March 2, 2015

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?

Masters sets big-event standard again for streaming video, with multiple online and app choices

Screen shot of The Masters iPhone app. Credit: The Masters

Screen shot of The Masters iPhone app. Credit: The Masters

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: No big sports event does online video as well as The Masters. And this year’s version, which begins Thursday April 10, is no different with five channels of online action available both at CBSsports.com and at the Masters.com site. Live video and other features will also be available through the free Masters apps for iPhones, iPads, iPod Touch, and Android-based phones and tablets. Mind you, this is all on top of the extensive live TV coverage, which is also the best for any major sporting event simply because of the lack of commercials.

HERE IS THE FULL MASTERS TV AND ONLINE BROADCAST SCHEDULE FOR THE ENTIRE MASTERS WEEK

Even with Tiger Woods missing this year’s Masters due to recent back surgery, there’s still plenty to like about this year’s field and with Tiger removed from the equation maybe some other golfers will get more time to shine in the spotlight. But seriously, if you can’t get your fill of live golf action next week you’re simply not trying. The online part, which we like best, will have five different channels, four of which are truly live on-course action, plus one from the range with the usual talk-show type analysis and blah blah blah.

But the action channels are mesmerizing: One will focus on “Amen Corner,” the stretch of holes 11, 12 and 13 that may be the best three-hole sequence anywhere; another channel focuses on holes 15 and 16, which would be signature holes at maybe any other course other than Augusta. The third and fourth channels will simply focus on “featured groups,” following top groupings of players over the last 9 holes each day. If you’re an addict like I am you will be sitting with your laptop on the couch, watching ESPN coverage Thursday and Friday which you supplement with the online stuff.

We tracked down some of the infrastructure that makes the Masters online tick a couple years ago, and we can only imagine how it’s grown since. The good news is, the team of The Masters, IBM and CBS seems to have this thing nailed down, and truly we can’t wait for what is usually the best weekend of online sports-watching anywhere.

Fox: We’re ready for big Super Bowl streaming audience

While nobody can predict how things like a stadium blackout or a polar vortex might affect the broadcast of an event like the Super Bowl, executives at Fox are doing all they can to prepare to make sure this year’s online coverage of the NFL’s championship game goes off as well as possible.

With viewership expected to exceed last year’s total of 3 million unique online viewers, the live stream of Super Bowl XLVIII will be available on iPads in the Fox Sports Go app and via a browser at FoxSportsGo.com. The online feed will be available free to anyone with an Internet connection starting at 12 a.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 2, and will also include access to a Spanish-language broadcast.

But remember: The live streaming from Fox is only available for desktops or laptops, or via an iPad using the FoxSportsGo app. Because of NFL rights contracts, to watch the game live on a smartphone you need to be a Verizon customer and have the $5 per month premium version of the NFL Mobile app installed.

No matter which platform you choose to use, as always the Super Bowl should be a compelling story, even if that tale is something other than the game between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. Super Bowl XLVIII is scheduled to start around 6:30 p.m. ET from MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where snow and cold may be part of the equation.

“It should be interesting, with [possible] weather in New Jersey,” said Clark Pierce, senior vice president of mobile and advanced platforms for Fox Sports, in a phone interview earlier this week. “We’re ready for traffic to spike at some moment when something happens, and we get a lot of concurrent users. We’ll see how we do.”

Tablet audience keeps fueling growth

Granted, the online viewer numbers for the Super Bowl are completely dwarfed by the regular TV viewers, which for last year’s game totaled 164 million. But having 4 million unique viewers online is a huge digital audience, and it’s one that Pierce said Fox has been planning for over the past few years.

“We know what CBS did [for streaming] and we know what NBC did,” Pierce said of the networks which had the Super Bowl broadcast the past 2 years. “And we’re working with [content delivery network provider] Akamai, and it’s not their first rodeo. So I think we’re ready for whatever can happen.”

Perhaps the biggest number of online viewers for this year’s Super Bowl will come via Apple iPads, the market leader in the tablet form factor. While Fox has not yet released viewer numbers by device or platform for its restricted streaming of the NFC playoff games, it did say it had a record 2.4 million visitors to its FoxSports.com website on championship Sunday, a 53 percent increase over the previous year. Pierce said increases in digital viewers are partially due to the expanding tablet market, and tablet owners getting more comfortable watching sports on a smaller screen.

“The concept of watching TV on a smaller screen is another year down the road and people are just that much more used to it,” said Pierce, who also said that online viewers may choose tablets over laptops or desktops due to clearer pictures.

“People are getting spoiled by Apple and Android devices with really high screen resolution,” Pierce said.

Streaming delay inevitable

What doesn’t work so well with any live streaming option is trying to use it as a “second screen” alongside a live TV broadcast. Because of the technical necessities of putting a live signal online — which includes mainly taking the TV feed and encoding it to the Internet — delays between “live” TV and the show online can be from 20 seconds to a minute or more, Pierce said.

“It does take time to take a big HD picture and encode it into IP,” Pierce said. “There’s just no way around it.”

In the future, Pierce hopes to help Fox add more features to its online offerings, maybe making them something like what broadcast engineers see in the event production studios, with multiple monitors offering different feeds and live stats. Still, just having a free online broadcast is a huge leap forward from the recent past.

“It’s been exciting to build it, and in the future our team hopes to add more content and features,” Pierce said. “The horizon is pretty exciting.”

New MLB app lets fans develop GM skills

mlbvp

Major League Baseball’s Advanced Media Group has taken the wraps off of its latest mobile game as the league is now looking to maintain fan interest and mindshare into in the off season with the release of MLB.com Franchise MVP.

Baseball fans are often known for their following of not just the major league team but all of its affiliates in the minors from short season A teams to AAA as well as Winter League and other off season contests, and this game will appeal to them.

MLB.com Franchise MVP covers not only the pro level but actually starts at the Class A level and includes 120 teams that are in both MLB and MiLB and enables the user to be both a player working his way up to the bigs but also as a manager.

Starting out the user decides on a wide variety of topics and how to apply them such as training and what type, as well as in game decisions for the mini-game simulations. As skills and ability improve the players moves up levels and helps teams win. As the player progresses he earns currency that can be used to buy addition gear, skills and training equipment

In its press release MLB’s vice president of gaming Jamie Leece said “We built this game to be a fun graft of simulation baseball and player development strategies,” Anyone who has sat around with more than two baseball fans knows that these are topics that are very popular.

The app, which is available for free for Apple iPad and iPhones joins a number of other programs that have been developed by MLBAM including MLB Ballpark Empire and MLB.com Home Run Derby. It would be fun if the league made some that included some of the historical but now gone leagues like the Arizona-Mexican League or just any of the Class B, C or D leagues.

Short Week Grab Bag: Cheap HP tablet, new hockey TV deal in Canada

Hewlett-Packard has revealed that it will be entering the Black Friday fray with a very enticing offer: a 7-inch HP Mesquite tablet for the low, low price of only $89. The tablet will be available at your local Walmart.

The tablet is one of several that will be on sale that weekend that are powered by Intel’s Medfield family of microprocessors as the chip maker is using the start of the shopping season to start hyping its development partners in the tablet space.

Google Glass user booted from club
Earlier this year a Seattle bar said that it would ban anybody wearing Google’s see all glasses. Well a user of the hands free device has been kicked out of a bar, but not the one that made the original promise.

A user was asked to either remove the glasses or be asked to leave the Lost Lake Café and Lounge and apparently made a scene both at the bar but also online (where else) as he complained about his rights. Not sure where in the U.S. Constitution those rights are covered but I am sure its in there somewhere.

EdgeCast Networks helps Indianapolis Colts reach fans
The team has developed the ability to stream video and live content to fans using pretty much any mobile device using EdgeCast technology as the team seeks to increase traffic to its own web sites and away from third party apps.

Get your Apple rumors here
Now that Apple has filled its backlog of iPhone 5S orders it’s time for the company to start fending off rumors of what will be in its next generation iPhone, probably known as the iPhone 6. Well the International Business Times has done a nice roundup for you.

The release date will be late next year; it will have a larger screen, possibly as large as six inches. The display may be curved or flexible and it will be lighter than existing models. Is weight really an issue with iPhones?

Nokia looking at 8-inch tablet?
Well not really looking at but actually planning on building on for sale, with a possible release date sometime in the first quarter of next year, a follow-up product to its 10-inch Lumina 2520, according to Digitimes.

The piece also said that it expects that LG Electronics and Sony Mobile to stay in the tablet market but that sources are reporting that HTC, Motorola Mobility and BlackBerry may choose to leave and only focus on smartphones.

New hockey broadcast deal in Canada
The NHL has just signed its most comprehensive, and largest financially, broadcast deal for games to be shown in Canada. The deal gives Rogers Communications the broadcast and digital rights to all NHL games.

The 12-year deal cost the cable company $5.2 billion and is viewed as a step by Rogers to drive demand for its subscription based cable networks.