December 20, 2014

Stadium Tech Report: Levi’s Stadium network lives up to hype, but team app still needs work

Levi's Stadium from Section 244. All photos: Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report

Levi’s Stadium from Section 244. All photos: Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report

At the very least San Francisco 49ers fans Sunday could take heart in the fact that the wireless network in Levi’s Stadium largely lived up to its advance billing, performing quite well even as the team on the field sputtered and failed to connect. In its first “real” test with an almost-full house on Sunday the Levi’s Wi-Fi and cellular networks seemed to work well throughout the game, delivering solid speed test results from almost every part of the new 68,500-seat facility, even as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49ers were dealt a 34-0 preseason drubbing by Peyton Manning and the visiting Denver Broncos.

And just like the team, the Niners’ stadium technology lineup still has some weak spots that will hopefully be fixed before the regular season home opener on Sept. 14. Among the disappointments Sunday was a no-show by the highly heralded instant replay feature, the crown jewel of the new Levi’s Stadium app. We also experienced some location-connection problems with one of our devices, exposing what we consider a flaw in the Levi’s app, namely an over-reliance on location technologies to enable key parts of the app, like wayfinding and on-site video streaming.

Ticket scanner with Niners visor to block sun

Ticket scanner with Niners visor to block sun

Some other not-so-advanced technology flaws that could use fine-tuning include the volume level on the main stadium public-address and announcing system, which was so loud that it made it a struggle just to talk to the person next to you for long stretches of time. The ticket scanning machines also seemed to have issues working in the bright sunlight, a problem that found a low-tech fix when ticket personnel placed Niners’ visors around the tops of the machines to shade the scanning area. And many concession stands around the stadium were unable to serve guests or could only take cash because the staff operating the stands said they weren’t given access codes to the point-of-sale systems.

Overall, however, the first football game at Levi’s was a success on many levels, including the fantastic sight lines available from most seats and largely incident-free travel and parking operations, with noticed improvements especially on the VTA light rail front that struggled mightily during the stadium’s opening-event soccer game two weekends ago. Most fans also probably got a little weight loss from the no extra-charge sauna situation, thanks to the cloudless day and bright sun that bathed most of the seats in searing heat for long times after the 1 p.m. start.

Smooth start for early VTA riders

What follows here is a somewhat minute-by-minute account of my trip to the game, and my experience with the network and stadium operations on site.

Mtn View lot sign, not in operation at 9:30 a.m.

Mtn View lot sign, not in operation at 9:30 a.m.

Since I wasn’t given press access to the game, Mobile Sports Report attended like a regular fan, purchasing a single ticket through the NFL Ticket Exchange service on the 49ers’ web site. My plan to get to Levi’s from San Mateo was to drive to downtown Mountain View, park there and take VTA the rest of the way. (I didn’t take CalTrain mainly because I didn’t want to have to sync my return schedule with the CalTrain options going northbound on Sunday.)

Though I was somewhat incredulous about having to buy tickets online — VTA said that the ticket machines in Mountain View would be shut down Sunday to keep big lines from forming — upon further review the VTA app was slick and easy to operate and understand. After purchasing a ticket for $6.50 Saturday night I activated it Sunday, and showed it at the gate where they checked boarding passes. For people who didn’t have tickets there was a tent set up where they could buy a pre-loaded Clipper card for $10 good for a day’s worth of VTA riding. There was an abundance of VTA workers on hand, as well as a large and very obvious police presence. As a nice touch there was also a large bank of porta-potties, and behind the trains there were express buses waiting, according to one VTA employee, in case of crowd overloads.

“We learned some lessons from two weeks ago,” he said.

If there was a glitch in the VTA operations it was with the city of Mountain View — though a couple city lots were designated as places where fans could buy all-day parking passes, and there were clear signs to those lots, at 9:30 a.m. those lots were not yet staffed with anyone to pay; MSR found one sign leaning up against a post, waiting to be deployed. Fans could also park in the CalTrain lot for $5, payable via the CalTrain track podium ticket machines.

Fans transferring from CalTrain to VTA at Mtn View station

Fans transferring from CalTrain to VTA at Mtn View station

I boarded the first VTA train to leave for the stadium, along with many fans who had just gotten off CalTrain. The pleasant, air-conditioned trip took just 27 minutes, passing many Silicon Valley company headquarters and one neighborhood with “no parking here” patrols before stopping pretty much right at the Levi’s Stadium entrance. A few steps later I was in the parking lot, and took the first of many Wi-Fi speed tests and got a signal of 29 Mbps download and 23 Mbps upload, a good sign for network operations.

Looking for Wi-Fi, finding lots of it

DAS antenna in "Faithful Mile" area

DAS antenna in “Faithful Mile” area

Once inside the gates — and past the shaded scanners — I started speed testing in earnest, with the two devices I brought with me: A Motorola Droid 4 on Verizon, and a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 on AT&T. While waiting for the main stadium gates to open at 11 a.m. I got the weakest Wi-Fi signals of the day along the “Faithful Mile” area where promotional booths from sponsors kept early arrivers entertained. Wi-Fi on both devices out there only hit 2 to 3 Mbps on the download, while cell signals on both devices were in the 6-7 Mbps download range. Since I could see multiple DAS radios in the area but not any Wi-Fi access points I wasn’t too surprised; but it was an unusual area not to be blanketed with Wi-Fi, especially since there was good access a couple hundred yards away in the parking lots.

After finally entering the stadium proper, I ran into Niners president Paraag Marathe — who said he was “nervously excited,” and looked ready to start sweating in his suit and tie. “We’ve just got to make sure everything works today,” Marathe said, shaking my hand. Then I went up the escalator and saw the “Kezar pub,” an open-air bar filling the top area above the Intel gate. There, draft beers like Shock Top and Goose Island IPA were available for $11, and bottled beers available for $10.25.

As I started walking around the outside concourse I took my first speed test in the stadium and it blew the needle off the edge: 57.92 Mbps download, 41.00 Mbps upload.

A few minutes later on the inside concourse (where most of the concession stands are) I hit 27.85 Mbps/21.34 Mbps, still impressive. Then I tried to launch the app, and — problem. Apparently the device wasn’t connecting because it wouldn’t show my location on the wayfinding app. Luckily, right in front of me was Racquel, one of the “NiNerds,” the team’s new staff of technical experts who are there to help fans make the app work. But Racquel couldn’t solve my problem, even after we both tried turning on all location services, including Bluetooth.

Racquel the NiNerd

Racquel the NiNerd

“I can try to find another NiNerd who might know more about this device,” offered Racquel, who was visibly dismayed at her failure to help solve my problem. Instead, I moved on, hoping that the problem would solve itself later. But it didn’t.

Failure to locate… and other app problems

After downloading the Levi’s app to both devices over the weekend, I noticed that the first item on the app list of functions — Tickets — required me to “sign in” with my “Stadium Ticket Account,” something I didn’t have and didn’t know how to get. I did figure out how to enter my purchased seat location (which I could have used to order food to my seat, or for the express pick-up option), but I could never get the location feature to work on the Samsung device, which kept me from being able to see the live streaming TV option (I kept getting a message that said, “You must be at the stadium to play this video”). I was able to watch the live TV option on the Motorola device, after turing on location services. But for both devices — and, as it turns out, for everyone in the stadium — the final feature on the app, Game Center, where we were supposed to be able to see all the instant replays we could handle, remained labeled “coming soon.”

Finally sitting in my most excellent seat — section 244, row 3, seat 17 — I noticed that the Motorola device could no longer connect to Wi-Fi, even as the Samsung device was hitting marks in the 15-16 Mbps range. I started tweeting about the problem, and instead of a NiNerd coming to help me I got a personal visit from the Levi’s version of a Jedi Master, namely Dan Williams, the team’s vice president of technology. (Never underestimate the power of a complaining tweet!)

Niners VP of technology Dan Williams attempts to fix my Droid 4 Wi-Fi issues (while trying not to laugh at the fact that I actually have and use a Droid 4)

Niners VP of technology Dan Williams attempts to fix my Droid 4 Wi-Fi issues (while trying not to laugh at the fact that I actually have and use a Droid 4)

On my own, I had guessed that the Droid’s inability to connect came from its having only a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi radio. If you’re not familiar with Wi-Fi networks, the 2.4 GHz band of unlicensed airwaves is what most first-generation Wi-Fi networks used; more recent devices are able to also use the 5 GHz band of unlicensed airwaves, which simply offer more channels and more bandwidth. The iPhone 5s, for example, mainly uses 5 GHz for Wi-Fi, as does my Samsung Note.

In scanning the available Wi-Fi networks, I had also noticed something else that I thought could be gumming up the Droid’s connection — a bunch of personal Wi-Fi hotspots in the immediate area, including several labeled as GoPro cameras. After curiously examining my Droid 4 — and its slide-out keyboard — Williams and a technician from Wi-Fi gear provider Aruba Networks concurred that my device was getting bogged down in the 2.4 GHz mess, and also wasn’t refreshing the available networks list, a device-specific problem.

Bottom line? Levi’s is no country for old phones.

Initial verdict: Wi-Fi and cellular is world class… but app needs work

After staying into the third quarter — and visiting another friend in section 109, where I got another hefty Wi-Fi speed test (24.42/25.39 Mbps) — I followed the lead of many fans and took an early leave of Levi’s, which meant no lines at the VTA trains and just a couple short delays due to track congestion that stretched the return train trip to 40 minutes. Overall, my travel to and from the stadium from San Mateo took just over an hour each way, a happy stat to report.

My initial verdict is that the Wi-Fi and DAS (cellular) networks delivered as promised, with solid speeds all around the stadium every time I checked. It’s no small accomplishment just to deliver such world-class service to such a crowded space, especially in the middle of Silicon Valley. True to its roots, the crowd Sunday was device-happy, with many iPads and GoPros being carried around as video cameras, in addition to all the phones that were in constant use. It’s a tribute to Williams and his staff, as well as the technology suppliers like Aruba, Brocade, Comcast (backbone bandwidth supplier) and DAS Group Professionals, who built the distributed antenna system (DAS) which brings advanced cellular connectivity inside the gates, to have built a solid network that worked well on its first big test.

The team app, however, did not even come close to living up to its advanced billing. To equal the network I think the app needs more advance instructions, especially on the ticketing/registration options as well as on the location services needed to make everything work. And until we see the multiple-camera angle live replays in action, to me the app is an incomplete project. The good news is, the Niners and their technology teams have several weeks to make improvements, including another preseason game Aug. 24 against the San Diego Chargers.

It’d also be helpful for the team to reach out a bit more to the VTA and players like the City of Mountain View, since the VTA site maps and Mountain View’s parking maps are far from what you would call “advanced design.” I think it’s up to the Niners to help pay for improvements to the city and transportation entities’ technology offerings, simply because of the burden placed on those operators by the fans going to Niners’ games. At the very least, more links from football to getting-there operations seems in order, instead of trusting that all parts of the operation will work in sync.

VTA lines going home

VTA lines going home

Who’s up for a Levi’s Stadium SpeedTest?

Friends and fans of Mobile Sports Report who are planning to attend Sunday’s first football game at Levi’s Stadium — how about helping us out by taking a network speed test to see if the facility’s much-touted wireless network really delivers as planned?

Ookla Speedtest in action

Ookla Speedtest in action

Mobile Sports Report will be in the house Sunday, and we will do our best to walk around as much of the stadium as we can, testing network speeds and app performance along the way. But nothing beats more results, and if you’re not familiar with how to do a network speed test, it’s pretty easy. Just go to Speedtest.net, run by Ookla, and either click “begin test” or even better yet from a mobile device, download the Speedtest app and do the same thing.

When the test is running you’ll get a little meter showing how fast the download and upload speeds are. I think the best method for sharing is to tweet the results — you can do so either by going to the “results” page on Speedtest.net or on the app, and share via Twitter from there, or maybe better yet just post a tweet with the results, along with the time of day and what part of the stadium you’re in. Also note whether you are using the stadium’s Wi-Fi network or just using a cellular connection. Both should work quite well, but it could be interesting to see if one works better than the other during a packed-house event.

If you don’t want to run a Speedtest, even tweeting about general network performance (good, slow, no connection) would be worthwhile, as would be any info about long or short concession lines, problems or smooth ways to get into the park, etc. If everyone uses the hashtag #Levinet I’ll round up as many as possible and put them in a blog post. (My Twitter handle is @PaulKaps if you want to follow my tests Sunday.)

We’ll try to organize group speed tests at as many games as we can get to this fall — again, the more results the better the idea we will have about how the new Levi’s Stadium is or isn’t performing.

UPDATE: Interesting tweet late Friday night from Dan Williams, the man whose job it is to make sure the network works…

Have to say I agree with Dan’s point that measuring pure speed via SpeedTest in a bit of a vacuum may not be an optimal grade. But I do like its ability to show whether things wireless are working or not… anyone with a better idea, we’re all ears… or browsers…

Bonus: KQED reporter Molly Samuel interviewed yours truly for a Marketplace radio segment on Levi’s, embedded below. Enjoy!

NFL playoff expansion on hold

Playoff games will be a bit more spread around this post season in the NFL as NBC will be adding a divisional round game and ESPN will be getting a Wild Card game. The ESPN game will be also broadcast over the air in the cities of the two teams that are playing.

Meanwhile the talk of expansion of the playoffs looks like it has been delayed, at least in the near term. NY Giants team president John Mara spoke to Newsday and said that he believed that the earliest additional post season games would be added would be in 2015. Commissioner Goodell had been pushing for this year.

NFL Players to land Tweet deal
Fans quite often follow their favorite athletes on Twitter, or at least ones that might make outspoken or interesting statements. Well now they may say something along the lines of “This Tweet brought to you by…”

A deal between the NFL Players Inc. and digital marketing company Opendorse will work to get endorsement deals for players who will be paid to tout the products via Twitter. According to Sports Business Journal Opendorse has already signed 200 players.

Top NFL Draft misses?
One of the byproducts of the huge NFL mock draft industry is that it sometimes makes some glaring mistakes. I think that most fans have a love/hate relationship with top online and broadcast mock drafters and really enjoy bringing up this topic.

Awful Announcing has complied just that type of list and leads off a historcial gem with Mel Kiper saying that JaMarcus Russell, the Oakland Raiders top draft selection in 2007 is the next John Elway. It just gets better after that but a few I was hoping to see did not make the cut, which may say something about the number of mock draft failures.

World Cup teams have needs too
Who knew that World Cup teams had demands that will most likely force rock stars to improve their game when it comes to making demands from the hotels where the teams stay. Kosher meat, fresh bananas from your native country and only liquid soap, none of that old fashion bar soap, which is apparently not good enough for the French.

According to SB Nation many are demanding the televisions carry broadcasts from home with Honduras demanding six Spanish speaking stations. Japan needs a Jacuzzi in every room. And I thought that Van Halen was demanding because they did not want brown M&Ms.

NBC and NHL provide TV Everywhere for Stanley Cup Playoffs

lords

The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here and the NHL, along with its playoff broadcast partners are using a variety of mobile and digital strategies and programs to engage fans including streaming broadcasts of the games.

The highlights are probably having all of the games presented nationally across the platforms of the NBC Sports Group for the third year in a row and for the second consecutive year NBC Sports Live Extra will stream every game live. To fans that closely follow the games this might not be a surprise but for the casual fan this could be news.

The live streaming will reach a variety of devices that have downloaded the NBC Sports Live Extra app and can stream the events as they are shown on NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC. It will work with desktop and laptop PCs to tablets and smartphones as long as they are authenticated customers.

This is part of the growing push for “TV Everywhere” partnerships between cable providers, networks and sports leagues that all are starting to promote more aggressively. CBS and Turner Sports along with the NCAA saw strong online viewership growth for the recently concluded March Madness even when broadcast viewership slightly declined; and NBC’s push with cable partners during the Winter Olympics also produced large digital audiences. (Editor’s note: So maybe finally broadcasters are really realizing that online audiences are additive, not subtractive ones. Huzzah.)

In addition there will be a stronger social media push for this year’s playoffs including a very interesting deal with Magisto called Making Stanley Cup Movie Magic with Magisto. Magisto is a video creation and sharing app for both Android and Apple platforms and it will enable fans to create movies about experiences and events at the game such as the Blackhawks’ I Was There promotion.

The NHL and CBS are taking an interesting turn at Twitter as well this season. The @NHLonNBCSports twitter account will be handled by a variety of celebrity guests including CBS personalities, ex-players and celebrity hockey fans over the course of the playoffs.

That is just part of its much larger social campaign that also includes the basic news for the playoffs at #StanleyCup, an effort to highlight fans through photos that at #CelebrateStanley Photo Campaign for the Fans and the news and information site of NHL on NBC All-Access Social Media that is located at NBCSports.com/NHLonNBC.

It appears that select sports leagues and networks are increasingly coming to the realization that as an increasing number of fans are also cutting the cord to broadcast and cable TV the best was to reach them is via mobile digital media and programs like these from the NHL and NBC seem like the right approach to encourage that engagement.

(Editor’s second note: Not EVERY game is being shown live, there are still local blackouts… look what we got when we tried to tune in San Jose – LA:)

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 10.19.07 PM

New app features, streaming opportunities for March Madness

bracket

The NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball tournament, or as it is better known March Madness, has already started but there is still time for those that wait until the 13th hour to get their act together to both follow the tournament as a fan and your bracket as, well also a fan.

First and foremost is watching and following the games and Turner Sports, along with NCAA.com and CBS Sports have simplified that by making all of the games available online, with some requirements for the viewer. You can go to the March Madness main page for more information; the key is finding the “Select TV provider” button in the upper left corner as you must have a qualifying TV service contract to watch online. The effort by Turner et al may shake up how future major sporting events are broadcast and garnered solid reviews in Fast Company. There is also a twist for the Final Four television coverage, where there will be separate announcing teams on alternative Turner channels. The SI roundup has a good description of what’s going on, television-wise.

Pretty much any newspaper, blog, web site and sports channel has a contest, ranging from billionaire Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans’ offer to pay $1 billion to anybody that picks all 64 winners to local office and bar pools.

The next games start Thursday and many pools allow you to enter up until just before tipoff of that round. If you are looking around for something that is not in the mainstream but will connect you to everybody that you might want to chart with, or talk trash with.

An app launching in support of the iPad in time for the tournament is called FanKave, and it functions much like you might imagine. You enter a ‘Kave’ for each game and can talk, both online and using voice, with friends or rivals while receiving play-by-play results. A nice feature is that from a Kave a fan can post to a variety of social media sites such as Facebook without needed to open a separate app for that.

The app supports more than simply the basketball tournament, with the NFL, NBA and NCAA football available now and MLB and FIFA World Cup 2014 expected soon. It is currently available only on the iPad platform but its developers said that iPhone and Android versions are expected soon.

A more established mobile app called theScore is also trying to make hay while the tournament’s sun shines by adding a number of additional features that revolve around March Madness. Among the new features is an ‘upset tracker’ that uses push notification to let users know that an underdog is leading with 5:00 minutes in the game.

There are plenty of established apps as well and pretty much everybody I know has multiple ones to follow both the tournament but also teams that they are interested in. Checking out specific schools can get you apps that (sometimes) enable you to closely follow the team’s progress through the tournament.

NBC’s own Twitter feed ‘spoils’ its live online video stream during Sochi super-G

Screen shot of NBC live stream video with Twitter window to right.

Screen shot of NBC live stream video with Twitter window to right (click for larger image).

Even though American skiers Andrew Weibrecht and Bode Miller were fast enough to win medals in the super-G Sunday in Russia, it was Twitter outpacing NBC to the finish line during the broadcaster’s live streaming coverage from the Sochi Olympics.

If you were up late in the U.S. watching the live online coverage via NBC’s Live Extra service, you could also see a window with “experts” Twitter feeds to the right of the video screen. As the super-G progressed, and as racers challenged Miller’s once-leading time, you could see race results being tweeted before they were shown via the “live” video. The spoiler effect got some Twitter users and live-stream watchers angry, and they took out their frustrations on the reporters whose tweets were being shown in NBC’s official window.

In a very unofficial review yours truly has noticed that NBC is jamming a lot more commercial breaks into the online streams than they did at the start of the games — the first night of action I watched online (men’s DH) had very few commercials breaks. The super-G coverage on Sunday/Saturday, however, had numerous commercial inserts, many right before racers were about to ski. There were also some buffering and streaming hiccups, which may be a result of my own connection and not NBC’s fault. Maybe it’s hard to blame NBC for the lure of trying to pump more advertising in; according to NBC press releases that come along almost daily now, the live streams are extremely popular and will probably become more so as the big-ticket events like men’s hockey and women’s figure skating get seriously underway.

Viewers expressing frustration at Twitter feed outpacing video

Viewers expressing frustration at Twitter feed outpacing video

But at some point during the super-G, because of the ads or because of physics, the Twitter feed on NBC’s page got well ahead of the event, and I had to resort to the full-screen option to keep the Twitter feed from playing spoiler. While we have messages and emails out to the reporters/tweeters and NBC to try and figure out the particulars, we can pretty much guess what happened — NBC probably had no buffer or filter in place at all, and the speed of 140 characters is going to beat video bits (which need encoding to traverse the interwebs) every time.

It is most likely an early-days problem of trying to do something ambitious like live stream every event, an undertaking NBC should be commended for. But with all the resources at its disposal and all its social media savvy, NBC should have forseen this kind of glitch. In this age of reporters tweeting from events there is always the problem of Twitter moving faster than even official broadcasts — but you rarely see a network spoil its own show with official Tweets that move faster than its own “live” video.

For us here at MSR it’s a glitch we can live with, since efforts to stymie the speed of Twitter are as futile as they are worthless. The easy solution will be to restrict or delay the Twitter feed, which will cripple the instant-feedback usefulness of Twitter. More live Twitter and more live video is what we say. But the glitch is also evidence that the desire to blend video and social media on the same viewing page may not always produce the results you are looking for. Maybe better design is the answer?

And sorry if we are playing spoiler for NBC’s prime time show later Sunday but hey, two medals in one race is pretty big news for the U.S. Ski Team, and what a killer effort from the old man Bode. And tying for a bronze — well that’s just a pretty Bode result too. And here’s an Instagram to show the proud teammates posing with the flag after their second- and third-place finishes.