Stadium Tech Report: Carolina Panthers take ownership of DAS, Wi-Fi at Bank of America Stadium

James Hammond, director  of IT for the Panthers, poses next to an under-seat Wi-Fi AP. Credit all photos: Carolina Panthers

James Hammond, director of IT for the Panthers, poses next to an under-seat Wi-Fi AP. Credit all photos: Carolina Panthers

“The fan is the most valuable member of our team,” Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, is fond of saying.

And it’s become the virtual mission statement for the Charlotte, N.C.-based National Football League franchise. So even though its home field, the Bank of America Stadium, was built relatively recently (1996), technology has come a long way in two decades. And as the Panthers began a four-phase renovation in 2014, they did it with fans’ MVP status in mind, according to James Hammond, director of IT for the Panthers. “It was time for some changes,” he said.

While Carolina was among the first NFL stadiums to install fan-facing Wi-Fi and enhanced cellular networks, the previous DAS and Wi-Fi systems weren’t keeping up with demand and that was starting to adversely impact the Panthers fan experience, Hammond said.

“We chose to perform a rip-and-replace on both DAS and Wi-Fi and take ownership in-house,” Hammond explained. Because the Panthers own and operate BofA Stadium, making those moves was a lot easier than if they were tenants.

Time for an upgrade

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The first “fan-centric improvements,” as Hammond called them, came in 2014 in the form of escalators, video big boards and a distributed audio system. As part of the second phase of upgrades, the Panthers then used the 2015 offseason to renovate the club-level suites and tore out the old DAS system while they were at it. And after a careful evaluation of different DAS solutions, they shortlisted two vendors: CommScope and Corning.

CommScope ultimately got the nod; the Panthers then had to decide between the vendor’s ION-B and ION-U DAS systems. “We went with the ION-U, which was quite new and cutting edge at that point, since it had NEMA-rated remotes,” Hammond said. Other systems lacked that kind of weatherproofing and would require additional enclosures – and expense.

CommScope's ION-U powers the new DAS at Bank of America Stadium.

CommScope’s ION-U powers the new DAS at Bank of America Stadium.

“We started over with all new fiber and coax. We did the decommissioning and construction in 90 days, which was pretty quick for a ground-up project,” he said. Beam Wireless Inc. did the design, integration and optimization and is handling the ongoing maintenance of the DAS system; Optical Telecom installed the DAS gear. BofA Stadium now has 256 DAS remotes and more than 600 DAS indoor and outdoor antennas.

AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are the participating DAS carriers; T-Mobile is weighing whether to join the mix during the 2017 off-season.

The Panthers have divided BofA Stadium into 48 DAS zones: 16 zones for the upper bowl, 16 in the lower bowl, and another 16 for concourses, suites, clubs, and offices. Not all zones are used exclusively; carriers choose simulcast patterns that place multiple zones into sectors, and can change them as capacity requirements dictate, Hammond told Mobile Sports Report.

“With some minor design changes to the interior areas, we can accommodate nearly 70 zones,” he explained. “At present the most sectors in use by a carrier is 32. This means the carrier simulcasts across a mix of our 48 zones in order to match them up to 32 carrier sectors.”

Once the new DAS was built and the first couple of events were analyzed, carriers began asking for more frequencies and additional DAS sectors to continue meeting ever-growing demand. In response to the new carrier requests, the first round of DAS upgrades were implemented in the spring of 2016, Hammond said. During the 2015 season, DAS bandwidth was running around 2 GB during games. Hammond said, “With these latest DAS upgrades, we expect the bandwidth numbers to be even higher.”

A DAS remote in a NEMA-rated enclosure.

A DAS remote in a NEMA-rated enclosure.

The impact of the new DAS system was felt immediately upon its debut in July 2015. “It was a much better experience for fans who noticed the improved cellular experience,” Hammond said. Another unexpected benefit: The upgraded DAS helped mitigate bottlenecks with the old Wi-Fi system, which Hammond characterized as “under-designed.”

Going under seat for Wi-Fi upgrade

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to address any Wi-Fi upgrades before the 2015 football season began, but the Panthers issued an RFP for new Wi-Fi in August 2015 in preparation for Phase 3 renovations that would also include security upgrades and renovations to the upper concourse.

Interested vendors needed to ensure high bandwidth rates as well as high take-rates that allowed three different ISPs (Time Warner Cable/Charter, Level 3 Communications and Windstream) to deliver in excess of 10 GB, though Hammond said they’re starting at a 7-GB threshold.

The Wi-Fi award went to Aruba, now HP Enterprise, in December 2015, and construction began in January 2016 after the last postseason game, when the Panthers beat the Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC championship and a trip to Super Bowl 50.

Similar to Levi’s Stadium and the Dodgers Stadium, the Panthers chose underseat AP enclosures; BofA Stadium sports 770 AP enclosures in the upper and lower bowls out of a total of 1,225 APs, all to ensure maximum coverage and minimal dead spots. The Panthers selected AmpThink to do the Wi-Fi integration and construction; the turnkey contractor also designed and fabricated a custom enclosure for the APs.

Indoor access point inside the stadium.

Indoor access point inside the stadium.

One other innovation in the Panthers’ Wi-Fi installation is that the underseat enclosure is mounted to the riser — the vertical part of the step — but looks like it’s on the tread, the horizontal part, which is intended as a waterproofing measure. “The riser is easier to seal and isn’t affected by pressure washers, which you’re doing constantly with an outdoor stadium,” Hammond said. “And by running pipe through the riser, you don’t have gravity working against you,” which helps keep out water, he explained.

Panthers fans access the stadium Wi-Fi through a portal page after accepting the team’s terms and conditions. From there, they are whitelisted and can automatically join the Wi-Fi network for the rest of the season. Hammond said a fan’s email is requested but not required by the portal page, and there’s a small incentive offered to encourage fans’ email subscriptions.

The new Wi-Fi system got a workout with a soccer game at BofA Stadium at the end of July 2016, then with a Panthers’ Fan Fest the following week. “All the indicators were good, and fan feedback about the system was excellent,” Hammond said. But he cautioned that the two events were not “full bowl” events with smaller attendance numbers (~50,000) than a regular season football game (75,000+). “We will continue to optimize and tune settings as we learn more during events with higher attendance,” Hammond said.

Total budget so far for the technology upgrades totals about $16 million; the DAS build-out was just under $10 million; Wi-Fi was a little more than $6 million, which included additional wired infrastructure, according to the team.

Beacons coming next

And the Panthers aren’t done making technology improvements to their stadium. Phase 4 looks to add Bluetooth beacons and do some refinement of the Panthers app. “My goal during the upcoming season is to look at options for location-aware services,” Hammond said. Some APs have beacons built in; other may need to be added to get the granularity the Panthers want for location awareness.

Hammond also wants to give fans more things to do with the Panthers app and also optimize it for push notifications, even with something as basic and useful as restroom and concessions location information. “As we learn more about fans individually, we can direct them to things of particular interest to them,” he added.

“So far, we are very pleased with the performance of the Wi-Fi and DAS systems,” Hammond said, noting the Panthers will continue to tune frequencies, add zones and increase bandwidth where needed. It’s the sort of attention that smart sporting franchises pay to their most valued team members.

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Betting the Under (Part 2): Putting Wi-Fi antennas under seats is the hot new trend in stadium wireless networks

Under-seat Wi-Fi AP at Levi's Stadium. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Under-seat Wi-Fi AP at Levi’s Stadium. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Part 2 of this story picks up with the decision to put Wi-Fi APs under seats at Levi’s Stadium. If you missed it, here is the link to Part 1.

According to Chuck Lukaszewski, now vice president of wireless strategy and standards at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (formerly very high density architect in the CTO Office of Aruba Networks), Aruba had been testing under-seat AP designs since around 2010, “in one form or another.” There were some initial tests of under-seat AP deployments at Turner Field in Atlanta and at American Airlines Arena in Dallas, but nothing on the scale of AT&T Park’s 2013 deployment, or on the scale Aruba planned to have at Levi’s Stadium when it opened in 2014.

Some of the first under-seat Wi-Fi deployments in other arenas were actually deployed completely under the stands, Lukaszewski said, with signals shooting up through the concrete. Though he said “you could get reasonably good throughput through concrete,” especially for 2.4 GHz frequencies, installing antennas above the concrete was “considerably better,” Lukaszewski said.

Curiously, one of the biggest problems in stadium Wi-Fi deployment — especially for those heavy on overhead antenna use — is negotiating interference between antennas; sometimes, clients can “see” antennas and APs that are across the stadium, and will try to connect to those instead of the AP closest to them, a problem that leads to inefficient bandwidth use. Interference also means you can’t place APs too closely together, making it somewhat of an art to find ways to increase coverage without increasing interference.

Dan Williams, former VP of technology for the San Francisco 49ers, talking networking at Levi's Stadium. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Dan Williams, former VP of technology for the San Francisco 49ers, talking networking at Levi’s Stadium. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

What Aruba found in its testing, Lukaszewski said, was that under-seat Wi-Fi AP deployments could be far more dense than overhead-centric designs, mainly because the human bodies in the seats would provide beneficial “blocking” of signals, allowing network designers to place APs more closely together, and to be able to re-use the same Wi-Fi channels in more antennas.

“If you can use human bodies to contain signals, you can have much smaller cells,” Lukaszewski said. Under-seat deployments, he said, “allows us to re-use the same channel less than 100 yards away.”

With more channels available for each AP, the difference in the metric Lukaszewski calls “megabytes per fan” can be “profound” for an under-seat design versus an overhead design, he said.

“We do see trends [in stadium network data] of under-seat being able to deliver well over 100 MB per fan per event, while overhead designs [deliver] significantly under 100 MB per fan per event,” said Lukaszewski.

Dan Williams, the former vice president of technology for the San Francisco 49ers, said he and Lukaszewski were in agreement that under-seat was the best method to deploy at Levi’s Stadium.

Kyle Field at Texas A&M. White spots in stands are under-seat AP locations. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Kyle Field at Texas A&M. White spots in stands are under-seat AP locations. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“I just did not believe in overhead,” said Williams, who said he brainstormed with Aruba’s Lukaszewski on the under-seat idea, which they both brought to the Wi-Fi design at Levi’s. By using under-seat APs, Williams said, the Levi’s Stadium design looked to provide “cones [of bandwidth] around the audience, immersing [fans] in a signal.”

After beating the previous year’s Super Bowl Wi-Fi total at its NFL regular-season opener in 2014, Levi’s Stadium’s Wi-Fi network more than passed its biggest test ever this year, carrying a record 10.1 terabytes of Wi-Fi data during Super Bowl 50. Those numbers are proof of Lukaszewski’s claim: “By far, under seat is better.”

New deployments trending to under-seat

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Even though under-seat deployments can be considerably more expensive, especially in a retrofit situation where deployment requires coring through concrete, many stadiums are now seeming to agree with another Lukaszewski claim, that “the return absolutely justifies the investment.”

At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Cowboys quicked followed their sister park’s lead and installed under-seat APs in force ahead of that venue’s hosting of the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game in January of 2015. John Winborn, chief information officer for the Dallas Cowboys Football Club, said the team worked with AT&T’s “Foundry” innovation centers to produce a smaller, sleeker under-seat AP enclosure that fit well with the stadium’s commitment to aesthetics.

Back on the baseball side, the Giants now have 1,628 Wi-Fi APs in their park, with the vast majority of them under-seat, in all three decks of seating. And the Giants’ main rival to the south, the Los Angeles Dodgers, also used under-seat APs in a recent Wi-Fi upgrade.

Close-up of conduit running to under-seat AP at Kyle Field. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Close-up of conduit running to under-seat AP at Kyle Field. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

And if Levi’s Stadium led the way for under-seat Wi-Fi, the new mainly under-seat network at the refurbished Kyle Field at Texas A&M might be the QED on the debate, with ultra-fast network speeds and big data-consumption numbers (including 5.7 TB of Wi-Fi at a game versus Alabama) adding measureable momentum to the under-seat trend. Bill Anderson, CEO of Wi-Fi deployment strategy firm AmpThink, said he was an early disbeliever in under-seat Wi-Fi — until he saw the numbers.

“At first we mocked it, made fun of it,” said Anderson, whose firm has been called in to produce Wi-Fi network designs for several recent Super Bowls, as well as for the Kyle Field design. But when Aruba showed AmpThink the data from under-seat tests and deployments, “that was the ‘a-ha’ moment for us,” Anderson said.

Working with Aruba at Kyle Field, AmpThink was able to collect its own data, which convinced Anderson that under-seat was the way to go if you wanted dense, high-performing networks.

“The really important thing is to get APs closer to the people,” said Anderson. “That’s the future.”

Anderson said some doubters may remain, especially those who try to mix a small amount of under-seat APs with existing overhead deployments, a recipe for lowered success due to the potential interference issues. At Texas A&M, Anderson said AmpThink was able to build a design with far less interference and much greater density than an overhead solution, producing numbers that people have to pay attention to.

“We only know what we’ve observed, but we’re evangelistic supporters” of under-seat designs, Anderson said. “If someone says to you under-seat is hocus-pocus, they’re not looking at the data.”

Not for everyone, but more are trying under-seat

Though proponents of under-seat Wi-Fi all agree on its ability to deliver denser, faster networks, they all also agree that under-seat can be considerably more costly than overhead Wi-Fi, especially in a retrofit situation.

In addition to having to core through concrete seating areas to get conduit to the under-seat APs, the devices themselves need to be sealed, to guard them from weather, drink spills, and the power-washing equipment employed by most stadiums to clean seating areas.

Aruba’s Lukaszewski also noted that under-seat deployments generally use more linear feet of cabling to connect the APs than overhead, which also drives up the cost. Then since under-seat designs tend to use more APs, that also means a higher budget to cover a higher number of devices.

A row shot of the under-seat APs at AT&T Stadium. Photo: Dallas Cowboys

A row shot of the under-seat APs at AT&T Stadium. Photo: Dallas Cowboys

For some stadiums, the construction materials used prohibit the under-seat option from even being tried. At the Green Bay Packers’ legendary Lambeau Field, a late-1950s construction design that used lots of concrete and rebar — as well as part of the stadium’s bottom sitting directly in the ground — meant that under-seat Wi-Fi wasn’t an option, according to Wayne Wichlacz, director of information technology for the Packers.

Other stadiums, like the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, don’t have enough space between the stadium’s bleacher seats and the floor for under-seat APs to be safely installed. And many schools or teams simply don’t have big IT budgets like the $20-million-plus available to Texas A&M that allowed the Kyle Field design to seek the best result possible.

But many of the new stadiums under construction, as well as existing venues that are planning for new best-of-breed networks, have already committed to under-seat Wi-Fi designs, including the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, where Ruckus Wireless will implement its first under-seat stadium Wi-Fi network.

Steve Martin, senior vice president and general manager at Ruckus, said the Golden 1 Center design, planned to be the most dense anywhere, will “primarily be underseat,” a choice he said “helps in a lot of ways.”

Foremost is the performance, something Martin said Ruckus has been testing at the Kings’ current home, the Sleep Train Arena. “It [under seat] does give you the isolation for frequency re-use,” he said.

The under-seat design also makes sense in Golden 1 Center since the stadium’s overall design is very open, with lots of glass walls and unobstructed views.

And under-seat deployment is even making inroads into the distributed antenna system (DAS) world, with Verizon Wireless implementing more than 50 under-seat DAS antennas at Levi’s Stadium prior to Super Bowl 50. Mainly installed to cover the bottom-of-the-bowl rows, the under-seat APs helped Verizon manage a record day for DAS traffic, with 7 TB reported on its in-stadium cellular network during the game.

“To get a quality signal, we had to go under seat,” said Brian Mecum, vice president, network, for Verizon Wireless, who said that in that area of the stadium, under seat was the only way to get a quality signal close to the subscriber’s phone. Verizon, he said, helped design the under-seat DAS antenna, and is looking to deploy it in other stadiums soon.

“It’s the first of more,” he said.

END PART 2… HERE IS THE LINK TO PART 1… TO READ THE WHOLE STORY NOW, DOWNLOAD OUR REPORT!

Stadium Tech Report: Kansas State taps Boingo, Aruba for new Wi-Fi and DAS networks

Kansas State's Bill Snyder Family Stadium, now home to a new Wi-Fi and DAS network. All Photos: Kansas State, Boingo Wireless (click on any photo for a larger image)

Kansas State’s Bill Snyder Family Stadium, now home to a new Wi-Fi and DAS network. All Photos: Kansas State, Boingo Wireless (click on any photo for a larger image)

When Kansas State University took on the self-imposed challenge of delivering “the best fan experience in the Big 12” a couple years ago, it was clear that something had to be done about the lack of wireless connectivity in its largest sports venues.

Before this football season, KSU took a big step forward in living up to its goals by partnering with Boingo Wireless and Aruba Networks to bring stadium-wide Wi-Fi and DAS networks for fans to the Bill Snyder Family Stadium, with plans to follow up with similar connectivity for Bramlage Coliseum, the school’s basketball arena. With 380 Wi-Fi access points and 200-plus DAS antennas in Snyder Stadium, fans there will no longer have to complain about not being able to get a signal, a problem that reached a tipping point last year, according to the K-State network staff.

According to Scott Garrett, the senior associate athletic director for external operations, the idea of fan-facing Wi-Fi or improved cellular via a DAS (distributed antenna system) had been talked about internally since 2008 or 2009, especially so when the stadium underwent significant construction revisions in 2012. Built in 1967, the football stadium had expanded to its current capacity of 50,000 fans, who in the last couple years started letting the school know that “no signal” was no fun.

“Our [yearly] fan survey, especially the last couple years, had a growing feedback about the inability to connect [at the stadium],” Garrett said. Back in 2010 and 2011, there really wasn’t a hue and cry, but “every year since then, the negative feedback [about connectivity] had doubled,” Garrett said. “It was really painful after last season.”

Antennas visible on top of stands

Antennas visible on top of stands


Building two networks at once

What fans didn’t know last year was that a plan was already in place to fix the issue, thanks to an RFP crafted by the athletics department and the campus telecom office. After sorting through several candidates, including carrier-driven DAS-only plans, Kansas State went with Boingo Wireless as the lead deployer for both a DAS and a Wi-Fi network, with rental revenues from the former helping offset the deployment costs of the latter.

“Boingo has a lot of experience in the [stadium] marketplace, and their financial model allows us to install a DAS and get money to build a Wi-Fi network,” Garrett said. Even though the deal was signed in 2014, the complexity of bringing new networks to older buildings was such that the target date for launch became the start of the 2015 football season.

Doug Lodder, vice president of business development at Boingo, said there was a “boatload of synergy” in doing both a DAS and a Wi-Fi network deployment at the same time. “Just knowing where antennas will be placed for either one makes both better,” Lodder said.

The biggest deployment challenges for both networks were in both end zones of the stadium, both of which have only one section of stands with no overhangs, making it tough to locate antennas. Without using under-seat antennas (“we are firm believers that going up from under is a last resort,” said Lodder) Lodder said Boingo was able to make its design work — “we found enough ways to get the APs in,” he said.

More antennas on an overhang

More antennas on an overhang

For the Wi-Fi network, Boingo used gear from Aruba Networks, a choice made in part because Aruba gear was already in use in other parts of the Kansas State campus.

For the DAS, Boingo used Teko gear from JMA Wireless. Currently Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are on the DAS, with Garrett “hoping to add AT&T” sometime soon.

Another classic issue for many deployments in older stadiums, where to locate the head-end room, was solved for this season with a temporary structure since the proximity of the basketball arena — according to Garrett it sits about 30 yards beyond the football stadium’s south end zone — was just one of several factors putting a crimp on available head-end real estate.

“We’re still trying to figure out a permanent place for the head end,” Garrett said. “We just didn’t have room for it on the [existing] site.”

Soft launches and a new app

With construction taking place over the summer, Kansas State knew it couldn’t keep its network a secret. On Aug. 12, athletic director John Currie posted a letter on the K-State website, which in part told fans about the new networks being installed, as well as the availability of a new game day application, built by SportsLabs, a 2-year-old startup based in Boulder, Colo.

Screenshot of map on new K-State app.

Screenshot of map on new K-State app.

Garrett said the “teaser” letter from the AD helped alert fans to the new connectivity options, and some started taking and sharing photos of the antennas during pre-season activities at the stadium. But just to make sure the launch didn’t overset expectations, Garrett said the KSU staff kept mostly silent through the first game of the season on Sept. 5, allowing them to have a bit of a “beta” type soft launch.

The go-slow start helped, he said, because it allowed network administrators to identify and correct a logon issue before the next home game. Garrett said Kansas State also monitors social media in real time, allowing for on-the-spot fixes when fans are having problems.

“We once saw two tweets about a problem in Section 9 [of the stadium] where some fans got kicked off the Wi-Fi,” Garrett said. “We were able to test and monitor and provide immediate feedback.”

Throughout the season, Garrett and his staff stepped up the promotion of the network, and drove fans to download the new game-day app, which includes interactive stadium maps and integrated access to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram so fans can follow and post directly from the KSU app.

Rebecca Cameron, senior account director for SportsLabs, said that in addition to in-stadium use there is also a lot of app usage for fans who aren’t at the game, with the live game audio being the app’s most popular service. According to Cameron more than 4,000 fans have downloaded the app so far this season.

Garrett said KSU and SportsLabs will continue to add to the app, with a future eye on support of services like mobile concession ordering and instant replays. Garrett said Kansas State is a bit unusual for a big NCAA school in that it controls its own media rights, allowing it to make final decisions on technology providers.

The WIldcats take the field at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

The WIldcats take the field at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

“We were looking for a more sophisticated digital effort, and we really liked what SportsLabs had to offer,” Garrett said. Though not widely known, SportsLabs is making a name for itself in the sports app and websites field, having already secured the College Football Playoff series as a customer, along with the University of Kentucky and the ACC and West Coast Conference.

The new network and all its trappings, Boingo’s Lodder said, places Kansas State among the leaders in the collegiate connectivity race, ahead of many larger schools in bigger media markets.

“A lot of Pac-12 schools haven’t put in Wi-Fi yet,” Lodder noted. “It’s interesting to see who is taking that first step.”

Kansas State’s Garrett is happy that the initial problem of no signal is solved, and is enjoying seeing what a high-definition network can produce.

“It’s incredible to go from having no ability to text or call at all to having that problem totally solved,” Garrett said. “Now it’s great to see how many people are getting on Facebook and Twitter, sharing with friends. We’re looking forward to expanding and seeing what other new things we can add.”

Stadium Tech Report: Los Angeles Dodgers hit it out of the park with Cisco, Aruba Wi-Fi

Dodgers Stadium, the SoCal baseball shrine. All photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Dodgers Stadium, the SoCal baseball shrine. All photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk, Ralph Esquibel recalled playing outdoors while inside the Dodger game was on the radio. “I knew from the kinds of noises coming out of the house how the game was going,” he laughed. Esquibel, now vice president of IT for the Los Angeles Dodgers, may have wished for some similar indicators or guideposts as he began the wireless retrofitting of Major League Baseball’s third oldest stadium (after Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field) in early 2011.

Esquibel faced multiple challenges with Dodger Stadium. First, there was all that concrete to push signals through or around. There was the size of the Chavez Ravine venue and its far-flung parking lots, spanning more than 350 acres. The stadium also has few overhangs, a favorite place to attach Wi-Fi access points or distributed antenna system (DAS) gear. Then there’s Dodger Stadium’s capacity — 56,000 seats – the largest in the league and almost 30 percent larger than the average MLB stadium (42,790).

Esquibel’s biggest hurdle? ” Trying to achieve the network that we wanted but also maintain an appropriate budget for the solution,” he said. While Esquibel would not specify what the Dodgers spent, he did allow that it was “an 8-figure project.”

Coverage challenges in the best seats

Initially, the best seats in the house presented a coverage challenge; field and club level seats along the third- and first-base lines and the dugout lack any overhangs. So while phones in those sections could receive a short, directional beam sent from across the outfield, the upstream signal couldn’t get back to the AP across the field, said Esquibel.

Ralph Esquibel, VP of IT for the Dodgers, with the new Wi-Fi relief pitcher mobile.

Ralph Esquibel, VP of IT for the Dodgers, with the new Wi-Fi relief pitcher mobile.

“We wanted to guarantee a premium experience, regardless of the seat,” said Esquibel, who joined the Dodgers 6 years ago after working in IT at Toyota and Honda. So by using what he calls “a hybrid approach,” Wi-Fi APs and antennas are installed overhead where possible, but also under seats and in staircase handrails that divide the stadium’s steep aisles.

All told, nearly 1,000 APs from Cisco and Aruba Networks blanket Dodger stadium, its concession areas and parking lots. Horizon Communications helped the Dodgers with design and installation of the Wi-Fi and DAS.

The under-seat APs/Wi-Fi antennas on the club level are housed in NEMA enclosures about every 15 seats, set eight rows apart. Esquibel was concerned about losing real estate under those seats; he also didn’t want to create any potential trip hazard for fans. In addition, the Dodgers use Cat 6A cabling, whose thickness and rigidity couldn’t run up a stepped incline. Consequently, they drilled through concrete to snake the cabling through from the clubhouse underneath. “There’s no visible conduit leading into the enclosure,” Esquibel explained. The profile and footprint of the enclosure still leaves space for fans to place belongings.

Handrail Wi-Fi enclosure

Handrail Wi-Fi enclosure

It’s the same modus operandi for the enclosures housed in the stair rails, except there are two APs in larger enclosures at the top of each staircase on the reserve level and upper deck, then a single AP per enclosure as the stairways descend. Some 290 APs offer coverage on the reserve level, which by itself has a greater capacity than nearby Staples Center (18,118 seats), Esquibel told Mobile Sports Report. After 2 years of use, there have been no issues with the AP enclosures. “We power-wash the seats and stands after games and [the enclosures] are very resilient against the sun, water and wind,” Esquibel said.

He also acknowledged some early challenges with Wi-Fi. Part of the issue was working with Cisco’s CleanAir technology, which is supposed to minimize RF interference, if not eliminate it altogether. If an AP starts broadcasting over a frequency in use by another AP, for example, CleanAir helps it find another frequency. It took a few months to fully tune the network; some directional antennas needed a 10-degree adjustment, Esquibel said. Another challenge was having APs from more than one vendor. “If your network is 100 percent Cisco and all leveraging the same controllers, [CleanAir] will work perfectly,” Esquibel said. “If you have a mixed environment that pushes Wi-Fi in certain locations, it becomes a problem — there’s competition for frequencies.”

Coordinating the APs

A third-party leveraging a non-public frequency would switch channels, for example, causing the APs for public use to also switch channels. “What we had was a lot of bouncing back and forth,” Esquibel said, which affected performance. “So we assigned channels and frequencies for each AP, which still requires a lot of coordination.”

Under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure

Under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure

Since 2013, the stadium has been carved into 24 DAS sectors. AT&T, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless are the carriers presently using the DAS; Ericsson makes the DAS antennas. Stubborn Sprint relies on a tower adjacent to the stadium.

Dodger fans average anywhere from 500-655 megabytes of data use per game, according to Esquibel. During a busy game, the wireless networking accommodates 16,000 concurrent users; a slower event clocks in at 4,000-8,000. To test upload speed, Esquibel will push a 50MB video to Facebook. When there’s lots of available bandwidth, he gets 60 Mbps performance; on the low end, it’s closer to 4 Mbps. Esquibel said users are mostly streaming and posting videos and photos to social media; Dodger Stadium is the second most Instagrammed site in southern California, after Disneyland, Esquibel added.

The Dodgers have their own version of Ballpark, the in-stadium MLB app, which offers video replay and highlights; in-seat ordering of food and drink in certain areas; and stadium mapping. Check-ins on Ballpark are handled through a network of 44 iBeacons, which takes advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) technology. Between Ballpark and social media activity, Dodger fans have run up as much as 700 MB data usage during games — and the network is ready if more demand is needed.

“We don’t do any rate limiting, so if we consume all our bandwidth we get a free upgrade, thanks to a clause in our agreement with our ISP, AT&T,” Esquibel explained.

To ensure a family-friendly and wholesome environment, the Dodgers use Palo Alto Networks 5020 firewalls for content filtering. “As we developed our SLAs, it was one of the first issues to pop up — no sexual content, no malware/phishing, and no illegal drug sites,” he said.

What’s on his wish list for the future? “I’d like geo-fencing within the Wi-Fi network so if I see someone enter a club, I can say hi or welcome them, notify them of specials, or flag points of interest around the stadium,” Esquibel said, like the World Series trophy case or giveaway locations for promotional items. Alongside all the other applications, wireless can be used as guideposts for fans and visitors to Dodger Stadium.

Boingo, Aruba behind new Wi-Fi deployment at Kansas State’s football stadium

The WIldcats take the field at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. All photos: Kansas State website. (click on any photo for a larger image)

The WIldcats take the field at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. All photos: Kansas State website. (click on any photo for a larger image)

So far we haven’t seen any press releases but a web-posted letter to Kansas State supporters from Athletic Director John Currie confirms that Boingo Wireless and Aruba Networks are part of a new Wi-Fi and DAS deployment at the Bill Snyder Family Stadium that will have at least 300 antennas of some kind bringing service to the 50,000-seat venue.

Bill Snyder, still the head coach at the stadium that bears his name, will lead the Wildcats into the 2015 football season knowing that fans in Manhattan — Manhattan, Kansas — will now have sufficient bandwidth to stay connected while they cheer on the team. While the letter from AD Currie wasn’t clear on details and specifics — at least not to the MSR level of clarity — it did say that “When you arrive for Fan Appreciation Day this weekend [last weekend] you’ll likely notice a few of the 300-plus new Wi-Fi and Distributed Antenna System (DAS) fixtures being installed around Bill Snyder Family Stadium as we work to address connectivity for cell phones and other personal electronic devices throughout the stadium.” So we’re not sure if that means 300 APs for Wi-Fi and then a DAS, or if that means 300 antenna systems for both. We’ve got messages out to everyone involved, so watch for a follow-up with some more details as they are available.

Screenshot of map on new K-State app.

Screenshot of map on new K-State app.

The letter from Currie went on to say that the network will be in a testing mode the first couple games, and then the school and its new communication partners will move on to bring similar connectivity to Bramlage Coliseum, the K-State hoops arena, before the basketball season starts.

New app as well

K-State also has a new gameday football app, built by the Boulder, Colo.-based Sportslabs, the first big program we’ve heard of that is using Sportslabs. We haven’t yet seen the app in action but according to the K-State website plug it seems like it will have most of the usual bells and whistles, but not anything fancier like instant replays or food ordering. Stay tuned as we get more info.

The K-State deal is a return to the public eye for Boingo, which had a spate of venue announcements a year or so ago and then pulled back out of the spotlight until coming back a bit recently with an NBA announcement. Boingo using Aruba gear is also a new twist for us, but not surprising as HP’s recent acquistion Aruba has been steadily winning new stadium deals and continues to innovate at already-deployed venues (watch for an upcoming report about the temporary on-field Wi-Fi network that Aruba and the San Francisco 49ers deploy for concerts and other events at Levi’s Stadium).

Are you ready for some football?

Are you ready for some football?

Stadium Tech Report: Blazing a Trail to Connectivity at Portland’s Moda Center

Portland's Moda Center, home of the NBA Trail Blazers. Credit all photos: Moda Center (click on any photo for a larger image)

Portland’s Moda Center, home of the NBA Trail Blazers. Credit all photos: Moda Center (click on any photo for a larger image)

When it comes time to build a stadium network there are two obvious choices of how to get it done: You let someone else build and run it, or do it yourself.

When neither of these options appealed to the Portland Trail Blazers and their planned networking upgrade at the Moda Center, they went with a third option: Using a neutral host provider for both DAS and Wi-Fi.

After turning to neutral host provider Crown Castle to build out the enhanced cellular DAS (distributed antenna system) network as well as a fan-facing Wi-Fi network, Portland’s home at the Moda Center now has a level of wireless connectivity that mirrors the team’s excellent on-court performance — challenging for the NBA lead and looking to keep improving.

With Wi-Fi gear from Aruba Networks and an app developed by YinzCam, fans at Trail Blazers games can use the stadium Wi-Fi to gain access to live-action video streams, player stats and even a radio broadcast of the game. The app also supports seat upgrades, a feature powered by Experience.

Now in its second year of existence, the network and all its attributes are a big hit with Portland fans, according to Vincent Ircandia, vice president for business analytics and ticket operations for the Trail Blazers, and Mike Janes, vice president of engineering and technology for the Trail Blazers.

“We do a lot of fan surveys, and the approval [for the network] continues to go up,” said Janes. “We want to figure out what we can do next.”

Third-party the third and correct choice

Editor’s note: This profile is part of our new Stadium Tech Report HOOPS AND HOCKEY ISSUE, available for free download. In addition to this story it contains additional profiles and team-by-team tech capsules for all 30 NBA teams. Download your copy today!

Aruba Wi-FI AP in the rafters at Moda Center

Aruba Wi-FI AP in the rafters at Moda Center

If you dial the clock hands back a few years you would find an arena in Portland with not much connectivity at all, and fans who made their displeasure over the situation known, loud and clearly.

“Trail Blazers fans are not shy about letting us know how they feel,” Ircandia said. “Two years ago we learned that fans didn’t have much connectivity here [at the Moda Center]. That was a real gap in the customer experience.”

Janes said the top two methods of bringing a network in — allowing a carrier to build and operate it, or to build and run it themselves — both had significant drawbacks.

“You could hand it over to a carrier [to be a neutral host] but I’ve seen that before, where one carrier has to ride on another carrier’s DAS,” Janes said. “That’s not a good solution.”

The DIY option, Janes said, would mean that the Trail Blazers team would have to build the networks themselves, and hire someone to manage it.

“That would mean we would have to deal with the [multiple] carriers directly, and we didn’t want to do that,” Janes said.

In the end, Portland went with the neutral host option, with Crown Castle building and running the DAS and installing a Wi-Fi network as well. With its wide experience in building and managing DAS deployments, Crown Castle already has AT&T and Verizon as tenants on the Moda Center DAS, with Sprint coming on soon and possibly T-Mobile joining in the near future.

And on the Wi-Fi side, the team itself “owns” the network and the associated data — “and that’s good, because we are starting to take deeper dives into that,” Janes said.

And how’s it all operating?

“No complaints [recently],” Janes said. “The fans are pretty quiet when it’s just working.”

User numbers flat, data use doubles

Maybe those users are quiet because they are busy posting pictures to Instagram or posts to Facebook, two of the leading applications being used at the Moda Center, according to the Trail Blazers. According to Ircandia, what’s interesting about the usage patterns from last year to this year is that while the number of fans using the network has remained fairly stable (at about 25 percent of attendees), the amount of wireless data consumed has just about doubled from last season to this season, meaning that people are doing more things on the network.

Toyota pregame show on the Moda Center concourse

Toyota pregame show on the Moda Center concourse

Some of that may have to do with a redesigned app, which added four live streams of video action, as well as live radio broadcast coverage.

“We didn’t leave [interaction] to chance,” Janes said. “We spent a lot of effort improving the app and redesigning the web presence to make it more enticing and robust.”

While having more features is always a good step, a big part of the challenge for any team is just getting fans to use the network and the team app. At Moda Center, there is a unique method of network promotion, which also directly benefits the team: By selling the “sponsorship” of the network to local-area Toyota dealers, the stadium operators now have a partner who actively promotes the network to fans walking into the building.

According to Ircandia, the Toyota dealers also sponsor a pregame show, set on the arena concourse with the team’s dancers in attendance to help attract attention. “They [Toyota] want to sell cars, so they have a lot of signage [about the network],” in addition to the show, Incardia said.

If there is such a thing as a good problem, there is one involving the ticket upgrade feature: Since the Trail Blazers have such passionate fans and are doing so well, there aren’t many available seats to offer for upgrades. “It’s a bit of a constrained inventory,” Janes said. Still, the team is using the Experience feature to offer last-minute ticket deals to students in the area, alerting them that there are seats available that may have a chance to be upgraded.

“They [students] have the time to drop whatever they’re doing to come over to the game,” Janes said.

Retrofitting an old flower

Previously known as the Rose Garden, the arena, which was built in 1995, clearly wasn’t initially designed with wireless connectivity in mind.

“We were retrofitting for technology that didn’t exist [when the building was built],” Ircandia said. “That’s where creativity comes in.”

DAS headend gear

DAS headend gear

Some of the creativity in network design included separate Wi-Fi antennas for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz transmissions, so that older devices didn’t have to compete with newer devices for the best Wi-Fi connection. Ircandia also said that the Moda Center “created” some new DAS headend space up in the highest reaches of the building.

“We built catwalks above the catwalks,” Ircandia said.

Looking ahead to what’s next, Janes said the network team is looking to use wireless to connect to food and beverage carts, so that point of sale operations don’t need to be tied to a plug in the wall.

“If we go wireless we can move the carts around, even put them outside, which gives us a business case improvement with no impact to the fans,” Janes said.

And now that those fans know what is possible, they will want what they have now, and more.

“That’s their expectation now,” Janes said, “that it will work when they walk in the building.”