August 22, 2014

Holy Terabyte! First football crowd at Levi’s Stadium uses 2.13 TB of Wi-Fi traffic, with nearly 25K fans on Wi-Fi at once

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

All those predictions about Silicon Valley people using a stadium network more than other fans? It looks like they’re true.

The network numbers are in for the first football game at Levi’s Stadium, and they are pretty amazing: According to Dan Williams, the vice president of technology for the San Francisco 49ers, the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network carried 2.13 terabytes of data during last Sunday’s preseason game, with a peak of 24,775 fans on the Wi-Fi network at the same time. Those numbers are comparable to the latest Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where according to AT&T and Verizon there was approximately 2.5 TB of data used on wireless networks.

The kicker to the Niners’ stats — they do NOT include any traffic figures from the Levi’s Stadium DAS, the distributed antenna system that is meant to provide enhanced cellular coverage in the stadium. What follows is an email Q-and-A with Williams, who kindly answered our extensive list of questions. The real question is, if Niners fans are hitting terabyte levels during preseason games, what’s going to happen when the season starts for real? And the instant replay function in the team app is live? Read on for some great insight from Williams. Additional editor’s note: The companies talked about include Aruba Networks, the provider of Wi-Fi gear; Brocade, provider of back-end networking gear and integration; DAS Group Professionals, the integrator and deployment team behind the DAS (the network of small antennas that improve in-building cellular coverage).

Mobile Sports Report: what was the peak number for simultaneous Wi-Fi connections? The average?
Dan Williams: We peaked at 24,775 (roughly 38% of attendance) concurrent connections with an average of 16,862 (roughly 25% of attendance).

MSR: When did connections spike? When did they start and then tail off?
Williams: We had two spikes, 1:02 p.m. [editor's note: kickoff was 1 p.m.] with a system wide peak of 2.3Gbps and then again at 1:53 p.m. with 1.7Gbps. We averaged more than 1Gbps for more than two hours.

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)

MSR: What was the total data tonnage on the Wi-Fi network?
Williams: We offloaded 2.13 Terabytes during the event.

MSR: What were the usage patterns with the app — which feature did people use most?
Williams: We had a great deal of usage throughout Sunday. The food ordering app usage was top of the list with ticketing being a close second while video would take third from a feature standpoint.

MSR: What are the plans with the instant replay feature… when will it be live (and can you explain why it was held back)?
Williams: We felt a lot of folks were happy with the livestream, so we wanted to focus more on a couple of core features with food ordering and ticketing a bit more at this point. Replays will be available to all by the first regular season home game.

MSR: Can you explain exactly how the location feature works… does it require Bluetooth to be on?
Williams: The location service is mainly built around low-energy Bluetooth, BLE. We have a number of beacons placed throughout the open areas and points-of-interest which allow the app to identify your location through proximity. Aruba helped us build this as well. GPS is also used but the primary resource is Bluetooth. The app prompts users to enable Bluetooth to provide improved location awareness.

One of the big screens in Levi's Stadium.

One of the big screens in Levi’s Stadium.

MSR: Can you provide any stats on the DAS performance?
Williams: The DAS held up really well. Like WiFi, we found some areas that need tuning. Unlike WiFi, the carriers protect a lot of their specific data but they have told us they are very happy with the system DGP helped us with. It is important to note our DAS and WiFi have been built to compliment each other and I think between Aruba and DGP, we did that very well. Most come here looking to connect to WiFi but our story internally has been we are going to have an awesome connectivity play regardless of medium.

MSR: Could you guys see any [more] of the 2.4 GHz issues like the one I had?
Williams: As you know, 2.4GHz is limited with non-overlapping channels so we suspect a number of legacy devices may have some problems. That said, we had a ratio of 2:1 with respects to 5GHz to 2.4GHz [usage] which shows a good deal of 2.4GHz usage. We know we still have some optimizations to do in the upper bowl and upper concourse while we continue to fine-tune the main bowl and concourse as we noticed our cell edge was weaker than expected when the stands were full. Our Aruba team did a great job capturing real-time data during the event as there is really no other way to test this stuff without a full venue. We will make some tweaks and continue to learn more from every event we host. Between Aruba, Brocade, and the 49er tech staff, we are not resting on our laurels. We know there is more to do.

Extreme, YinzCam team up for Baylor Wi-Fi and app deployment

Screen shot of proposed Baylor app

Screen shot of proposed Baylor app

When the new $260 million McLane Stadium at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, opens for this season it will have full-facility Wi-Fi and a custom mobile app, designed and deployed by a partnership between Wi-Fi gear and analytics provider Extreme Networks and app developer YinzCam.

In an announcement today, Extreme and YinzCam said fans in McLane Stadium will have access to real-time replays via the team’s new app, a functionality made possible by high-quality Wi-Fi. The network and app are expected to be live for the Baylor Bears’ first home game of the season, an Aug. 31 date with SMU. The stadium will also have a distributed antenna system (DAS) hosted by AT&T; according to Baylor, Verizon Wireless has already agreed to participate in the AT&T-hosted DAS.

While we are working on setting up an interview with the Baylor folks to hear more about their new stadium in general and their network in particular, here are some of the prepared quotes from the participants:

Pattie Orr, Vice President for Information Technology, Baylor University:

“2014 is a monumental season for Baylor University and Baylor Athletics as we officially open McLane Stadium and deliver our fans the ultimate fan experience. Using a hand-picked collection of innovative technology, Baylor fans will stay connected with the ultra-fast Wi-Fi network as well as a robust cellular distributed antenna system. Fans can direct their own mobile experience using our new Baylor In-Game application throughout the stadium.”

Norman Rice, Senior Vice President of Business Development, Extreme Networks:

“Baylor University is one of the pre-eminent academic and athletic institutions in the country and has put together one of the most exciting experiences in sports with the debut of McLane Stadium. Extreme Networks is proud to let our wireless technology extend the connectivity that fans and media consider a ‘must have’ whenever they attend a game.”

Priya Narasimhan, CEO and Founder, YinzCam:

“This is a major first in college sports. The Baylor In-Game App is pushing the envelope by being the first college athletics app to provide instant replays from multiple views to Baylor fans, right at their seats, at the new McLane Stadium.”

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

Stadium Tech Report: Read why we think MLB is the sports digital experience leader

STRQ@_thumbIs there any doubt that when it comes to the digital fan experience, Major League Baseball is in first place? That’s the way we see things, and research we did for our second quarterly long-form STADIUM TECH REPORT issue bears that opinion out. Thanks to a far-sighted strategy that kept league control over all Internet content, and some innovative, forward-thinking technology leaders at several MLB teams, baseball is ahead of all other U.S. sports when it comes to delivering a consistent, enriched fan experience through technology. But will the lead last?

You can find some of the answers to that question in the second issue in our STADIUM TECH REPORT series which you can download for free right here. If you’ve already registered with us, all you need is a username and password; if you’re new to MSR, we just need an email address and title and you’re on your way to the best long-form compilation of research and analysis, as well as in-depth interviews with industry experts in the stadium technology marketplace. We’d also like to thank our Stadium Tech Report sponsors, which for this issue inlcude Crown Castle, SOLiD, Corning, ExteNet Systems and TE Connectivity — without their support, we couldn’t make all this excellent content free for readers.

AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan

AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan

MLB tech profiles, interview with AT&T’s John Donovan

What’s in our issue #2 of STR? Glad you asked! Inside the report our editorial coverage includes:

– MLB stadium tech research: This editorial research provides a technology update on stadiums used by all 30 MLB teams, gauging the level of deployment of Wi-Fi, DAS and beaconing technologies.

– MLB tech deployment profiles: These mini-case studies will take an in-depth look at technology deployments at MLB facilities including AT&T Park in San Francisco, Target Field in Minneapolis, and Miami’s Marlins Park. This issue also includes an in-depth interview with AT&T senior executive vice president John Donovan, the man behind AT&T’s successful DAS deployment strategy.

– MSR exclusive stadium tech analysis: The report also includes MLB stadium tech analysis from MSR editor in chief Paul Kapustka, as well as a bonus mini-case study of DAS deployment at historic Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

White box at bottom is one of the under-the-seat Wi-Fi access points at AT&T Park.

White box at bottom is one of the under-the-seat Wi-Fi access points at AT&T Park.

MLB stadiums: Wi-Fi and DAS deployment is strong

Since last year, 8 more MLB teams have added fan-facing Wi-Fi to their ballparks, bringing the league total to a respectable 67 percent, with 20 out of 30 stadiums with Wi-Fi. On the distributed antenna system (DAS) front things are even better, with 25 out of 30 parks having enhanced cellular connectivity thanks to a DAS (our report currently erroneously shows that the Washington Nationals don’t have a DAS — we learned late this weekend that they do, so DAS is doing even better than we thought). Though the adoption rate is lower than that found in the NBA (where 26 of 29 stadiums have fan-facing Wi-Fi), baseball as a league does a much better visible job of promoting the service, which is more impressive when you consider that deploying Wi-Fi in an open-air arena is a considerably tougher task than in a building with a ceiling, like an NBA stadium.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the National League West Division leads the pack in MLB connectivity, with all 5 teams having both Wi-Fi and DAS deployments in their park. The adoption rate in that division may have something to do with other teams following what is perhaps the overall connected-stadium leader in any sport, AT&T Park in San Francisco. The first with Wi-Fi (since 2004), AT&T Park continues to lead in innovation and experimentation, as witnessed by their embrace of new tricks like under-the-seat Wi-Fi APs and the new iBeacon technology, which is being tested in 20 MLB parks this season.

All of this is explained in greater detail in our STADIUM TECH REPORT for Q2 2014 — so download your free copy today!

StadiumPark touts ‘EZ Pass for stadiums’ parking app idea

Screen shot of a potential StadiumPark app. Credit: StadiumPark.

Screen shot of a potential StadiumPark app. Credit: StadiumPark.

At first blush, it’s an idea so simple you wonder why it hasn’t been thought of before: Why not build a system that mimics highway EZ Pass functionality to make parking at sports events easier?

That’s the simple but powerful idea behind StadiumPark, a Rochester, N.Y. startup that has developed an app that will let fans pay for parking with their phones, in the hopes of curing one of the main pain points of live game interactions with a faster, easier experience that can benefit teams and stadium owners as well. Though StadiumPark doesn’t yet have any announced customers, it’s a good bet that before long some stadium owners and operators will take a chance on the idea, which is designed to also automatically open parking-lot gates, further reducing human overhead.

In a recent phone conversation with StadiumPark’s 26-year-old founder, Jeremy Crane, we learned the skill sets behind StadiumPark’s insights: According to Crane, part of his work background includes time spent with a large parking-lot company in Rochester that handled concerns like apartment buildings and some stadium lots. An interest in learning more about mobile parking payment systems opened Crane’s eyes to the idea of parking-payment methods other than people in vests taking cash payments through a car window.

A request from Syracuse University, Crane said, to develop an “EZ Pass type app” for parking at the school’s Carrier Dome spurred him into entrepreneurial action, and StadiumPark was born. The combination of an app (which requires users to pre-register with a credit card) and the wireless technology smarts to open parking-lot gates is the main selling point for StadiumPark, which Crane said is in discussions with several potential clients.

If the system works as advertised, it could potentially cut down on the amount of time fans spend in parking-lot lines, one of the banes of live-game attendance. For stadium owners and operators, there is an extra possible incentive of having greater control over parking payments, as well as potentially having more data on fan attendance beyond ticket sales.

“For the venue, the idea is to enable a better experience,” said Crane. “We see a clear advantage to both the stadium and the fans.”

StadiumPark’s business plan is to charge users a small convenience fee, while not charging stadiums or venues. For the system to work well it must clearly have buy-in and promotion from the arena owners and operators, to steer traffic to the StadiumPark-enabled lots. But if the quick rise in mobile parking payments for other places — like airports or shopping areas — is any indicator, a simple app that lets you park quickly and conveniently is one of the uses of technology that could probably gain rapid adoption from fans who just want to get to their seats.

Stadium Tech Report: Miami Marlins rely on ExteNet DAS to keep wireless traffic flowing

Marlins Park. Credit all photos: Miami Marlins.

Marlins Park. Credit all photos: Miami Marlins.

If you know anything about Marlins Park, maybe it’s the stadium’s unique retractable roof or the spectacular art that catches your eye. But there’s also something you can’t see that is equally exciting, at least when it comes to the in-stadium connectivity experience: A neutral-host distributed antenna system (DAS) that has more than kept pace with the rapid, continual increase in fan cellular activity.

“When it came to DAS, we were ahead of the game,” said David Enriquez, senior director of information technology for the Miami Marlins, in a recent phone interview. Well before the 37,000-seat stadium opened in 2012, Enriquez said the Marlins’ IT team was researching and planning for enhanced cellular connectivity – even before “DAS” became a hot industry acronym.

“We planned for a DAS even before they were in vogue,” said Enriquez. “We saw it as a necessary evil.”

With the iPhone and all its cataclysmic changes already in motion, Enriquez said the Marlins wanted to avoid what had happened recently at another arena that opened in the Sunshine state without good connectivity.

“What we didn’t want to see was something like what happened in Orlando, when they opened the arena [in 2010], it had bad coverage, and they were crucified in the press for bad [cellular] service,” Enriquez said. “We said, what we’d love to have is the complete opposite of that.”

David Enriquez

David Enriquez

At the opening of Marlins Park, the connectivity inside the walls was better than most, with a full-park Wi-Fi network using gear from Meru Networks and a neutral-host DAS deployed by integrator ExteNet Systems. And though Wi-Fi often gets the headlines when there is talk about stadium networks, in many facilities like Marlins Park, the DAS is an equal workhorse, since many fans still either don’t know how or don’t take the time to switch their devices over to Wi-Fi.

DAS is the workhorse

According to Enriquez, on an average night at the ballpark the Wi-Fi network will handle 40 percent of the wireless traffic, with the DAS taking care of the other 60 percent. That may be because of lack of knowledge, or perhaps satisfaction with the signal the DAS is giving them, Enriquez said.

“Early on, most people, honestly, did not know how to change [their phone] to Wi-Fi,” Enriquez said. Most fans, he added, weren’t typically streaming lots of video — they may, he said, have used the MLB At Bat app to look at a replay or two, but that could all be handled by DAS. “That trend is changing though and we are seeing much more video traffic, especially with the younger generation of guests,” Enriquez said.

Marlins Park outside

Marlins Park outside

“The truth is, many users may not take the time to switch [to Wi-Fi],” Enriquez said. “If they’re getting 4 to 5 bars on their cellular signal, they’re happy.”

Though the Marlins and ExteNet now have five major carriers on their DAS – AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile and MetroPCS (now part of T-Mobile), Enriquez said there was a bit of the chicken and egg problem at the start.

“Early on, nobody wanted to be the first on (the neutral DAS),” Enriquez said. “ We [the stadium] were just another node. Now, 3 years later, we are a central node in the Miami area and all the carriers are here. We’re a very central location.”

Staying in neutral

Enriquez, who has considerable experience in the large-venue IT world, said that having a neutral host for the DAS eliminates any potential concerns about favoritism between service providers. Even though costs to the team or stadium may be lower if they allow a carrier to take over DAS deployment, Enriquez said that for the Marlins a neutral host was worth the extra price.

“We didn’t want an advantage to be held by one carrier,” Enriquez said. Even if a carrier says it will act as a neutral host, when one carrier owns the deployment, others can “find it hard to believe there will be an equal time slice” when it comes to antenna access.

“We just wanted to avoid that, and make it irrelevant [as a concern],” Enriquez said.

The choice of bringing in an integrator like ExteNet, he said, provides an additional streamlining of operations, as there is now a single point for vendors to interact with to work out technology and deployment issues.

“We wanted to deal with one vendor – I didn’t want to be the middleman between the carriers and the Marlins,” Enriquez said. In that regard, he said, ExteNet has been “wonderful” as a neutral host. “They deal with all the carrier issues that I have no desire to deal with,” Enriquez said.

Less space needed for DAS upgrades

And even as fan cellular bandwidth use continues to grow – requiring carriers to constantly upgrade their systems – Enriquez said that DAS infrastructure is benefiting from improved technology to the point where even as carriers upgrade, their head end footprint is shrinking.

AT&T, for instance, has upgraded its DAS presence in Marlins Park four times over the past 2 years, Enriquez said, to the point where the carrier now has coverage for all four frequency bands. “They [AT&T] have done quite a bit to expand their coverage,” Enriquez said.

Still, the Marlins Park DAS head end hasn’t had to find new space beyond its original 1,500-square foot enclosure.

“Every time someone comes in to replace gear, we have a smaller [DAS] footprint,” Enriquez said. “It’s not going to eat you out of house and home anymore.”

Like other stadium IT directors, Enriquez is still surprised by the amount of wireless traffic generated by the fans who come to the games. “It’s incredible to see the need [for bandwidth” grow,” he said. “But people continue to give our network a thumbs up, we see that in our guest comments all the time. I just don’t know what we would do without the DAS.”