Colorado passes on full-stadium Wi-Fi or DAS for Folsom Field

View of the west stands at Folsom Field, home of the University of Colorado football team. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

View of the west stands at Folsom Field, home of the University of Colorado football team. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

With a No. 9 ranking in all the major polls, the University of Colorado football team is experiencing a resurgence this season, which may lead to a rare CU sellout for this weekend’s final home game against Pac-12 rival Utah.

While the Buffs’ on-field performance in 2016 may have ended years of fan frustration, the 50,000+ fans expected to be in attendance at Folsom Field this Saturday may still experience another form of frustration, mainly in trying to get their mobile devices to connect to the Internet. According to school officials, there is no full-stadium, fan-facing Wi-Fi or cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) network in Folsom Field, and no plans to bring either to the venue anytime soon.

Instead, most fans at the on-campus stadium will rely on one of two nearby macro sites, one each from top wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon Wireless. According to Jeff Lipton, director of real estate for CU, the school decided to pass on bringing Wi-Fi or DAS to Folsom for a number of reasons, including the cost of the systems, the infrequent use of the facility, and potential loss of network control to prospective suppliers.

Hard to justify cost of connectivity for lightly used venue

“Nationally, stadiums are challenging” when it comes to cost justifications for installing wireless networks, Lipton said in a recent phone interview. While Lipton claimed that CU “hasn’t been sleeping on this,” saying the school has been reviewing wireless stadium options for several years, he added that CU had concluded that a cellular DAS wasn’t a good fit for Folsom, which has been the home of CU football since 1924.

Error message shown while trying to connect to ESPN's website at Folsom Field on Nov. 19.

Error message shown while trying to connect to ESPN’s website at Folsom Field on Nov. 19.

One of the main problems is, Lipton said, justifying the cost to bring connectivity to a venue that is only used a handful of times a year. In 2016, Colorado had six home games on its football schedule, the main use of 53,613-seat Folsom Field. This past summer there were two concert dates with the Dead and Company band that filled the stadium, and the stadium is also used as the finish line for the annual Bolder Boulder 10k on Memorial Day.

Though the crowds that do come to Folsom would no doubt enjoy better connectivity, right now it’s not in the cards, Lipton said, especially from a cellular DAS perspective.

“We looked at DAS for the main part of the stadium but determined it was not cost effective, and the vendors wanted a connectivity exclusive” for the rest of the campus, a deal Lipton said CU definitely did not want to agree to.

“We like to control our own [wireless] destiny on campus — we’re not going to give that up in a deal to get DAS,” Lipton said. And, Lipton said that “I’m not sure that [technically] in the long term, DAS is the solution” for stadium networks.

The right way to Wi-Fi

What’s more interesting to CU is finding some way or waiting for new technology to emerge to make owning and operating a Wi-Fi network inside Folsom something that makes sense. When it comes to Wi-Fi, Lipton said that CU has been aggressively installing it in many of the 12 billion square feet of building space it manages at the Boulder, Colo., campus.

Around Folsom, there is free public Wi-Fi available at the new Champions Center (an indoor practice field and offices building located adjacent to the east side of Folsom Field) as well as in the attached parking structure. There is also some free Wi-Fi available for suites and club spaces in the newer structures on the east side of Folsom Field, but nothing for the balance of bowl seating in the stadium.

Folsom's east side structure, which does have some Wi-Fi inside suites and club areas.

Folsom’s east side structure, which does have some Wi-Fi inside suites and club areas.

“We have pretty ubiquitous Wi-Fi throughout campus, and we installed it and run it,” said Lipton. In terms of bringing Wi-Fi into the Folsom Field bowl — as well as to the stands at the Coors Event Center, the school’s 11,00-seat basketball facility — that idea is still being studied by an internal working group, Lipton said.

“We recognize that long term, there are some real revenue opportunities [around Wi-Fi networks] that could pay for this later on,” Lipton said. “But it’s not there yet.”

Any Wi-Fi network that does end up getting built inside Folsom would also have to surmount the non-trivial challenge of bringing wireless networks to a facility with parts that are nearly 100 years old. Part of the bowl also sits in the ground, bringing another degree of difficulty to the idea of getting cables underneath the stands (for possible under-seat or railing-based antenna options). But for newer parts of the stadium, including the north end zone structures and the new east side, bringing connectivity to the stands outside wouldn’t be as difficult.

At the 11,064-capacity Coors Event Center, Lipton said there is some CU Wi-Fi inside the building, but it was not designed for full-stadium crowd access down into the seating bowl.

Unable to send texts, or get Internet access

Though Lipton claims that the two Folsom macro sites — one atop the roof on the stadium’s west side building and another on a building across the street — are working “much better” this season, an MSR visit to Folsom for the Nov. 19 home game against Washington State saw almost zero connectivity, on both the cellular and Wi-Fi front.

A look at the newer north and northeast structures at Folsom Field from the east stands.

A look at the newer north and northeast structures at Folsom Field from the east stands.

Though our tests were sporadic, with only one phone in one part of the stadium, our not being able to send a text message with a photo of the stunning Colorado Rockies backdrop was probably something many others experienced inside Folsom last week, where 48,658 fans saw CU beat WSU 38-24. On the Verizon network, we were almost always looking at a “1x” number for connectivity, which pretty much guaranteed no signal all day long.

Even inside the east building’s 5th-floor club area, where we detected the CU campus Wi-Fi network, our phone couldn’t connect, briefly showing a link but then dropping it as soon as we tried to do anything. There was no visible promotion of the CU Wi-Fi, or any instruction about whether fans should use one of two visible SSIDs, one with a “guest” label and one without. Back out in the stands, we tried to get to the ESPN website to see other college scores, but again our device failed to connect.

While Lipton admitted that “traffic on [football] game days can overwhelm” the macro sites, he still thinks any advanced connectivity has to make fiscal sense. As the one who says he signs contracts for such deployments at CU, Lipton said “there’s an art to every deal.” For Folsom Field connectivity, however, that deal hasn’t yet been done.

Ookla shares Speedtest data from CenturyLink Field, other stadiums

Ookla ad banner being flown over CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Credit: Ookla

Ookla ad banner being flown over CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Credit: Ookla

Anyone who follows Mobile Sports Report knows that I use the Speedtest app from Ookla to measure stadium network performance whenever I visit a sporting venue. While my one-man tests do show some measure of network power, I always dreamed of harnessing the results from many fans at the same game to see a better picture of the network performance.

Well, Speedtest’s creators think along the same lines, and conducted an experiment during an Aug. 25 Seattle Seahawks preseason game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. You can read their very thorough post and neat results here, with some interesting twists — for instance, the cellular networks are way faster than the CenturyLink Wi-Fi, according to the Ookla results.

UPDATE: Ookla responded to our email and let us know that on Aug. 25, there were 252 Speedtests at CenturyLink Field, a great sampling to draw results from. Ookla also talked about tests from 12 different events at CenturyLink Field, and said in the email that across those events it saw 1,143 tests conducted.

Ookla also published some test result totals from other stadiums as well, including Levi’s Stadium, AT&T Stadium and Bank of America Stadium, but didn’t say when those tests were recorded, or how many tests were taken.

What we really like, however, is that Ookla’s tests show what our stadium tech report surveys have been showing — that overall, in-stadium network performance is steadily improving. Over time, more data like this can help dispel the still-lingering rumor that stadium networks don’t deliver good connectivity. Now if we could only get Ookla to partner with us to do league-wide or college-comparison speedtests… anyone ready for that idea?

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?

Washington dropping Huawei for Cisco/Verizon Wi-Fi at FedEx Field, report says

Ming He, Country General Manager for Huawei in the U.S. (left), and Rod Nenner, Vice President of the Washington Redskins (right), pictured together when Huawei announced the team sponsorship and partnership.

Ming He, Country General Manager for Huawei in the U.S. (left), and Rod Nenner, Vice President of the Washington Redskins (right), pictured together when Huawei announced the team sponsorship and partnership.

According to a report from Bill Gertz at the Washington Times, the Washington, D.C. NFL franchise is apparently scrapping a recent deal with Chinese networking gear supplier Huawei to put fan-facing Wi-Fi into FedEx Field, turning instead to U.S. companies Cisco and Verizon.

Gertz, in the “Inside the Ring” column at the Times, said the Washington team’s senior vice president Tony Wyllie said in an email that “We [Washington] are in the process of deploying a stadium-wide Wi-Fi network working with Verizon and Cisco.” Gertz said the team did not elaborate on why the recent deal with Huawei was apparently scrapped before it got started.

Huawei, which claims to have installed Wi-Fi networks in many stadiums worldwide, had not had any large-scale installations at major U.S. venues before announcing the FedEx Field deal. A major competitor to large U.S. networking firms like Cisco, Huawei has been at the center of controversy in recent years, including being tabbed as a security threat by U.S. government officials, and later as a reported target for N.S.A. surveillance.

Under the announced terms of the deal, Huawei was supposed to install Wi-Fi in suite areas this December; a company spokesman said that while there was no official deal announced, Huawei was also supposed to follow that install up with a full-stadium deployment before the 2015 season started. In the initial announcement, the team announced Huawei Enterprise USA as a multi-year team sponsor and “Official Technology Partner.”

We have got calls and emails in to all the interested parties, and will update this story as we hear more.

NFL should take a chance on open APIs and gigabit Wi-Fi if it really wants to engage fans

When it comes to using technology, the NFL talks a really good game — but when it comes to decisions and deployments, the shield moves slower than a 3-yard cloud of dust. And it’s frustrating fans, who are looking for something along the lines of a run-and-shoot.

This week’s announcement of an agreement with Extreme Networks under which the technology company became the “official supplier of Wi-Fi analytics” is a good example of the NFL’s go-slow philosophy. While the deal is a small feather for Extreme and validation of its stadium Wi-Fi smarts, in the end it really doesn’t move many needles since it’s not a binding deal (meaning teams don’t have to use Extreme gear if they don’t want to) and also since many NFL stadiums don’t yet have fan-facing Wi-Fi. So while the NFL uses press events around such announcements to talk grandly of techno-fan engagement, what it really should be doing is spending some of its hoard of cash to help teams install super-fast networks in stadiums right now, instead of waiting for teams to do so on their own.

I get it that the networks are an asset for stadium owners, and in the long run they will want to reap the full benefits of their costs of deployment. And it’s hard to say there are things the NFL could be doing better, since the sport enjoys immense popularity for both its live and televised offerings. But nothing lasts forever. And if the NFL wants to keep justifying its hundreds-of-dollars ticket prices, it should offer its fans a game-day experience like no other — which should include super-fast, aka “gigabit” Wi-Fi. Fast Wi-Fi that connects instantly, and lets fans share photos, videos and more while at the game.

How much would that cost? Several million dollars to 10 million dollars per team? Even at the high end, it’s not like the league doesn’t have that kind of money to toss around. It does. Just its cellphone live-action rights contract alone — $1 billion from Verizon over 4 years — is enough to cover league-wide Wi-Fi deployments and more. And once those networks are in place, the NFL would be supremely set up to control and benefit from the possible coming explosion of in-stadium mobile device use. An explosion which could be even bigger if the NFL takes another radical step to open up its content and information to third-party developers.

Team apps are losing the battle

Right now whenever a stadium network is launched there is usually a grand accompanying plan for a “team app,” which promises just about everything a fan could possibly want, in the team’s eyes. The problem with these apps — which so far are largely being ignored — is that they are all developed from a team’s perspective, not a fan’s. My biggest complaint with most of the team apps (and this goes for other events and sports media channels as well) is that they try to do too much, and instead of being helpful are just a pain in the butt to use, with too much information and too many choices and constipated navigation.

I haven’t been to that many games lately but at the ones I’ve been to, here’s what I see people using their phones for at the games: Twitter. Instagram. Facebook. And text messaging. What’s the common denominator there? Simple, one-step apps that are already built into the user’s social sphere. And they’re more lively, too, with many pro athletes participating in places like Twitter with real, unvarnished conversations, unlike the team apps which are as boring and as sanitized as the only-good-plays replays on the stadium TV screens. If the NFL really wants to engage fans digitally, it should open up its APIs and free its video content, allowing third-party developers to build apps with real NFL content. (Why not try an open version of Megacast?) It’s a strategy that worked pretty well for Apple and the iPhone, where Apple gets a chunk of profits from an incredible ecosystem that was created simply by allowing the outside world to have access to the iPhone screen.

My guess is that what will happen is the exact opposite — the NFL, watching the success of MLB’s digital efforts, will sometime soon corral all its digital assets into a single NFL-sanctioned bucket, which it will then charge fans even more for. Get ready for your “NFL Digital Package,” maybe $200 more a year to get live video and highlights on your phone. And no, you won’t be able to share that content or create GIFs or Loops or Vines any of the other fun stuff that is going on right now in the sort of Wild West version of the digital sports world. Even though I would probably pay it, that direction sounds like hell. I’d rather see the NFL really embrace the future and let the creativity of all the fans and smart thinkers out there blossom. To revisit our opening metaphor, why not try a few deep downfield passes, NFL? Why keep running the ball inside?

‘Big Four’ wireless carriers sign on to use DAS at Niners’ Levi’s Stadium

Levi's StadiumWhenever you are putting a neutral DAS in a stadium, one of the biggest challenges is convincing the major cellular carriers to participate in your deployment. Even before their new arena has opened, the San Francisco 49ers have scored a victory of sorts with the news that the four biggest U.S. cellular carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — have all agreed to use the neutral-hosted DAS at Levi’s Stadium.

According to DAS Group Professionals, who are behind the DAS deployment at Levi’s, the system of small cellular antennas will also be synchronized with the stadium’s Wi-Fi coverage to produce “seamless” coverage for fans. Though we are historically wary of promises made before networks go live, the fact that the big players in U.S. cellular all agreed to use the neutral DAS shows at least in some way that the folks putting together the technology at Levi’s have a convincing story.

We’ll have more from DGP and the Levi’s DAS deployment at some point in the future, so stay tuned for the stadium launch that has everyone in the stadium tech marketplace watching and waiting.