors for two more hours — here are a list of nearby restaurants you can walk to” would have been extremely helpful advice.

Maybe the CFP game was an outlier situation — lots of people who had never been to the venue before — but I’m guessing the situation isn’t that unique, especially for “big” events like playoffs or championships. And especially when it comes to extreme weather conditions, it just seems to make sense to have some kind of continually updated “at the game” news service that is well advertised and easily found, so that when a crisis situation emerges, fans know where to turn for trusted information.

Do any such services exist? Are there teams out there already doing this in a fashion that works? Let me know here, or we can have a discussion over on Twitter, where you can find me under the @PaulKaps handle.

WrestleMania 31 resets Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi record with 4.5 terabytes of data used

WrestleMania 31 at Levi's Stadium, March 29, 2015. Credit all images: 49ers.com (click on any photo for a larger image)

WrestleMania 31 at Levi’s Stadium, March 29, 2015. Credit all images: 49ers.com (click on any photo for a larger image)

The biggest crowd yet at Levi’s Stadium also reset the venue’s Wi-Fi usage records, as the 76,976 fans at the March 29 WrestleMania 31 event used 4.5 terabytes of data on the in-stadium network, according to representatives from the San Francisco 49ers, the stadium’s owner and operator.

The WrestleMania mark eclipsed the previous Wi-Fi high-water figure of 3.3 TB, recorded during the Niners’ home opener at Levi’s Stadium on Sept. 14, 2014. However, the WWE event’s record should come with a bit of an interesting asterisk, since the Niners said they built a temporary ground-level extension to the Wi-Fi network that was used by approximately 3,700 fans who were sitting in seats on the field, surrounding the WrestleMania stage. The team also put in extra Wi-Fi coverage for the three temporary seating sections that were erected in the Levi’s Stadium southeast plaza, structures that will likely be part of the configuration for Super Bowl 50 next February.

WrestleMania competition

WrestleMania competition

“We considered the event a success from a Wi-Fi standpoint considering the temporary APs served almost 4,000 people and moved a large amount of data,” said Roger Hacker, senior manager, corporate communications for the San Francisco 49ers. “We moved a significant amount of traffic all the while seeing minimal negative comments on social media.”

In a related note, it seems like beefed-up train and bus service from light rail entity VTA kept lines and waits to a minimum, even with a record number of fans also using public transportation to the event. At the very least, the Levi’s Stadium team seems to be back on a positive path after some painful lessons learned during the Feb. 21 Coors Light Stadium Series hockey game. Remember also that WWE did not want in-seat food or merchandise delivery available during the event, which proabably helped make network operations easier.

Under-seat APs and handrail antennas

According to Hacker the field-level network used 76 extra access points, with 69 on the field level itself and seven more on the field-level walls. Hacker said a combination of picocell and handrail enclosures were used for the temporary network, which was necessary since the regular stadium-bowl configuration was never designed to handle traffic for events with fans on the field level.

wm4Hacker also said the temporary network had its own switching infrastructure, with eight portable switching pods connected by both fiber and outdoor Ethernet cabling. The results from the WrestleMania event, Hacker said, will help the Niners and Levi’s Stadium staff prepare for future events with on-field seating, like the concerts scheduled for later this spring and summer.

The Niners said their goal with the WrestleMania temporary network “experiment” (which they believe to be the first ever done for a large outdoor event) was to see whether the Levi’s Stadium under-seat design could be extended to the field for temporary events “in a cost-effective, safe and repeatable manner. From what we experienced with WrestleMania 31, every indication is that we will be able to do that.”

Some more network stats from the WrestleMania 31 event:

– The peak concurrent user mark was 14,800 on the Wi-Fi network at around 8:10 p.m.

– The Wi-Fi network carried 1.61 Gbps of average continuous bandwidth from 2:20 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., also a new stadium record

– The peak bandwidth usage was 2.474 Gbps at 7:10 p.m.

– Usage on the Levi’s Stadium DAS network was not reported.

Overhead shot of Levi's Stadium during WrestleMania 31, showing on-field seating

Overhead shot of Levi’s Stadium during WrestleMania 31, showing on-field seating

Hockey crowd melted down Levi’s Stadium network and app, overwhelmed light rail

Levi's Stadium scoreboard during Stadium Series hockey game. Credit all images: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for larger image).

Levi’s Stadium scoreboard during Stadium Series hockey game. Credit all images: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for larger image).

From a financial and publicity standpoint Saturday’s Coors Light Stadium Series hockey game at Levi’s Stadium was a success, with 70,205 fans packing the football facility to watch the San Jose Sharks lose to the Los Angeles Kings, 2-1. But while the sellout crowd contributed to the general electricity that filled the venue, the mass of people also caused problems with the stadium’s vaunted wireless network, knocking out some parts of the Wi-Fi and cellular networks and overwhelming the unique feature of the stadium app designed to allow fans to have food and drinks delivered to their seats.

Hockey fans also swamped the VTA light rail system, causing some fans to wait as long as two hours before they could catch a bus or train to get home from the stadium. Though light rail officials said they will work on correcting the problems, the commuting jam does not bode well for a facility that is scheduled to host Super Bowl 50 in less than a year’s time, especially since many Super Bowl fans are expected to be traveling from San Francisco to the Santa Clara, Calif., neighborhood where Levi’s Stadium sits.

According to Roger Hacker, senior manager for corporate communications for the San Francisco 49ers, the Levi’s Stadium network team identified “isolated interruptions” of the Wi-Fi network, due to “frequency coordination issues” that the network team had not seen at previous events. Hacker also said that one unnamed wireless carrier had “issues” with its base station firmware, but said that the problems were resolved by game’s end. (For the record, I am a Verizon Wireless customer and I had “issues” getting cellular connectivity Saturday, so draw your own conclusions.)

Since the Niners’ full explanation is somewhat light on facts and numbers, we will first offer a “fan’s view” of the events Saturday night, under the caveat that Mobile Sports Report was not attending the game as press, but instead as just a regular hockey fan (one who purchased two full-price tickets) who was looking forward to using the stadium’s technology to enhance the game experience. Unfortunately for this fan, the Levi’s Stadium network, app and transit services all fell down on the job.

Light show a dud

Though the MSR team had no problems getting to the stadium — our light rail train out of Mountain View at about 5:30 p.m. was relatively empty — I noticed some irregularities in network connections during the pregame ceremonies, when I tried to join in the fan-participation light show, a technology feature recently added to the Levi’s Stadium app especially for the Stadium Series game. Like many people in our area, I couldn’t get the app to work, leaving me staring at a spinning graphic while others in the stadium saw their phones contribute flashing lights during pre-game music.

After the light show segment ended, I noticed that the Levi’s app was performing erratically, quitting on its own and kicking my device off the Wi-Fi network. After rebooting the device (a new Apple iPhone 6 Plus) I still couldn’t connect to the Wi-Fi, an experience I’ve never had at Levi’s. Turning off the Wi-Fi didn’t help, as cellular service also seemed poor. Since I wasn’t really there to work — I just wanted to enjoy the game with my older brother, who was in town for the event — I posted a quick tweet and went back to just watching the Sharks play poorly for the first 20 minutes.

One of the benefits of being a close follower of Levi’s Stadium technology is that when you tweet, people listen. By the middle of the first intermission, I was visited personally by Anoop Nagwani, the new head of the Levi’s Stadium network team, along with a technician from Aruba Networks, the Wi-Fi gear supplier at the stadium. Even with laptops and scanners, my visitors couldn’t immediately discern the network problem; they were, however, visited by a number of other nearby fans, who figured out who they were and relayed their own networking problems to them.

To be clear: I didn’t spend the game as I usually do at Levi’s, wandering around to see how the network is performing at as many spots as I can. But even if the outage was only in our area, that’s a significant problem for Levi’s Stadium, which has touted its technology every chance it gets. I also noticed problems with cellular connectivity all night, which leads me to believe that the network issues were more widespread than just at my seating area.

The official statement from Hacker describing the problems doesn’t pin any specific blame, but a guess from us is that perhaps something in the mix of systems used by the entertainment performers (there was a small stage to one side of the rink where musicians performed) and media new to the facility caused the Wi-Fi problem. Here is the official statement on the Wi-Fi issues:

The Levi’s Stadium network team identified isolated interruptions of the WiFi system in specific sections on Saturday night due to frequency coordination issues previously unseen at the venue and unique to this event. Saturday’s event featured extra radio systems not typical to previous stadium events, some of which were found to be unauthorized by event frequency coordinators. To avoid similar situations in the future, Levi’s Stadium management will be initiating additional frequency control protocols for all events.

Hacker said the network team did not track exactly how widespread the outages were, so could not provide a number of fans affected. But enough apparently did connect, since according to Hacker, the Levi’s network saw near-record traffic Saturday night, with a total of 3.0 terabytes of data carried, second only to the season-opening Niners game back in September, which saw 3.3 TB of data used on the Wi-Fi. Hacker said there were 24,792 unique devices connected to Wi-Fi during Saturday’s event, with a peak concurrent user number of 17,400 users, also second highest behind the season-opener total of 19,0000. The Stadium Series game did set a new mark for throughput with 3.5 Gbps on the network just before the start of the game, a surge that seems to be behind some of the other problems.

Food ordering overwhelmed

During the intermission, my brother and I went out on the 300-level concourse to get something to eat and drink — and encountered one of the untold stories of Levi’s Stadium: the incredibly long and slow lines for concessions. While I haven’t researched this problem in depth, after 10 minutes of inertia in our line I told my brother I would use the app’s food and drink ordering function to get us some vittles and beverages. Finally able to connect via Wi-Fi while on the concourse I placed an order for two beers and two hot dogs, and didn’t worry that the delivery time was 20 minutes. That would put it at the very latest near the end of the second period, which was fine by me since it meant I didn’t have to wait in lines. Or so I thought.

Back in my seat, I was troubled by the fact that even halfway through the period, the app had not switched yet from ordered to “en route.” I also got some error messages I had never seen at Levi’s Stadium before:

When the period ended and there was still no movement from the app (which I only checked sporadically since Wi-Fi never fully connected in my seat), I went back on the concourse where I found a small, angry crowd around the food-runner window at the closest concession stand. Pretty much, everyone there had the same problem I had: We’d ordered food and the app had said that the order had been taken, but nothing had happened since then.

Fans trying to figure out why their food orders weren't delivered

Fans trying to figure out why their food orders weren’t delivered

The situation wasn’t good since nobody at the food-runner window had any technology that would allow them to communicate with the app or network team; they couldn’t even cancel orders or make sure credit card refunds would be processed, which only served to increase the frustration for the fans who were just trying to use the services as advertised.

In the end, the staff at the delivery window did the best they could — which at one point resulted in someone producing slips of paper which the waiting fans used to write down their orders; one staffer then tried to fulfill those orders as best he could, going to the concession stand and bringing them out one by one. After waiting nearly the full intermission (missing Melissa Etheridge) I was given two cold hot dogs and two draft beers. Since there were no food holders left at the stand, I had to put the hot dogs into my jacket pockets and hold both beers. At least I didn’t starve or go thirsty, but it was a far cry from the delivered-to-the-seat functionality I had raved about to my brother that simply didn’t materialize.

During this process I sent an email to Louise Callagy, vice president of marketing at stadium app developer VenueNext. Her in-game response was:

“Levi’s Stadium app usage exceeded any previous event and set new records, causing delivery and order fulfillment delays. As always, we will do a post mortem after the event, and make the necessary adjustments to operational and staffing support, including systems performance analysis. We apologize to any fans who were inconvenienced.”

According to Hacker, the Levi’s Stadium food-runner staffing was at the same level as a regular-season Niners’ game; however, Hacker said the hockey fans broke the previous ordering records before the first period was over. Here is the official statement on the food ordering snafu:

With more than 31,000 new downloads of the Levi’s Stadium App – 20 percent more than had ever been seen at any previous stadium event – the [food ordering] system experienced 50 percent higher order volume in the just first hour of the game than had been seen during any previous event. The dramatic increase led to the extended wait times and cancelled orders experienced by some fans.

In a separate email, Hacker did not provide an exact number for how many fans were represented by the term “some,” but he did confirm that “no customers were charged for unfulfilled orders.”

Still, the system shouldn’t have had any unfulfilled orders, at least not according to the Niners’ consistent hype of the network and the app. Remember, Niners officials had long been confident that their network would be able to stand up to any load. Such was not the case Saturday night.

The long wait home

VTA line following Levi's Stadium hockey game

VTA line following Levi’s Stadium hockey game

After an exciting third period and a game that went down to the final horn, we left the stadium and were immediately greeted by a mass of people packing in to the VTA departure area. With too many people and not enough trains and buses, we spent almost an hour moving like slow cattle until we eventually got on a train to Mountain View. We considered ourselves lucky, since it looked like the folks heading south on VTA were in for an even longer wait.

When we got to the Mountain View station, we waited almost another hour to leave since Caltrain (nicely) kept its last train at the station until two more VTA trains brought the stragglers in from Levi’s. Though VTA has since claimed there were more than twice the “normal” number of riders than it saw at Niners games this season, there was no explanation why VTA didn’t or couldn’t provide more capacity after it saw more fans use the service to get to the game. What was most unpleasant was the overall unorganized method of boarding the trains, just a massive group line with one VTA person on a bullhorn telling everyone to make sure they bought a ticket.

In the end, the time it took to get from the start of the VTA line to my house in San Mateo was three hours — almost as long as the game itself. With some other “special” events like Wrestlemania and concerts coming up at Levi’s and the Super Bowl 50 next year, it’s clear there is lots of work that needs to be done to make it a good experience for all who purchase a ticket, especially those looking to use public transport and the app features to enhance their game-day experience.

Sharks and Kings on the ice at Levi's Stadium

Sharks and Kings on the ice at Levi’s Stadium

New Atlanta football stadium picks IBM as lead technology integrator

New Atlanta football stadium under construction. Credit all images: New Atlanta Stadium

New Atlanta football stadium under construction. Credit all images: New Atlanta Stadium

The yet-to-be named new football stadium under construction in Atlanta has selected IBM as its lead technology integrator, somewhat officially welcoming the new 800-pound gorilla to the stadium technology marketplace.

While computing giant IBM has dabbled in sports deployments before — mainly contributing technology as part of its corporate sponsorship of events like The Masters in golf and the U.S. Open for tennis — only recently has Big Blue gotten into the large-venue technology integration game. And while IBM’s recent deal as technology integrator for the revamp of Texas A&M’s Kyle Field was probably its true debut, for the new Atlanta stadium IBM will lead the selection, design and deployment of a wide range of technologies, including but not limited to the core Wi-Fi and DAS networks that will provide in-venue wireless connectivity.

Due to open in March of 2017, the new $1.4 billion stadium is expected to hold 71,000 fans for football, and up to 83,000 fans for other events like basketball or concerts. And while soccer and concerts and basketball will certainly be part of its events schedule, the NFL Atlanta Falcons and owner Arthur Blank are driving the bus on the new building, picking IBM in part to help satisfy a desire to build a venue that will be second to none when it comes to fan experience.

IBM’s size and experience a draw for Atlanta

Interior stadium design rendering

Interior stadium design rendering

In addition to Wi-Fi and DAS network buildouts, IBM will design systems to control the expected 2,000-plus digital displays in the planned stadium and will also oversee other technology-related parts of the stadium, including video security, physical door controls and a video intercom system, according to an announcement made today. IBM will also partner with the stadium owners to develop as yet-undetermined applications to “leverage the power of mobility to create a highly contextual, more personalized game day experience for fans, all through the integration of analytics, mobile, social, security and cloud technologies.”

In a phone interview Thursday, Jared Miller, chief technology officer for Blank’s namesake AMB Sports and Entertainment (AMBSE) group, said IBM’s depth and breadth in technology, applications and design made it a somewhat easy choice as lead technology partner.

Miller said the stadium developers looked at the number of different technology systems that would exist within the building, and ideally wanted to identify a single partner to help build and control them all, instead of multiple providers who might just have a single “silo” of expertise.

Proposed stadium exterior

Proposed stadium exterior

“IBM is unique with its span of technology footprint,” Miller said. He also cited IBM’s ability to not just deploy technology but to also help determine what the technology could be used for, with analytics and application design.

“They’ve looked at the [stadium] opportunity in a different manner, thinking about what we could do with the network once it’s built,” Miller said.

IBM, which also has a sizable consulting business, created a group targeting “interactive experiences” about two years ago, according to Shannon Miller, the North America Fan Experience Lead for the IBM Interactive Experience group. Miller (no relation to Jared Miller), also interviewed by phone Thursday, said IBM had been working with Arthur Blank and the Falcons for more than a year to determine how to make the new stadium “the best fan experience in the world.”

And while IBM is somewhat of a newcomer to the stadium-technology integration game, IBM’s Miller said the company not only understands “how to make digital and physical work together,” but also has resources in areas including innovation, technology development and design that smaller firms may not have. And while the Kyle Field project was ambitious, IBM’s Miller said the Atlanta operation will be much bigger.

“The size and scale of what we’re going to do [in Atlanta] will be unique,” he said.

No suppliers picked yet for Wi-Fi or DAS

For industry watchers, IBM and the Falcons team have not yet picked technology suppliers for discrete parts of the coming wireless network, such as Wi-Fi access points and DAS gear. (Daktronics has already been announced as the supplier of the new planned Halo Screen video board.) But those vendor decisions will likely be coming soon, since the stadium is under a hard deadline to open for the first game of the Major League Soccer season in March of 2017.

“We’re working fast and furious on design, and we want to identify [the gear suppliers] as early as possible,” said AMBSE’s Miller.

IBM and AMBSE did announce that the stadium’s network will be fiber-based, and will probably use Corning as a fiber and Passive Optical Network (PON) technology provider, though that choice was not announced or confirmed. IBM and Corning partnered to install a fiber network core for Wi-Fi and DAS at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, believed to be the first large fiber network in a large stadium anywhere.

The Atlanta deal puts IBM solidly into the rapidly expanding field of stadium technology integration, which includes companies like CDW (which led network deployments at the University of Nebraska and the University of Phoenix Stadium) as well as stadium ownership groups, like the San Francisco 49ers, and technology name sponsors like AT&T, which has partnered with owners for technology and network deployments at venues like AT&T Park and AT&T Stadium.

Overhead view

Overhead view