August 28, 2014

Dallas Cowboys, AT&T add more tech to AT&T Stadium, add fuel to ‘most-connected stadium’ debate

AT&T Stadium, North Texas, USA

AT&T Stadium, North Texas, USA

During last Sunday’s first “real” football game at Levi’s Stadium, I was asked several times if I thought the San Francisco 49ers’ new home was the “most connected” venue ever. I hesitated and hedged my answer a bit, because when it comes to wireless networks and tech innovations I think AT&T Stadium — home of the Dallas Cowboys — needs to be mentioned in the same sentence as Levi’s.

This week AT&T and the Cowboys announced more enhancements to AT&T Stadium’s already powerful network, and a new toy for fans to interact with. First on the network side, AT&T said from last summer until now it has increased the capacity of the stadium’s DAS by 50 percent, with 1,300 DAS antennas now in place. On the Wi-Fi side the stadium now has more than 1,500 access points, which may be the most in any stadium anywhere, to the best of my knowledge. (According to the Niners’ press guide, Levi’s has 1,200 Wi-Fi APs.) Throw in the big TV hanging from the center of the roof and AT&T Stadium has to be part of any discussion about “the most connected stadium” in football, if not in all of sport.

AT&T Stadium's new "Fan Experience Board" in louvering position. Credit all photos: AT&T/Dallas Cowboys.

AT&T Stadium’s new “Fan Experience Board” in louvering position. Credit all photos: AT&T/Dallas Cowboys.

(I’d also include AT&T Park in San Francisco in that argument, which has somewhere north of 1,200 Wi-Fi APs in a much smaller venue; from what we hear the two AT&T-sponsored stadiums have a friendly competition when it comes to tech deployments.)

On the new-toy side it should be fun to see the new 130-foot “AT&T Fan Experience Board” in action — according to AT&T and the Cowboys this contraption is built of 40 mirrored louvers which can rotate in sync, and can show ads, fan pictures and will also be part of what the team and AT&T are calling the “Unite this house” feature on a new fan app. We’ll let the Cowboys blog explain how this will work, on plays where Tony Romo is throwing to teammates instead of to opponents:

The “Unite the House” fan interaction feature on the app will alert fans at pivotal moments of the game through their mobile devices. As the stadium app vibrates, a message will be displayed providing the particular context and immediacy of the action. Fans will be guided to unlock their phones, hold their fingers on the Dallas Cowboys star and as more phones power up, the stadium will be full of strobes, not only from mobile devices, but also on the ribbon displays and the HD video board. The visual will gain intensity and speed as more fans join in, energizing the stadium and culminating in a final eruption of light and motion provided by the louvers that will canvas the entire stadium.

AT&T Stadium interactive screens

AT&T Stadium interactive screens

AT&T and the Cowboys also announced some large interactive screens — the Cowboys blog called them “life-sized iPhones” — where fans can swipe to learn more about Cowboys players, or Cowboys cheerleaders. Our guess is that both will be immensely popular. At Levi’s, there are some interactive displays and features — one, sponsored by Yahoo!, asks fans to answer trivia questions. While it’s neat to see these things emerge, I wonder if instead of fluffy features some interactive boards could be converted into things that could help you — like with stadium maps, or an app that would let a phone-less fan send a message to someone else’s device. Our guess is that you will see more, not less, of these interactive screens in the near future.

If nothing else, the Cowboys and AT&T seem to be showing that even off the field, the NFL is a competitive league — we will be interested to see how the technology deployments at other stadiums, like Jacksonville, play out. Look for more coverage and anlysis in our upcoming Q3 Stadium Tech Report issue, which will focus on… football. AT&T technology photos to follow.

AT&T Fan Experience board with single message

AT&T Fan Experience board with single message

Message board showing photo compilation

Message board showing photo compilation

Who’s up for a Levi’s Stadium SpeedTest?

Friends and fans of Mobile Sports Report who are planning to attend Sunday’s first football game at Levi’s Stadium — how about helping us out by taking a network speed test to see if the facility’s much-touted wireless network really delivers as planned?

Ookla Speedtest in action

Ookla Speedtest in action

Mobile Sports Report will be in the house Sunday, and we will do our best to walk around as much of the stadium as we can, testing network speeds and app performance along the way. But nothing beats more results, and if you’re not familiar with how to do a network speed test, it’s pretty easy. Just go to Speedtest.net, run by Ookla, and either click “begin test” or even better yet from a mobile device, download the Speedtest app and do the same thing.

When the test is running you’ll get a little meter showing how fast the download and upload speeds are. I think the best method for sharing is to tweet the results — you can do so either by going to the “results” page on Speedtest.net or on the app, and share via Twitter from there, or maybe better yet just post a tweet with the results, along with the time of day and what part of the stadium you’re in. Also note whether you are using the stadium’s Wi-Fi network or just using a cellular connection. Both should work quite well, but it could be interesting to see if one works better than the other during a packed-house event.

If you don’t want to run a Speedtest, even tweeting about general network performance (good, slow, no connection) would be worthwhile, as would be any info about long or short concession lines, problems or smooth ways to get into the park, etc. If everyone uses the hashtag #Levinet I’ll round up as many as possible and put them in a blog post. (My Twitter handle is @PaulKaps if you want to follow my tests Sunday.)

We’ll try to organize group speed tests at as many games as we can get to this fall — again, the more results the better the idea we will have about how the new Levi’s Stadium is or isn’t performing.

UPDATE: Interesting tweet late Friday night from Dan Williams, the man whose job it is to make sure the network works…

Have to say I agree with Dan’s point that measuring pure speed via SpeedTest in a bit of a vacuum may not be an optimal grade. But I do like its ability to show whether things wireless are working or not… anyone with a better idea, we’re all ears… or browsers…

Bonus: KQED reporter Molly Samuel interviewed yours truly for a Marketplace radio segment on Levi’s, embedded below. Enjoy!

Extreme, SignalShare team up for Wi-Fi deployment at Jacksonville Jaguars’ EverBank Field

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 1.24.04 AMExtreme Networks and SignalShare are teaming up to bring a full-featured Wi-Fi deployment to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ EverBank Field for the coming NFL season, in what is perhaps a sign that teams may already be seeking more than just pure connectivity when it comes to putting Wi-Fi in stadiums. In a press release Friday (which was actually pre-announced by the Jaguars on Wednesday), the companies said they have entered into a strategic partnership that will bring both high-density Wi-Fi as well as advanced analytics and network-monetization opportunities to the Jaguars and their 67,246-seat stadium in Jacksonville, Fla.

Extreme is no stranger to the NFL, with deployments of its “IdentiFi” Wi-Fi gear and analytics software already working at the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium and at the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field. Last month, Extreme announced it would be the primary provider of Wi-Fi services for the Tennessee Titans’ LP Field.

But at Jacksonville, Extreme will be partnering with the much smaller SignalShare, a Raleigh, N.C., concern that has both Wi-Fi integration and deployment expertise, as well as an “audience engagement platform” called “Live-Fi” that the company says “leverages real-time analytics and dynamic messaging to deliver location-aware customized content – including offers, discounts and call-to-actions – to attendees’ mobile devices during events.” SignalShare says it has systems at work for sports clients including the Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets, and Indiana Pacers, and has also deployed its systems at other large venues and events, including the U.S. Open tennis tournament and several large outdoor concert venues.

New huge video boards at EverBank Field

New huge video boards at EverBank Field


New network, huge video boards… and pools!

Even though much of the sports-tech world is watching the San Francisco 49ers’ technology deployments at the brand-new Levi’s Stadium, the combination of the Extreme/SignalShare network and other enhancements like the two new humongous LED screens at EverBank (and perhaps the two pool party areas) may make the Jaguars’ stadium another tech jewel in the NFL realm. To us the most interesting part of the partnership is its potential to empower network monetization schemes, either through targeted mobile-ad insertions, or some deeper analytic- or location-based network awareness. Though many stadium deals typically involve multiple “silent” partners who do lots of work with little to no public recognition, the very public announcement of this partnership also shows perhaps a maturation of the industry at large in allowing credit (and profits!) to be more equally shared. Let’s see what happens in the near future, eh?

We’ll do our best to get a deeper profile of the hows and whys of the deployment in the near future, but for now some bullet points from the press release should help get the conversation started. According to Extreme and SignalShare, here are some of the key points about the coming deployment:

● Extreme Networks and SignalShare will install the 802.11ac high-density IdentiFi Wireless solution for outdoor venues to provide Wi-Fi access free of charge to all fans at EverBank Field.
● The Extreme Wi-Fi system is designed to allow fans at EverBank Field, which has a seating capacity of over 67,000, the bandwidth to concurrently access and use multimedia applications without interruption.
● Extreme Networks technology will power a dedicated social hub and moderated social feed that will display relevant content from Instagram and Twitter.
● SignalShare’s LiveFi digital network enables the Jaguars to engage and monetize fans by pushing targeted in-browser messaging and advertising to their mobile devices.
● SignalShare is providing the Jaguars consulting and project management for the overall networking deployment, optimization and support.
● Extreme Networks is commitment to enhancing the in-stadium experience for fans and the critical role big data and analytics play in delivering on that goal for today’s highly connected fans.

Party on at the EverBank pools!

Party on at the EverBank pools!

What will be interesting to see is whether or not the Wi-Fi network will extend beyond stadium boundaries (to parking lots and other outside areas), whether it will handle the “overflow” events like the Georgia-Florida game (which can push attendance into the 82,000 mark with temporary seats) and how if at all the Jaguars’ team app will incorporate the new connectivity. (And, what about the DAS deployment?) If any Jags fans have a preseason field report from using the network at EverBank (which we expect has probably already been in operation in some areas) please let us know… and send along any SpeedTest results as well!

Tennessee Titans pick Extreme Networks for LP Field Wi-Fi deployment

LP FieldThe Tennessee Titans picked Extreme Networks to provide a Wi-Fi deployment at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., becoming the third NFL team to choose Extreme gear for wireless connectivity.

Along with Wi-Fi integrator PCM, Extreme said in a press release Monday that it will bring both its Wi-Fi networking gear as well as its analytics software to the Titans, to provide a free-for-fans wireless network to all parts of the 69,143-seat LP Field. Previously, Extreme had built Wi-Fi networks for the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Extreme may have a leg up when it comes to securing more NFL Wi-Fi deals, thanks to a deal announced earlier this year under which Extreme is the league’s “official provider” of Wi-Fi analytics. Though the deal doesn’t automatically provide Extreme with any signed contracts, in the follow-me world of sports technology deployments one successful implementation plus an endorsement from the league means that at the very least Extreme is on most short lists when NFL teams are seeking Wi-Fi providers. The company is also known for implementing the Wi-Fi coaches idea, where network-knowledgeable employees roam the stands at games to help fans connect to the Wi-Fi.

“Our fans are our number one priority, so being able to provide an enhanced experience for them is a tremendous opportunity,” said Don MacLachlan, executive vice president of administration and facilities for the Titans, in a prepared statement. “The partnership with Extreme will not only positively change the in-game atmosphere but will also allow us to garner deeper insights into how fans interact with their devices while they are in the stadium. Extreme’s Wi-Fi and analytics solution is unparalleled and we are confident we will receive encouraging feedback.”

According to Extreme the network is scheduled to be live in time for the start of the season. The Titans’ first home game of the regular season this year is Sept. 14 against the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talks stadium Wi-Fi

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi's

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi’s

Two years ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made news by calling for Wi-Fi networks in all NFL stadiums. While that wish is not yet a reality, the public debut of the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium Thursday allowed the commish to stop by for a very short press conference, where he did have some interesting points to make about Wi-Fi in stadiums.

While we’ve embedded the entire answer via video below, Goodell’s main point when asked about all the technology in the stadium was to highlight Wi-Fi, about which he said that when you put Wi-Fi in a stadium, “you allow people to use a technology they already know.”

Having more technology available to fans, Goodell went on to say, “is the best experience.” Whether or not the NFL as a league will help pay to bring that technology to individual stadiums that don’t yet have it is a story for another day.

video credit: Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report.

Stadium Tech Report: Niners President Marathe confident that Levi’s Stadium network, apps will deliver as promised

Niners president Paraag Marathe (center) at Intersport Activation Summit panel.

Niners president Paraag Marathe (center) at Intersport Activation Summit panel.

So, Paraag Marathe — will the network at Levi’s Stadium live up to its considerable pre-launch billing and be ready to go when the stadium opens later this year?

“It better work, since we’ve been talking about it,” said Marathe Friday, during a panel discussion at the Intersport Activation Summit presented by SportsBusiness Journal/Daily in San Francisco. “We better be right.”

Even though the short history of in-stadium networks suggests that any new endeavor be launched with words of caution, Marathe and the San Francisco 49ers are instead confident — very confident — that their new stadium will launch with a network second to none, and have game-changing services like food and beverage delivery to seats and on-demand instant replay that will redefine the game-day experience.

Paraag Marathe, president, San Francisco 49ers

Paraag Marathe, president, San Francisco 49ers

In both his panel discussion at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and in an additional interview afterward, Marathe provided some additional details about plans the Niners have talked about previously for the technology features at the new stadium, which is located in Santa Clara, Calif., smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley. Though Marathe said the stadium’s location — quite literally next door to several high-tech company campuses — made technology “part of the DNA,” he stressed Friday that the Niners are seeking to use technology to improve the fan experience, and not just to have cool stuff.

“It’s not technology for technology’s sake,” Marathe said. “It’s to enhance being at the game.”

But he did add that the stadium’s Wi-Fi network will be the base for much of the innovation.

Wi-Fi is ‘the master key’

An under-the-seat access point. Credit: Aruba Networks

An under-the-seat access point. Credit: Aruba Networks

The Wi-Fi network, which Marathe said “will absolutely be working” when the park opens, is “the master key that unlocks everything,” he said. Currently being built with Wi-Fi access point gear from Aruba Networks and back-end network equipment from Brocade Networks, the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network will also have twin 10-Gigabit broadband pipes provided by Comcast to provide what Marathe said will be throughput “30 times more than any other stadium.”

Marathe said the Wi-Fi network is being built with what he calls a “spider web” of access points, though neither the Niners nor Aruba have yet said just how many access points will be used to create the network. There will also be a neutral-host cellular DAS at the stadium, built by DAS Group Professionals (DGP). Already, DGP has signed up the “big four” carriers of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, to use the DAS at the stadium.

What will the networks be used for? Marathe outlined four main points of technology innovation during his talk, including high-definition, on-demand replays via the new Niners stadium app; in-seat delivery of food and beverages to every seat; way-finding features to perform tasks like locating friends, finding parking spots, and to tell which bathroom lines are shortest; and paperless tickets, based on RFID and near-field communication to fans’ devices. Of the four, the replay idea and the food-delivery service stand out as massive technical and industrial challenges.

Promised: Better replays than those on TV

If there is one promise that has many in the stadium technology industry shaking their heads, it’s Marathe’s pledge of Levi’s being able to deliver “better replays than what the coaches are seeing,” since team coaches only get to see replays provided by the network broadcasts. The Niners, Marathe said, will have “a massive [internal] production crew” working on the replay feature, since replays not only need to be picked out of the video stream, they also need to be coded to work over the Internet and to be delivered to handsets. Though Marathe admitted that the video quality may dip a bit below true HD if a lot of fans try to watch replays at once, he told the conference crowd that the Niners’ stadium app is going to deliver “HD, slo-mo [replays] within seconds after a big play.”

While other stadiums, like Barclays Center in the NBA, use technologies like Cisco’s StadiumVision Mobile to deliver separate “channels” of live video and replays, Marathe said the Niners’ app will allow fans to choose their own replays and when they want to watch them. “If you have a [replay] channel, you’re subject to whatever is on that channel,” Marathe said.

The food-delivery feature, Marathe said, is more than putting a menu in an app — “it’s an immense industrial engineering exercise,” he said, to figure out things like how many runners are needed and when and how food needs to be prepared. In addition to food delivery — an option he said will be available to every seat in the 68,500-seat stadium — the Niners will also have “express pickup” lanes for digitally placed orders at concession stands, an idea that Marathe said helps eliminate or significantly reduce two of the three things that make concession interactions a time-consuming act.

“There’s decision time, transaction time, and preparation time,” Marathe said. “If you can eliminate two of three variables, that’s a few more minutes fans have to watch the game.” Waiting until fans show up at a stand to prepare the food will help keep the order fresh, he added.

Wayfinding, paperless tickets and the 9-Nerds

If there’s one idea that’s already gotten a lot of press, it’s the plan to have wayfinding technology assist features like the one that will let fans know how long the bathroom lines are. Marathe said the idea was to make it simple — “red light, yellow light, green light” — to let fans know that if they have to go, it might be faster to try the bathroom one section over.

“We’re really just trying to be smart,” said Marathe. Other wayfinding apps might include a parking-spot locator, or a friend-finder feature.

The fourth area where Marathe wants Levi’s to innovate in is paperless ticketing, which he said wouldn’t be 100 percent this year but it will eventually get there. A future scenario described by Marathe might use RFID or near-field communications to let fans simply walk through a gate without having to show a ticket or even a bar code to be scanned. Some ski areas, like Aspen and Vail in Colorado, already use such technology to let skiers get on lifts without having to show anyone their RFID-equipped lift tickets.

“The idea is to have greeters who can actually greet you” when you walk in, and perhaps extend a personal offer for discount goods purchases or seat upgrades, Marathe said. “It’s a more human interaction,” fueled by technology.

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Extreme Networks

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Extreme Networks

Finally, to help fans figure out how to use the new network and apps, Marathe confirmed plans previously reported by Mobile Sports Report to hire a crew of “network coaches” to roam the stands. According to Marathe the coaches will be called “9 Nerds” (say it quickly) and will likely be college students, dressed in what Marathe called “Poindexter outfits.” The Niners are looking to hire 150 such network helpers, which would be the largest such crew we’ve heard of in the stadium networking marketplace.

“They’ll stand out,” Marathe promised.

Lots of network use — and a team ready for its launch

With all the hype about the network, Marathe expects that Levi’s Stadium wireless usage will far eclipse that at other stadiums, where often far fewer than half of the fans in attendance actually ever use things like Wi-Fi or stadium apps.

“Forget 10 percent [fan network use], we’re going to see something higher,” Marathe said. Even people who don’t have digital devices, he said, will probably borrow one “just to bring it to Levi’s to test it out.”

When asked why his team was so confident — in an industry where under-promising seems to be a sensible way to go — Marathe said that both the Silicon Valley heritage and the greenfield nature of the building gives the Niners and Levi’s a technological edge.

“Five years ago, we put together a kind of think tank with VCs and design people, and thought about what would be useful [at a new stadium], well before we ever put a shovel in the ground,” Marathe said. And even though the Niners’ CTO left the team earlier this year, Marathe is confident that his crew of 25 engineers (which he said also still gets some consulting help from the departed CTO, Kunal Malik) will deliver the network and apps as promised.

Having advanced technology in the new stadium, Marathe said, “was our mandate — the DNA of the building is all these tech companies that are around us. It’s who we are.”