August 30, 2015

Stadium Tech Report: San Francisco’s AT&T Park lives up to its wireless reputation

Another tough day at the office for MSR. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR. (Click on any picture for a larger image)

Another tough day at the office for MSR. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR. (Click on any picture for a larger image)

Many times here at Mobile Sports Report we’ve referred to AT&T Park as the “most connected” or “best connected” stadium in baseball, if not for all sports anywhere. But even after multiple network tours and numerous reports from stats given to us by Giants CIO Bill Schlough and his staff I realized that one thing I’ve never done is to roam around the park on a game day, checking to see if its renowned Wi-Fi and DAS networks perform as promised.

Now after attending a recent day game as the guest of AT&T, I can tell you that the stadium that first put in fan-facing Wi-Fi for every seat is still at the forefront of ballpark connectivity, with Wi-Fi and DAS performance that knocks the ball out of the park almost every time. I say “almost” because during my walkaround tour I was able to find one place in the park that had almost no connectivity at all — but I will also bet you that as soon as this story is published, Schlough and his team will likely be out there the next day installing some kind of coverage since he and they have an almost unmatched enthusiasm for making their fan-facing network the best it can be. That, plus a strong partnership with AT&T, gives fans at Giants games perhaps the best stadium network anywhere, with performance so good for so long that it has almost become somewhat of an afterthought, one of the best kind of compliments a network staff can receive.

Nothing beats a strong team

Dynasty is a word fans like to use around Third and King Street in San Francisco, especially after the Giants won their third World Series title in 5 years last fall. Schlough, who loves baseball and the Giants as much as he loves networks, used the press-day gathering to show off his most recent Series ring, a chunk of gold and diamonds that probably gives you a wrist-curl workout when you put it on.

AT&T Park CIO Bill Schlough shows off his World Series bling.

AT&T Park CIO Bill Schlough shows off his World Series bling.

(Point of reference: Schlough offered the ring to me to try on, but as a dyed-blue Cubs fan I refused. “Waiting for one with ‘Cubs’ on it,” I told him. As we say in Chicago, “if it takes forever.”)

You might have heard some of the early Wi-Fi stories from AT&T Park before, but they’re fun to repeat. Then known as SBC Park, after the sponsoring “Baby Bell” that would later revive the family name of AT&T, the Wi-Fi network that debuted in 2004 attracted an average of about 94 fans a game, Schlough said, diehard geeks who would have to put up with people mocking them for bringing laptops to a ballgame. Remember, the iPhone was still 3 years away from existing, and you had to stick a PC card in a laptop to connect to Wi-Fi.

Fast forward to 2015, and now for regular season games the Giants see an average of just more than 13,000 people connecting to the Wi-Fi network, a number that has basically leveled off over the past 3 years, Schlough said. What hasn’t leveled off, however, is data use — even from last season, when fans used an average of 591 gigabytes of data per game, so far this season they’re averaging 915 GB per game. That’s why this season Schlough and team will be busy adding another 400+ Cisco Wi-Fi access points to the park, a total that should hit 1,700 by the time October rolls around.

“We’ll be working hand in hand with AT&T trying to stay one step ahead of demand,” Schlough said.

AT&T Park cabling runs are SRO

AT&T Park cabling runs are SRO

Scott Mair, AT&T’s senior vice president of technology, was on hand to help lead network tours before the game and to talk about how AT&T was using a new device called the EchoBOT to help gauge network performance in the park. Though it’s a bit of inside baseball, EchoBOT — which is basically an off-the-shelf cell phone that sits in a ruggedized box — is the kind of thing that can come out of the smart-person pool at a technology giant like AT&T. Invented in-house, the EchoBOT basically gives network operators an on-the-spot way to determine not just how the network is working, but what the actual user experience is like from the end-user point of view.

With 18 EchBOTs scattered throughout AT&T Park, Schlough and AT&T can get a much more granular view of how the stadium’s network is performing, just another way of using the resources of one of the world’s biggest telecom companies helps the fan experience at AT&T Park.

The one place without Wi-Fi

With our network tours concluded and some crispy chicken fingers inhaled in the comfy confines of the AT&T suite just above the third-base line, it was time to go to work to see if the AT&T Park network could deliver as promised. Since I’ve sat in seats at the park many times and had great connectivity there, I spent my time during the afternoon game seeking out what I thought might be some of the hardest places to bring connectivity. The first, in the second-level concourse, looked like it might be a tough antenna spot, with narrow halls and lots of concrete. But bam, on my Verizon iPhone 6 Plus I got a Wi-Fi signal of 31 Mbps down, 21 Mbps up; on my companion loaner device from AT&T, an LG Optimus G Pro, I got a 4G LTE connection of 26.15 Mbps down, 18.02 up. (For all remaining measurements I’ll just use the down/up convention to save time; I was using the standard Speedtest.net app from Ookla for all measurements.)

So yeah, you can connect while you’re in line to get a hot dog.

Here's the only place we couldn't find decent Wi-Fi. #firstworldproblem

Here’s the only place we couldn’t find decent Wi-Fi. #firstworldproblem

Strolling through the concourse toward right field, I saw several Wi-Fi advertisement signs, letting fans know they should definitely connect to the network. That’s a sign of deployment confidence, unlike many parks that install Wi-Fi but don’t really promote it, perhaps in order to keep user numbers down. After walking outside to get a view of McCovey Cove and the kayaks waiting for home-run balls to clear the park’s fences for a “splash landing,” I found a spot with almost zero connectivity — in the standing-room-only area backed up against the wall overlooking the bay.

With a Wi-Fi reading of 0.93/2.23 on the Verizon device and a 0.94/3.24 on Verizon 4G the SRO perch on the promenade was easily the poorest connection I found all day. But looking around, it’s kind of a silly place to be looking at your phone since from one direction a well-hit ball might be landing on your head and in the other direction there’s great views of the San Franicsco Bay. But still it does go to show that even in the most-connected stadium perhaps on earth, it’s not easy to get a signal everywhere. With no roof overhead and no railings close by, there simply isn’t a place to put an antenna out there. (But I bet Schlough and team will soon come up with a solution.)

Concourses covered, and upper deck too

I kept wandering around the outfield concourse and found decent connectivity at the centerfield Coors Light bar, 9.32/17.31 for Wi-Fi on the Verizon device and 14.21/43.00 for Wi-Fi on the AT&T device, as well as outside the Giants’ social media cafe in left-center, 14.32/32.20 for Wi-Fi on the Verizon device and 13.61/34.70 for Wi-Fi on the AT&T phone. Unless you’re a Wi-Fi geek like me you probably won’t ever see the APs since they are painted to match the structures they’re attached to. But I could see multiple APs hanging off the centerfield scoreboard structure, a piece of architecture that helps to deliver such solid connectivity to the open outside areas.

You can see Wi-FI APs -- if you know where to look.

You can see Wi-FI APs — if you know where to look.

Taking a break in a standing area behind the left field foul pole I got a smoking result for Wi-Fi on the Verizon phone, 22.46 Mbps on the download side and an amazing 52.05 on the upload. (I think it’s important to note that some of the best signals were on a device from an AT&T competitor, a sign that the facility does a great job of ensuring that any customer will get a good signal, no matter where you purchased your phone or service plan.) Climbing the stairwells to the view deck I still got a good signal on the concourse behind the seats in upper left field — 7.24/8.75 on the Verizon phone.

Since it was getting windy and cold (summer in SF!) I ducked back inside and found an empty seat in section 332, near the upper left field corner of the park. There I got a Verizon Wi-Fi mark of 17.52/24.33, and a Verizon 4G LTE mark of 5.62/6.81, again showing that the AT&T Park DAS is also delivering solid performance for customers on other carriers. The AT&T phone at that location saw 12.46/18.79 on Wi-Fi and 12.68/17.06 on 4G LTE. According to Schlough, the AT&T neutral-host DAS, which uses CommScope ION equipment, is so good that many fans don’t even bother to switch their phones to Wi-Fi. The upper deck, or view level, is scheduled to get many of the APs slated for installation this summer, in the under-the-seat enclosures that bring the network right into the seating areas.

Conclusion: Like the Giants, AT&T Park is tough to beat

Here at MSR we get the question a lot — “what’s the park with the best network?” — and I would have to say that like its tenants, AT&T Park is tough to beat. Schlough and the impressive IT team down at AT&T Stadium have a friendly rivalry, and you can’t have the most-connected discussion without mentioning Levi’s Stadium. But the park that did Wi-Fi first continues to improve year in and year out, never resting on its historic laurels. That’s a “dynasty” that is perhaps as impressive as the one built by the team on the field.

(More AT&T Park visit pictures below)

A little hard to see, but if you look closely you can see the Giants showing fan social media posts on the big screen.

A little hard to see, but if you look closely you can see the Giants showing fan social media posts on the big screen.

These signs are up all over the park

These signs are up all over the park

EchoBOT enclosures (white) next to a Wi-FI AP

EchoBOT enclosures (white) next to a Wi-FI AP

View from the Coors Light concourse walk-up bar in center field

View from the Coors Light concourse walk-up bar in center field

Good connectivity here in left field. Maybe the buttons on the hat improved reception?

Good connectivity here in left field. Maybe the buttons on the hat improved reception?

MLB app ads greet you as you walk up the stairs at AT&T Park

MLB app ads greet you as you walk up the stairs at AT&T Park

Nice place for a ballpark, don't you think?

Nice place for a ballpark, don’t you think?

For Giants fans only: I swear that thing weighs about 3 pounds

For Giants fans only: I swear that thing weighs about 3 pounds

MSR editor Paul Kapustka, your man on the Wi-Fi scene.

MSR editor Paul Kapustka, your man on the Wi-Fi scene.

Thinking out loud: When will stadium apps use voice commands?

Wouldn't it be great to have a stadium app that asked this question, out loud?

Wouldn’t it be great to have a stadium app that asked this question, out loud?

In the overall world of smartphones, voice commands and help-me services like Apple’s Siri are commonplace. So when will voice commands become part of stadium apps, a place where they could be really useful?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer and I bet if I asked Siri I wouldn’t get a clear reply. But as the kickoff column in what is planned as a weekly “thinking out loud” feature here, maybe the reading audience can chime in: Are voice commands coming to stadium apps anytime soon? What are the sticking points? Are there technical reasons why fans can’t use voice commands to help make the game-day experience a better one?

After spending a year really pondering how technology can help the fan situation, I now understand why most stadium apps have low usage rates: They simply aren’t addressing the main pain points of attending a live event, which primarily have to do with waiting in a line, or wasting time. Sometimes that line is in the parking lot or at the public transportation station, and sometimes it’s at a concession stand. Sometimes it’s a restroom line. Wasting time not in a line usually comes from not being able to find something, or somebody. I think voice commands could help make things easier, and would provide a real reason for fans to download and use a stadium app.

Listen to me, don’t tell me

As most of us who use smartphones know, the combination of features like voice commands and a powerful app like Google Maps is drop-dead simple and extremely helpful. I’m still amazed by the fact that I can sit in my car, tell my phone “directions to xxx address,” and then the phone will talk me through the way there, so I’m not endangering myself or others by looking at a screen while driving. (Which may be the stupidest thing a living being can do.)

Siri can answer lots of things, but she can't tell you why sports apps don't have voice commands.

Siri can answer lots of things, but she can’t tell you why sports apps don’t have voice commands.

So… why can’t that functionality be a part of a stadium app? Last year while attending multiple games I noticed that sometimes trying to type things on my smartphone was near impossible, especially when you are holding a drink in one hand. I also noticed that screens were sometimes hard to read in the bright sunlight of an outdoor event. Voice commands and voice replies could go a long way to making a stadium app more useful; I’m especially thinking about it when you combine it with a powerful action feature — like the Levi’s Stadium app’s ability to let you pre-order food and drink for express pickup or delivery — wouldn’t it be great if you could just click the talk button and say, “I’d like a hot dog and a beer,” and then have the phone ask you, “pickup or delivery?”

I’ve got a lot more ideas how voice commands could help improve a game-day experience — like using it to help me find friends who I know are at the stadium — but I’m interested in your thoughts here as well. First of all, from a technology standpoint is this idea doable? Can the resources that work for Google Maps be replicated in stadiums? What’s needed — maybe more beacons or some kind of better Wi-Fi location system? Chime in here. Since this blog isn’t yet voice-enabled, you can leave comments below or shoot me an email to kaps at mobilesportsreport.com. Like Siri, I will thank you personally if you do.

Will Periscope and Meerkat swamp stadium networks?

Three thoughts to start your week off, of a completely unrelated nature. First one up is about a couple of live video-streaming services that you might have heard of or seen, Meerkat and Periscope. I successfully avoided watching any super-selfimportant types video themselves using Meerkat from SXSW, and I’ve been too wrapped up in March Madness to care yet about Periscope. So far I haven’t seen any coverage that details how much bandwidth the apps use up. Probably not much if you are livestreaming something all by yourself. But what if a bunch of people decide to livestream, and they’re all in the same place? So I do wonder how stadium networks will handle the idea of live video streams.

Will the Wi-Fi and DAS networks be able to handle the traffic? Anyone looking into this yet? Discuss. You can do so in the comments, or send me some longer thoughts via email and I will relay them to the crowd. Will Periscope and Meerkat be banned in-stadium? If so how can that happen? Will live video streams be the final straw that makes teams and leagues realize that Twitter may not be such a great content partner after all? I don’t have any answers yet but I assure you this is a question that will be asked the rest of the year in stadium IT shops — as well as in the lawyers’ offices where content and TV rights are negotiated and protected. Selfies may be fine, and Vine may be OK. But live streams of sports events are bound to get someone’s attention, fast.

Thought No. 2: Twenty-three years ago, I remember exactly where I was when I saw this:

I was in Beaver Creek, Colo., in a swanky hotel room that I normally couldn’t afford, watching the Duke-Kentucky game after covering pro ski racing during the day on the slopes of Beaver Creek. Because it was near the end of the ski season the still-new Beaver Creek wasn’t too full, so us members of the media got special rates to stay in the slopeside hotel rooms that now will cost you an arm, a leg and maybe a first-born. That is not important to this thought, though. What is important is that I remember watching the game on a nice TV. Which was the only way you could watch, 22 years ago.

Fast forward to Saturday night, when another classic NCAA tournament match involving Kentucky came down to the wire, and a last-second shot, on the exact anniversary of the Laettner shot. That Kentucky prevailed this time in another classic also doesn’t really matter here; what does is how I watched the second half — on my phone in my backyard while cooking dinner on the grill, over a Wi-Fi connection to a router inside the house. The thing I thought about afterwards was how completely normal it seemed to do something that was unthinkable 22 years ago, namely watch a live game via a handheld device through multiple connectivity junctures — and it all just worked. In the future I will probably remember the game more, and the key free throws and the crazy defense of the last play. But right now I’m still a little in wonder in how far the idea of watching sports on your phone has come.

Third thought: Some more history here — does anyone out there remember the 2009 version of SXSW, when Foursquare was launched and the huge influx of attendees using Twitter on their iPhones brought the AT&T network to its knees? Here’s another link to the historical moment when AT&T got pantsed publicly for not knowing how much bandwidth its customers would need at a gathering like SXSW.

Fast forward again to this year’s SXSW, and man, was AT&T ready for record network usage. Not only did it trot out the huge big-ball cellular antenna that it used at Coachella last year, it beefed up regular network connections and brought in a whole herd of COWs (cell trucks on wheels) to satisfy a mobile bandwidth demand that doesn’t seem to be able to stay flat or go down. According to AT&T, its network saw 37 terabytes of data used during the SXSW event — that’s like three-plus Super Bowls worth of traffic, and this is just on AT&T’s networks, so not counting other carrier traffic.

We concentrate a lot here on stadiums and the particular problems for wireless communications caused by a tight geographic grouping of device-holding people. But what about towns with festivals like SXSW, or other big gatherings? Is your event ready for massive wireless bandwidth needs? If not what is your plan going forward?

Stadium Tech Report: Average connectivity doesn’t seem to hurt Avaya Stadium experience

Panoramic view of the packed house at Avaya Stadium for the official debut.

Panoramic view of the packed house at Avaya Stadium for the official debut.

From a strictly wireless perspective, the opening-day performance of the Avaya Stadium Wi-Fi network was good in some spots and very poor in others, leading to an overall grade of average at best. But the Wi-Fi issues didn’t seem to take anything away from the smashing debut of a facility purpose-built for soccer and well-designed for an easy, fun fan experience, even with a sellout crowd of 18,000 on hand.

Mobile Sports Report visited Avaya Stadium for its “official” debut, Sunday’s San Jose Earthquakes’ MLS season home opener against the Chicago Fire, which ended in a 2-1 San Jose victory. But the team on the field wasn’t the only winner, as fans seemed to be smiling and enjoying every part of the new $100 million venue, from its huge end-zone bar and its close-to-the-field seats, to the pre-game picnic area with food trucks, music, and space for kids to run around. Well-planned parking and traffic operations seemed to cause few problems, with most fans finding their way to their seats in the new park in time for the just-after-4 p.m. kickoff.

If my unofficial walk-around testing was any true barometer, my guess is that the only problem some fans might have had Sunday was trying to connect to the Internet to post the thousands of selfies I saw being taken with smartphones. With almost zero cellular communication inside the stadium, and very low Wi-Fi readings in much of the seating bowl, my tests lead me to conclude that while the stadium is wonderful right now for watching futbol, its wireless connectivity is still a work in progress but one that should get better soon when the planned neutral-host DAS from Mobilitie gets installed and becomes operational.

Parking and traffic a breeze

Since I arrived early and had an employee-lot parking pass (thanks to the Earthquakes for the media pass and parking) I didn’t encounter any traffic at all either in my drive down 101 or on the streets leading to the stadium. Approaching from the north on 6-lane wide Coleman Avenue, there was very clear signage for each of the parking lots, and no backups in sight at 2 p.m., two hours before the scheduled start.

Fans waiting outside the main gate

Fans waiting outside the main gate

Since it’s about one-fourth the size of its neighbor to the north, the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, Avaya Stadium probably won’t have the same kinds of transit and parking issues that plagued Levi’s during its inaugural season. It also seems like the Avaya Stadium location is a much better setup for getting in and out of the stadium, with the wide Coleman Avenue and the huge dirt lots directly adjacent to the venue. Walking past some early bird tailgaters I was at the stadium gates in a couple minutes. In both the employee lot and the closest regular parking lot, I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal at all but cellular connectivity was pretty good (7+ Mbps on Verizon 4G LTE), as I could see several large cell towers around the edges of the lots. Even with a packed parking area, fans should still be able to get a signal on their way in.

For my early entry time I didn’t see any issues with stadium entry technology, but the lack of metal-detector gates (security personnel used handheld wands to scan each fan as they entered) might be something that slows down the process of getting into the stadium. I did notice larger lines around 3:30 p.m., but like anywhere else the entry procedures will likely only improve with time.

Before coming to Avaya Stadium I downloaded the new team app, which seemed a little bare-bones. Since I didn’t have a ticket I couldn’t test the digital season-ticket integration, but I was able to use the directions to the stadium feature and the stadium map, which provides a helpful picture-view of all amenities that can be found in the U-shaped seating area as well as the open-air bar. The map is interactive, giving you a description of each amenity (bathrooms, team store, etc.) when you touch the associated icon. As of yet there is no way to use the app to pay for concessions or to view any live or archived video. Like other stadium apps, including Levi’s, the Avaya Stadium app will likely grow in functionality over time.

Wi-Fi performance: Great on the concourses, weak in the seats

Just after finding my “exterior press box” seat in possibly the “worst” part of the stands — the upper northwest corner — I quickly saw how Avaya Stadium was going to deliver its Wi-Fi signals to the seating area, by looking up at the metal beams supporting the awnings that are the open-air “roof.” On each beam I could see anywhere from two to three Wi-Fi access points, all targeted directly down at the seats below them. The Avaya Wi-Fi deployment has no under-the-seat APs or any handrail APs that I could see, but there are lots of other APs visible on top of concession stands and other places around the single, ground-level concourse. There are also some APs attached to the huge bar area that spans across the open east end of the stadium. Gaining access to the network was a snap, done by just clicking on the “proceed” button that popped up on the splash screen that appears after you select the “GOQUAKES” SSID on your device. There was no login credential or password required.

The view from our seat, probably the "worst" in the place

The view from our seat, probably the “worst” in the place

How did the network perform? Before the stadium filled up, my rooftop seat had a signal between 5 and 7 Mbps on the download and upload sides, a figure that would decline steadily as the day progressed. Walking down the steep stairs into the largely empty seating bowl, the Wi-Fi speeds decreased, with a couple readings in the 2-3 Mbps download range near the lowest row of seats.

Hungry because I hadn’t had lunch, I ventured out past the huge end-zone bar to a large grassy area that was lined with food trucks and filled with soccer fans having impromptu picnics with lots of kids running around. There were various booths for soccer clubs and from sponsors, as well as a band, which made the area seem (in a good way) more like a county fair than a pro sporting event. I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi connection out on the lawn, but I was able to get a good cellular signal, around 8 Mbps, on my Verizon device (an iPhone 6 Plus). Feeling thirsty I headed to the bar, where Wi-Fi kicked in again, with one signal of 22 Mbps down and 17 Mbps up.

Heading back through the now-crowded concourse toward my seat, I stopped and got a Wi-Fi reading of almost 16 Mbps down and 9 Mbps up, in the middle of a large throng of fans. But I wouldn’t hit that mark again the rest of the afternoon, which makes me wonder how well the network held up under a full-house load.

Up close and personal areas a hit with fans

Panoramic view from the cheering section

Panoramic view from the cheering section

Since I’d never been to a professional soccer game before I decided to soak in as much fan flavor as I could. At Avaya Stadium I headed down to the space behind the west end zone, in the closed end of the stadium, where there are several rows of standing-room only spaces where some of the loudest fans congregated (there was one group with a band, and many flags). Directly above the standing section was a seat section reserved for the team’s ardent followers, many of which spent the entire game standing, cheering, chanting and singing. Down below, I was fortunate enough to be close to the action and saw the Earthquakes’ first goal in their new home arena, a double header off a corner kick.

And though I was able to catch the score on video, because there was basically zero Wi-Fi signal there (I was directly underneath the bottom row of the stands) I wasn’t able to immediately post it to Twitter or Vine. Not that I cared that much, since it was fun to be swept up in the chanting and cheering and streamer-tossing that followed the goal. So even if I wasn’t connected wirelessly, I was certainly connected to the fans right around me — which, I think, is what Avaya Stadium is all about.


I’m no wireless engineer, but I was hardly surprised that the Wi-Fi signal in the seats wasn’t strong; looking way up at the APs on the roof, they seem too far away to be able to provide a high level of connectivity to the seats below, especially the ones closest to field level. Other stadiums we’ve covered in the near past have already either started or are making plans to increase the Wi-Fi APs at field level, since that’s one of the toughest areas to put an AP.

But like in the standing section, I’m not sure that Wi-Fi connectivity is a big deal for fans in the seats during the game action, which in case you’ve not watched soccer, has no breaks like timeouts or inning changes. I’m generalizing here but I think that the continuous-flow of soccer action inherently results in fans who simply watch the game instead of taking breaks to check their phones (Mark Cuban, here’s your sport!). So maybe the expense of bringing Wi-Fi to all the seats at Avaya Stadium isn’t justified.

Halftime view of fans checking phones

Halftime view of fans checking phones

That said, it seemed like during halftime there were a lot of people looking at devices in their stadium seats, but I didn’t hear any howls or complaints or see any obvious frustration. I do know that at my seat on the stadium’s top walkway (which can get very very very windy in the late afternoon) the Wi-Fi signal was weak the whole game, never registering more than 1 Mbps on the download side from the start of the game through the second half.

But again, this is just one phone and one person, a person who was also walking around a lot and connecting to multiple APs, a factor that sometimes makes network connections inconsistent. I did find that turning Wi-Fi off and on again helped get a better signal; when we hear back from the stadium network team we’ll ask if the network has been optimized for roaming connections. I did notice that the beer stand on the top deck just behind my “press box” seat was using cell phones and a payment-device gizmo to take credit card payments; when I asked the staffer running the stand she said she’d been taking payments all game using the regular Wi-Fi and hadn’t had any connectivity issues. So, the connectivity mileage may vary.

DAS to the rescue

Though team executives have talked a lot about the stadium’s networking plans, it would be better for fans right now to have a more realistic estimate of what is going on, and when future enhancements like video and food ordering will become a reality. Some improvement will happen in a big way when Mobilitie gets the neutral-host DAS up and running, since many people never think of joining a stadium Wi-Fi network, they just pull out their phones and hope for the best. With advanced cellular in the building, the connectivity loads will be shared between cellular and Wi-Fi, increasing overall capacity. Sunday, I wasn’t able to get either an AT&T 4G device or my Verizon phone to even register with Speedtest.com to get a figure anywhere inside the stadium using a cellular-only connection. While most fans might have been able to send text messages or get regular voice calls, it’s a good guess that many like me were stymied trying to do simple data tasks like post messages to Twitter. It will be interesting to see what the network folks from Avaya Stadium say when they give us the opening-day report.

Cheers to Avaya Stadium from the end zone bar!

Cheers to Avaya Stadium from the end zone bar!

In the end, my first impression from a wireless point of view is that Avaya Stadium has a basic, average level of connectivity for a new stadium, with enough reasons to believe it’s going to get better over time. I’m also cutting them some slack since the technology supplier for the venue changed wholesale last year when Avaya came in as a title sponsor, leaving just a few short months for Avaya to get its own gear in the building and in working order. Again, I’m no engineer but I did see things like electrical tape holding some antenna connections in place, the kind of stuff you don’t expect to see in a professional stadium deployment.

And while the connectivity didn’t particularly stand out as awesome, it also was good enough in enough places to make sure there wasn’t the dreaded “no signal” issue that could have soured things for lots of fans. In the end, there was so much to like about the facility — even in my top-row seat I felt close to the action on the field — that it’s hard to call the day anything short of a smashing success, especially if you are a Bay area soccer fan who’s had to endure sub-par stadium experiences in the past. Those days are gone, and Avaya Stadium should be a fast favorite place going forward.

LOTS OF PHOTOS BELOW! Click on any picture for a larger image. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR.

Avaya Stadium, from the employee parking lot

Avaya Stadium, from the employee parking lot

Tailgate action before the game

Tailgate action before the game

Connecting to Wi-Fi was easy

Connecting to Wi-Fi was easy

Interactive stadium map was one of the best things in the app

Interactive stadium map was one of the best things in the app

Wi-Fi APs attached to roof beams

Wi-Fi APs attached to roof beams

More APs, underneath the canopy roof

More APs, underneath the canopy roof

Still more AP views

Still more AP views

Another AP, out on the end of the stanchion

Another AP, out on the end of the stanchion

A view to give perspective on how far away the roof-beam APs are from the stands

A view to give perspective on how far away the roof-beam APs are from the stands

Seats with promo scarves. The team asked fans to donate if they wanted to keep the scarves.

Seats with promo scarves. The team asked fans to donate if they wanted to keep the scarves.

More Wi-Fi APs, on the concourse level. This was above a bathroom entrance.

More Wi-Fi APs, on the concourse level. This was above a bathroom entrance.

Wi-Fi APs atop small building near the open end zone

Wi-Fi APs atop small building near the open end zone

Good view of standing-room area in front of end zone bar. It was packed all game.

Good view of standing-room area in front of end zone bar. It was packed all game.

Panoramic view of the picnic lawn. Hey there Quakes fan!

Panoramic view of the picnic lawn. Hey there Quakes fan!

Fans waiting to get in, about a half hour before game time

Fans waiting to get in, about a half hour before game time

Where the rich folks watch from: Over the gate view of a club level area and their nice buffet

Where the rich folks watch from: Over the gate view of a club level area and their nice buffet

Lots of selfies being taken Sunday

Lots of selfies being taken Sunday

You can see the big screen from just about everywhere in the place -- great resolution

You can see the big screen from just about everywhere in the place — great resolution

Stadium Tech Report: AT&T Stadium’s massive antenna deployment delivers solid Wi-Fi, DAS performance

The old saw that says “everything’s bigger in Texas” is not just a stereotype when it comes to wireless networking and AT&T Stadium. Though our visit was brief and we didn’t have the opportunity to do a deep-dive technology tour, the MSR team on hand at the recent College Football Playoff championship game came away convinced that if it’s not the fastest fan-facing stadium network, the Wi-FI and DAS deployments at AT&T Stadium sure are the biggest, at least the largest we’ve ever heard of.

Inside AT&T Stadium at the College Football Playoff championship game. (Click on any photo for larger image) Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Inside AT&T Stadium at the College Football Playoff championship game. (Click on any photo for larger image) Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

And in many ways we found, bigger is better, at least when it comes to staying connected inside one of the world’s truly humongous indoor spaces.

If you’ve not seen the stats, allow us to remind you that during the Jan. 12 championship game between the University of Oregon and THE Ohio State University the AT&T Stadium network carried more than 6 terabytes of wireless data, with almost 5 TB of that over the in-house Wi-Fi network. Another 1.4 TB was recorded being used by AT&T customers on the AT&T-hosted neutral DAS, which almost certainly carried another terabyte or two from other carriers on the system, who did not report any statistics. Any way you add it up, it’s the biggest single-day wireless data figure we’ve ever heard for a sports arena, professional or college, in any sport at any time.

Flooding the zone with more antennas and APs

How do you get such a big data number? One way is to make sure that everyone can connect, and one way to get to that point is to flood the zone with antennas and access points. Already the leader in the number of Wi-Fi access points and DAS antennas, AT&T Stadium got another 280 Wi-Fi antennas installed between Thanksgiving and the college championship game, according to John Winborn, CIO for the Dallas Cowboys. Some of those antennas, the staff said, were housed in new under-the-seat enclosures that AT&T’s Foundry designed somewhat specifically for use in the lower bowl of AT&T Stadium, which like other stadiums had previously had issues getting connectivity to seats close to field level.

According to Winborn, the AT&T Stadium now has more than 1,600 Wi-Fi APs in use for football games, and 1,400 antennas in its DAS network. By comparison, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., perhaps the newest and one of the most technologically savvy venues out there, has 1,200 Wi-Fi APs and 700 DAS antennas in its deployments. Winborn also said that the antenna/AP number at AT&T can also scale up as necessary, especially for events that use up more of the building’s space, like the Final Four basketball tournament held there last spring.

“We scaled up to 1,825 [Wi-Fi] antennas for the Final Four last year,” said Winborn in a recent email, where he guessed that the venue might deploy up to 2,000 Wi-Fi APs when the Academy of Country Music Awards holds its yearly event at AT&T Stadium on April 19.

Hiding Wi-Fi APs an aesthetic priority

John Winborn, CIO for the Dallas Cowboys, poses next to a picture of two other innovators, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt

John Winborn, CIO for the Dallas Cowboys, poses next to a picture of two other innovators, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt

For all the extra numbers, one thing we noticed in walking around the building on Jan. 12 was that seeing an exposed Wi-Fi AP is about as common as seeing an albino deer. When we asked Winborn what the toughest thing was about network deployment in the venue, he responded quickly: “Finding ways to hide the APs so Jerry [Jones] doesn’t see them.”

With the price-is-no-object Jones on one side, and AT&T’s corporate image on the other, it’s clear there aren’t too many budgetary concerns when it comes down to spending more to make the network work, or look, better. Put it this way: You are never likely to have a “no signal” problem in a building that has on its outside an AT&T logo the size of the moon, and where AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson can be found wandering around the suite level during big events.

Though the immense space could probably be covered by fewer antennas, it’s worthwhile to remember that when the building was built and opened in 2009, it wasn’t designed with high-speed networking in mind. That means that almost all of the Wi-Fi and DAS deployments are a retrofit, including the ingenious circle of Wi-Fi antennas halfway up the seating bowl, which are covered by a tented ring of fiberglass designed and built specifically for the stadium.

According to Winborn the Wi-Fi network is supported by its own 2 GB backbone, with separate backbones in place for media networks and stadium application use. Winborn also noted that the stadium network runs 3,500 TVs via the Cisco StadiumVision system. Other records from this season include a peak concurrent Wi-Fi user mark of 27,523 (set at the Lions playoff game) and 38,534 unique Wi-Fi connections, that mark set at the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.

Performance solid, even at rooftop level

The view from the nosebleed section

The view from the nosebleed section

So how fast are the Wi-Fi and DAS networks? In our limited testing time at the CFP game, we found solid connections almost everywhere we tried, including outside the stadium while we (freezingly) waited for the doors to open. Just outside the main ticket gate, we got a Wi-Fi signal of 23.93 Mbps on the download and 39.67 Mbps on the upload. At the same location a Verizon 4G LTE device got a 5.93 Mbps download speed, and a 2.59 Mbps upload speed, but it’s unclear if that was on the stadium DAS or just on the local macro network.

When the doors finally opened at 5:30 p.m. (no idea why Jerry kept us all out in the cold all afternoon) we went inside and got solid connections inside the foyer of the pro shop — 18.23/21.74 on Wi-Fi, 21.05/14.84 on an AT&T 4G LTE device, and 12.65/4.61 on a Verizon 4G LTE phone. (It’s worthwhile to note that all our Wi-Fi speeds were recorded on the Verizon device, a new iPhone 6 Plus.)

Down in our field-level suite, where we were the guests of AT&T, we got marks of 19.43/25.31 on the Wi-Fi, 7.35/11.04 on AT&T 4G and 5.71/4.05 on Verizon 4G. An interesting note here: When Oregon scored a touchdown on its opening drive, we took another Wi-Fi speedtest right after the play and got readings of 4.38/7.79, suggesting that there were many Ducks fans communicating the good news.

Later during the game we wandered up to the “Star Level” suites (floor 6 on the stadium elevator) and got a Wi-Fi mark of 11.57/30.51, and 19.31/13.46 on AT&T 4G. The only place we didn’t get a good Wi-Fi signal was at the nosebleed-level plaza above the south end zone, where we weren’t surprised by the 1.41/1.98 Wi-Fi mark since we didn’t see any place you could put an AP. We did, however, get an AT&T 4G signal of more than 7 Mbps on the download in the same location, meaning that even fans way up at the top of the stadium were covered by wireless, no small feat in such a huge space.

Bottom line: Network in place for whatever’s next

If there is a place where AT&T falls behind other stadiums, it’s in the synchronization of network and app; since it wasn’t built with food delivery in mind, it’s doubtful that AT&T will match Levi’s Stadium’s innovative delivery-to-any-seat feature anytime soon. And even though AT&T Stadium is dominated by the massive over-the-field TV set, fans at the CFP championship game were left literally in the dark during questionable-call replays, since they weren’t shown on the big screen and aren’t supported in the AT&T Stadium app.

What could be interesting is if the technology demonstrated by AT&T at the big college game – LTE Broadcast, which sends a streaming channel of live video over a dedicated cellular link – becomes part of the AT&T Stadium repertoire. From experience, such a channel could be extremely helpful during pregame events, since many fans at the college championship were wandering around outside the stadium unsure of where to go or where to find will-call windows. A “pre-game info” broadcast over LTE Broadcast could eliminate a lot of pain points of getting to the event, while also introducing fans to the network and app for later interaction.

At the very least, AT&T Stadium’s network alone puts it in at least the top three of most-connected football stadiums, alongside Levi’s Stadium and Sun Life Stadium in Miami. Here’s looking forward to continued competition among the venues, with advancements that will only further improve the already excellent wireless fan experience.

More photos from our visit below. Enjoy!

Fans freezing outside waiting for the CFP game to start

Fans freezing outside waiting for the CFP game to start

Creative OSU fan

Creative OSU fan

Plug for the app

Plug for the app

AT&T Stadium NOC aka "the Fishbowl"

AT&T Stadium NOC aka “the Fishbowl”

Sony Club. Now we know where Levi's Stadium got its "club" ideas

Sony Club. Now we know where Levi’s Stadium got its “club” ideas

Panoramic view (click on this one!)

Panoramic view (click on this one!)

A glass (cup?) of bubbly to celebrate the 6 TB event

A glass (cup?) of bubbly to celebrate the 6 TB event

ESPN launches updated soccer site, apps, ahead of World Cup

Just in time for the World Cup soccer tournament (which will happen if they ever finish building the stadiums), ESPN has announced an official launch of the newly redesigned ESPNFC.com website, which the worldwide leader promises will bring “comprehensive multiplatform World Cup coverage from Brazil and around the globe.”

So it’s not just World Cup matches but pretty much anything soccer that you want or need to know will be available via the site as well as through the new ESPN FC app, available for either iPhone or Android. According to ESPN, as the official FIFA U.S. broadcaster, its app will have access to live video highlights “moments after they happen.” Like we said, as long as they finish building the stadiums.

Screen shot of ESPN FC app

Screen shot of ESPN FC app

Another screen shot of the ESPN FC app. Do you have World Cup Fever yet?

Another screen shot of the ESPN FC app. Do you have World Cup Fever yet?