August 27, 2016

NRG Stadium Wi-Fi ‘soft launches’ at Texans preseason game

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.35.17 AMThe Houston Texans gave their fans more to cheer about with a 16-9 preseason victory over the New Orleans Saints last Saturday, but what might have made a lot of people happy at NRG Stadium was the unofficial debut of the stadium’s new Wi-Fi network, which was available in a sort of “soft launch” mode.

We say “sort of,” because according to people who were at the game there was pretty heavy promotion of the new network’s availability, with bandwidth sponsor Comcast distributing flyers in seat cup-holders as well as making in-stadium announcements about the wireless connectivity. NRG Stadium had been one of the few NFL venues without Wi-Fi, but with the Super Bowl headed to Houston at the end of this season installing Wi-Fi became a priority.

Starting after the Final Four concluded this past spring, integrator 5 Bars and Wi-Fi gear provider Extreme Networks got busy, eventually installing approximately 1,250 Wi-Fi APs inside NRG Stadium. According to 5 Bars representatives, many of the APs in the seating bowl were installed under the seats, a deployment method that is becoming a trend in larger stadiums.

Though we don’t have any stats yet (since the network isn’t really “officially” launched) we did hear from network sources that there was a good uptake on the system, and we are looking forward to watching the Wi-Fi’s performance this season leading up to Super Bowl 51 in February. If any fans out there hit another Texans game anytime soon, send us a speedtest of the Wi-Fi!

Optical fiber, under-seat Wi-Fi will power wireless connectivity at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Aerial photo of Mercedes-Benz Stadium under construction. Credit all photos and artist renderings: Merecedes-Benz Stadium (Click on any photo for a larger image)

Aerial photo of Mercedes-Benz Stadium under construction. Credit all photos and artist renderings: Merecedes-Benz Stadium (Click on any photo for a larger image)

Once just a series of drawings on a blueprint, Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is getting more real by the day, with walls being added to steel beams, and wires for the internal networks being pulled into place.

Though the June 2017 opening day still is many months away, thanks to thoughtful planning many elements of the stadium’s network have already been tested, thanks to a facility created by stadium network officials to test components under situations as close to “live” as they could possibly get. That lab environment helped the network team make its final decisions on vendors and deployment methods, like going under-seat for deployment of most of the 1,000 Wi-Fi APs that will be in the stadium’s bowl area, part of a planned total of 1,800 APs in the entire venue.

In a recent interview with Jared Miller, chief technology officer at AMB Sports and Entertainment (the entity named for Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons), Mobile Sports Report got an exclusive update on the construction progress so far for the new $1.5 billion facility, along with new details about the internal network deployment, which will be using more optical fiber than any previous stadium network we know of.

Like the network built at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, the network inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium will have a single optical core for Wi-Fi, cellular and video, using the Corning ONE platform and deployed by lead network integrator IBM along with Corning.

Wall panels being added to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta

Wall panels being added to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta

Miller also confirmed our earlier report that YinzCam software would be used to host the stadium’s IPTV deployment, but vendor choices for Wi-Fi gear and a stadium app have yet to be named.

As construction teams continue to hustle toward completion of the building, here are more details from our conversation with Miller about how the Falcons’ tech team went through the process of determining the products and methods that would allow them to construct a network able to “push the limits” on fan connectivity.

Under-seat for Wi-Fi, with handrail heat sinks

In our early August conversation with Miller, he was happy to report that the planned 4,000 miles of optical fiber were finally starting to be threaded into the new building. “We’re making great progress with a ton of yellow cable,” Miller said.

While the overall architecture at the network core in Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be similar to the one IBM and Corning deployed at Kyle Field, Miller said that in Atlanta his team is pushing fiber even farther to the edge, “with only the last couple feet at most being copper.”

Interior suite construction with fiber cable visible

Interior suite construction with fiber cable visible

Miller said optical fiber, which can carry more data traffic at faster speeds than copper cable, is a necessary infrastructure underpinning for facilities like Mercedes-Benz Stadium that expect to host the biggest events like the Super Bowl and college football championship games. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is already slated to host Super Bowl LIII, the 2018 College Football Playoff Championship, and the 2020 Final Four.

“I really believe [fiber] gives us the foundation to grow and react in the future, to handle technologies we don’t even know about yet,” Miller said.

On the Wi-Fi side of things, Miller said that Mercedes-Benz Stadium will also mimic Kyle Field’s extensive use of under-seat APs in the bowl seating areas. Miller said the stadium will have 1,000 APs serving the seating areas and another 800 for the rest of the venue, for a total Wi-Fi AP count of 1,800.

Since the Mercedes-Benz Stadium network will be using more optical equipment closer to the edge, Miller said that his team used 3D printing experiments to craft custom enclosures for the under-seat APs, both to ensure they didn’t act as debris “traps” and also to add elements like an internal heat sink to diffuse the warmth from the extra electrical components. The heat sink solution involved attaching the AP elements to metal chair railings to dissipate heat, Miller said.

Testing the network before the building is built

After announcing its partnership with IBM in early 2015 as lead technology integrator, the stadium network team spent 6 months reworking the network design, Miller said, a process that confirmed the choice of optical networking at the core. Then to help the network team select gear and components, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium organization built a “full-scale lab facility” that Miller said allowed his team to build multiple live networks to test gear for performance and interaction with other network elements.

Artist rendering of outside of building

Artist rendering of outside of building

“The lab enabled us to see firsthand how gear behaved, not just alone but together [with other products],” said Miller, who added that at one time the network team had three simultaneous running stadium networks inside the lab.

“We were able to bring in different endpoint devices, like POS systems, and know how it’s going to behave [in a network],” Miller said. Plus, the network gave eventual business users of the planned gear time to get hands-on experience and training well before the stadium opens its doors.

On the DAS side of the network buildout, Miller said the stadium has an on-site, raised-floor room for DAS gear with “ample room” for future growth.

“One of those things we learned was that DAS [needs] always double,” Miller said.

YinzCam software for IPTV

Though the stadium hasn’t yet announced a provider for a game-day stadium application, Miller did confirm that Mercedes-Benz Stadium will use YinzCam software to control its IPTV system, which will cover the 2,500 or so TV screens inside the building.

Artist rendering of Falcons game configuration with roof open and 'halo' video board visible

Artist rendering of Falcons game configuration with roof open and ‘halo’ video board visible

“YinzCam is just the most intuitive and capable content management system,” Miller said.

Video is going to be a big part of the stadium from all angles, beginning with the one-of-a-kind “halo board,” a circular screen that will sit inside the retractable roof lines. For standard TV placements, Miller said Mercedes-Benz Stadium will use mainly 50-inch screens and will work with YinzCam to ensure the screens can be seen.

In the stadium’s suites, TV screens will be controlled by a tablet application; Miller said that Mercedes-Benz Stadium is also “contemplating adding the ability to control TV screens with a mobile app,” like the system YinzCam deployed at Texas A&M.

Friendly food pricing and more to come

Though Miller’s concerns are mostly technological in nature, he said there are still a lot of improvements coming to the stadium “that are not always reliant on brute technology,” like the new lower-priced food menus the Falcons announced earlier this year that seem to harken another era with $2 Cokes and $2 hot dogs. Miller said the stadium team continues to get feedback from a fans’ council, which has tagged the arrival and departure experience as one of the main pain points that needs fixing.

Artist rendering of window wall with view to city

Artist rendering of window wall with view to city

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will try to alleviate ingress and egress issues by doing things like creating “ticketed spaces” perhaps on the big outdoor plazas where many fans can congregate even before entering the stadium doors. By creating such spaces, Miller said fans might be able to enter the stadium more rapidly without the logjams that sometimes occur.

“We’re going to study arrival patterns and see what it looks like,” Miller said. “We have one more season to test those kind of things.”

Another amenity that may emerge is the use of wireless charging stations at a number of locations, to combat a scenario that Miller said often happens at marquee events, mainly fans’ phones draining their batteries as they compete with other devices to connect to a wireless network.

“We are focusing on providing amazing connectivity and pushing the limits,” Miller said. “We are looking at all kinds of options to allow fans to stay connected and not be separated from their device.”

Dolphins offer SunPass electronic-payment parking option for NFL, college games

Artist rendering of the new Hard Rock branding on Miami's stadium. Credit: Miami Dolphins.

Artist rendering of the new Hard Rock branding on Miami’s stadium. Credit: Miami Dolphins.

The ease of automatic electronic tollroad payments is now coming to sports stadiums, with the Miami Dolphins’ announcement of SunPass electronic payment parking options for fans attending NFL and college football games at Hard Rock Stadium this fall.

Like other tollroad payment systems, the SunPass used in south Florida requires a transponder in users’ cars, and that transponder will be required to use SunPass to pay for parking. According to Todd Boyan, the Miami Dolphins’ senior vice president of stadium operations, parking cashiers will have handheld devices that scan the windshield transponder. The SunPass option will be available in the outer lots surrounding the stadium, and fans using the option will have dedicated lanes separated from those paying cash or with credit cards.

Fans using the SunPass system will also get a discount on parking fees, with amounts varying per game. According to Boyan, for Dolphins games the outside lots are priced at $40, but will only cost $25 to fans using the SunPass system, a $15 savings. For University of Miami games at the stadium (which was recently renamed in a reported $250 million sponsor deal with Hard Rock) Boyan said the discount for SunPass users will likely be either $5 or $10, depending upon the game.

Comcast bringing backbone bandwith to NRG Stadium Wi-Fi

Free Wi-Fi is something Houston Texans fans will be able to cheer about this season at NRG Stadium. Credit: HoustonTexans.com

Free Wi-Fi is something Houston Texans fans will be able to cheer about this season at NRG Stadium. Credit: HoustonTexans.com

With the new Wi-Fi network just getting ready to go live at Houston’s NRG Stadium, Comcast announced that it will provide backbone bandwidth to the network under a sponsorship deal, with two 100-gig pipes that will both be available to the stadium facility.

Michael Bybee, a Houston-based director of external affairs for Comcast, said the company has a large fiber network throughout the Houston area, and a longtime relationship with the NFL’s Texans, making the network sponsorship deal a great fit. Comcast supplies (or will soon supply) similar broadband bandwidth to a number of other large stadiums, including the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, the Sacramento Kings’ new Golden 1 Center, the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, the Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Field, the Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park, the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Field and the Oakland A’s Oakland Coliseum, among others.

In Houston, where integrator 5 Bars is installing a new Wi-Fi network using Extreme Networks gear ahead of next February’s Super Bowl 51, Bybee said Comcast will have two 100-gigabit per second pipes coming into the stadium, where they will feed a main 10-Gbps circuit for the regular-season NFL Wi-Fi needs. Should the stadium require more circuits, Bybee said, the facility will be able to “seamlessly add additional circuits” given the surplus of bandwidth supplied by the 100-Gbps pipes.

Though there hasn’t yet been an official announcement of the network being ready for public use, sources tell us that fans at Saturday’s preseason game between the Texans and the New Orleans Saints should finally find fan-facing Wi-Fi (look for the xfinitywifi SSID), an amenity that had been missing at NRG Stadium in the past. Anyone who goes to the game — send us a speed test!

US Bank Stadium opens with packed house for soccer game, packed lines for trains

US Bank Stadium during its opening event, Aug. 3. Credit all photos: Pat Coyle, AmpThink (click on any photo for a larger image)

US Bank Stadium during its opening event, Aug. 3. Credit all photos: Pat Coyle, AmpThink (click on any photo for a larger image)

The grand opening event for US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis was futbol, not football, but the friendly between legendary clubs AC Milan and Chelsea still provided a packed house as 64,101 fans filled the Vikings’ new home Wednesday in what local media reports called a generally successful debut.

With any new stadium — and especially with flashy new stadiums like US Bank — there are always unexpected issues that arise when you finally fill the place with ticket buyers. Though we weren’t there, a good amount of reporting from the local paper and scans of social media found generally favorable reviews of the building itself, especially the natural-light atmosphere fostered by the large glass roof (OK, it’s actually an advanced plastic roof).

Among scattered reports of food shortages at concession stands, and foot-traffic issues probably caused by many fans taking just-in-the-door selfies, there were visual confirmations that the Vikings’ plan to have fans use light rail to get to the stadium suffered from some of the issues that plagued Levi’s Stadium early on: Not enough trains or cars on trains to handle the big post-game crush.

Apparently plans we heard to offer overflow bus service haven’t yet materialized, but now the stadium operators have some real data to use to prepare for the first Vikings game, an Aug. 28 preseason tilt, followed on Sept. 18 with the first regular-season game at US Bank Stadium, versus the Vikings’ main rivals, the Green Bay Packers.

The new app built for US Bank Stadium by VenueNext was available for download, but it didn’t include any ability for fans to order food from the app either for express pickup or in-seat delivery during Wednesday’s game. According to VenueNext, express pickup and in-seat delivery services will start during the Vikings preseason games, starting first in small select areas and later expanding to more parts of the stadium.

We also didn’t get any speed tests of the Wi-Fi or cellular networks in the building, so if you were there, let us know how the wireless worked (or didn’t). We would like to thank Pat Coyle from AmpThink for the on-the-scene photos below.

Giant video board shows the packed house

Giant video board shows the packed house

Can you spot the railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs?

Can you spot the railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs?

Good view of the glass (OK, advanced plastic) roof

Good view of the glass (OK, advanced plastic) roof

VenueNext's 'Kezar' scanners in operation at US Bank Stadium

VenueNext’s ‘Kezar’ scanners in operation at US Bank Stadium

Mobile device use was heavy as expected

Mobile device use was heavy as expected

How many selfies? Answer: A lot

How many selfies? Answer: A lot

Commentary: Venues need to think of connectivity beyond the stadium walls

MSR editor Paul Kapustka via selfie from the field-level suites at US Bank Stadium.

MSR editor Paul Kapustka via selfie from the field-level suites at US Bank Stadium.

Last month, if you wanted a seat inside US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis you needed a getup like the one I’m wearing in the picture – including what you can’t see, the steel-toed shoes and the gloves that kept me from scratching any of the already-finished surfaces. Almost ready to open its doors, I can tell you that US Bank Stadium is a beauty, and that we’ll have a full report soon. For now enjoy the “sneak peek” photo essay we posted earlier.

Outside the architecturally angled walls of the stadium, what really impressed me during a recent quick visit to Minneapolis was how well the stadium operators are working with entities like the city, state and other large public gathering places, to ensure that the large streams of humanity traveling to and from the 67,000-seat facility have the best experience possible, both before and after events.

Like most travelers, my experience with Minneapolis’ integrated infrastructures started at the airport, where I took the simple and easy to understand light rail directly into downtown. I noticed that the train already stops directly at one of the US Bank Stadium doors, unlike some other stadiums where mass transit connections are a sometimes-lengthy walk away. That the stadium already has its own stop even before it opens shows that at the very least, people were thinking and talking even before the concrete was poured.

Light rail stop at the front door of US Bank Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Light rail stop at the front door of US Bank Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR


Mass transit a priority for US Bank Stadium

Editor’s note: This editorial is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the Q2 issue which contains a feature story on Wi-Fi analytics, and a sneak peek of the Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!
With no large parking lots right next to the stadium and only some scattered lots (as far as I could tell) downtown, the light rail is clearly going to be an integral part of getting fans to and from the venue, both for regular-season Minnesota Vikings games as well as for Super Bowl 52 a couple Februarys from now. To make that trip easier, the light rail also extends past the airport to the Mall of America, a key link in the integrated civic infrastructure.

Why is the mall a part of this? Mainly because it is also a transit center (it has a large space where buses, trains and car parking are all together) and because it offers free parking – meaning that fans can simply park at the mall and spend a couple bucks taking the half-hour train to US Bank Stadium (or also to Target Field, which is just a few stops farther through downtown). Courtesy of a recent deployment there is now high-quality Wi-Fi in the mall itself, and at many places in Minnesota proper there is free civic Wi-Fi. There are also plans afoot to bring Wi-Fi to the light rail trains themselves. While it might not seem like much, the idea of being able to be highly connected all the way from parking at the mall to your seat in the stadium is a fan’s dream come true, enabling all the connectivity wants or needs that can happen during a game or event day.

Having witnessed some other stadiums opening without much coordination, it’s impressive and great to hear that the Vikings and Minneapolis are already planning for things like overcrowded trains after games (since more people leave at the same time than arrive at the same time), with plans to close off one of the stadium’s bordering streets and to have dozens of buses on hand to handle the overflow. There’s also plans to have stadium TVs show mass transit schedules as fans depart, and also options to remain downtown for post-game eating or celebrations.

VTA line following Levi's Stadium hockey game in 2015.

VTA line following Levi’s Stadium hockey game in 2015.

How else are the Vikings, the city and the state planning to work together? In our interviews we heard about plans to use real-time traffic mapping to close off crowded exits and to direct fans to faster paths to and from the stadium, and to perhaps be able to communicate such directions to fans via the team’s new mobile app. While it all still needs to be done in real time on a real game day, just the thinking about the fact that a “game day” doesn’t start or stop at the stadium premises is a refreshing one, especially for a venue that will host a Super Bowl in just over a year and a half.

While we’ve heard of other, similar plans to extend connectivity beyond the stadium walls – here we are thinking of the downtown plan around Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, and new plans for “fan plazas” outside such venues as Wrigley Field and Lambeau Field – the Vikings seem to have looked even farther out, to try to ensure that the connected fan experience goes as far as it possibly can. Again, the proof will be in the execution, but like the view from outside US Bank Stadium, the ideas hatching in Minnesota look pretty good.