Federated Wireless completes ESC network for CBRS

One of the coastal sensors deployed in Federated Wireless’ ESC network. Credit: Federated Wireless

Federated Wireless announced Monday the completion of its environmental sensing capability (ESC) network, in what may be one of the final stepping stones toward commercial deployments of networks in the CBRS band.

Under the unique shared-spectrum licensing structure of the CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band, a swath of 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz range, an ESC network must be in place to sense when U.S. Navy ships are using the band. What Federated is announcing Monday is that its ESC network is ready to go, one of the final things needed before commercial customers of Federated’s products and services would be able to formally start operating their networks.

Though the Federated ESC network is still pending final FCC approval, Federated president and CEO Iyad Tarazi said in a phone interview that the company “expects to get the green light [from the FCC] in June,” with the commercial customer launches following soon behind. Federated, a pure-CBRS startup with $75 million in funding, also offers Spectrum Access Services (SAS), another part of the CBRS puzzle to help ensure that any network operators who want to play in the shared-space sandbox that is CBRS are only using spectrum chunks that are free of any higher-priority traffic.

According to Tarazi Federated already has 25 customers testing its gear and services in getting ready to launch CBRS networks, a yet-unnamed group of entities that Tarazi said includes wireless carriers, enterprise companies looking to launch private networks, and even some large public venues.

Private networks first for venues?

The early thinking on CBRS use cases for sports stadiums includes the possibility of using private LTE networks for sensitive internal operations like ticketing and concessions, or even for closed-system video streaming and push-to-talk voice support. In the longer-term future, CBRS has been touted as a potential way to provide a neutral-host network that could support fan-facing carrier offload much like a current distributed antenna system (DAS), but to get to that place will still likely require some more-advanced SIM technology to be developed and deployed in client devices like cellphones.

But the potential of a new, huge chunk of spectrum — and the possibility of teams, leagues and venues being able to own and operate their own networks — has created a wide range of interest in CBRS among sports operations. While many of those same entities already operate stadium Wi-Fi networks, CBRS’s support for the cellular LTE standard theoretically could support faster, more secure networks. However, the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard may close the performance gaps between cellular and Wi-Fi in the near future; many networking observers now seem to agree that most venues will likely see a continued mix of Wi-Fi and cellular systems in the near future, possibly including CBRS.

Already, the PGA and NASCAR have live tests of CBRS networks underway, and the NFL and Verizon have kicked the ball around with CBRS tests, reportedly for possible sideline headset network use.

While CBRS will potentially get more interesting when the commercial deployments become public, if you’re a network geek you will be able to appreciate some of the work done by Federated to get its ESC network operational, starting with the deployments of sensors on coastal structures as varied as “biker bars and luxe beach resorts,” according to a Federated blog post.

Tarazi, who was most recently vice president of network development at Sprint, said the Federated ESC network is “triple redundant,” since losing just one sensor could render a big chunk of spectrum unusable.

“If you lose a sensor, you lose hundreds of square miles of [available] network,” Tarazi said. “That’s a big deal.”

And ensuring network availability is in part what Federated’s clients will be paying the company for, part of the puzzle that when put together will theoretically open up wireless spectrum at a much lower cost compared to purchasing licensed spectrum at auction. As one of the pick-and-shovel providers in the CBRS gold rush, Tarazi and Federated may be the only ESC game in town for a while, as the joint effort between CommScope and Google to build another ESC is not expected to be completed until later this year at the earliest.

“I feel like we’re at an inflection point now,” Tarazi said. “It feels good to be leading this wave.”

Self-serve concession kiosks seem set to arrive in more stadiums

Appetize self-serve concession kiosks at LSU. Credit: Appetize (click on any picture for a larger image)

In what might seem like an overdue no-brainer strategy shift, it’s a good bet that more stadiums are going to start adding self-serve concession stand kiosks, where fans can use digital display systems to order and pay for food more quickly than standing in a human-powered line.

Some recent news and analysis from two of the top operators in the venue concessions point-of-sale systems arena — Oracle Food and Beverage and Appetize — offers some positive proof points in concession kiosk use, with Appetize reporting higher and bigger sales at some of its customer sites for kiosks vs. human stands, while Oracle F&B (the new name for the company formerly known as Micros) has released a fan survey showing that 71 percent of interviewed fans said they’d use a self-service kiosk while at the game.

From where we sit here at Mobile Sports Report, more self-serve kiosks can’t arrive fast enough. While it’s interesting to sift through some of the replies to the Oracle survey, it doesn’t take any research to guess that if you offer fans a faster way to get concessions and get back to their seats, they’re going to be in favor of it. Likewise, while the sample size of results offered by Appetize is somewhat small (its percentage gains are based on install numbers of just a few stations in each of the venues it mentions), the hard data does show that kiosks can produce double-digit gains in per-order sizes, a goal appealing to any concession operation.

“There’s no stadium that doesn’t want more food and beverage money,” said Jeff Pinc, AVP of sales for Oracle’s Food and Beverage division, in a recent phone interview. Adding self-service kiosks, he said, is an easy decision for many venues since fans are “sort of demanding it.

“Fans see these systems already in use everywhere else, and they’re asking ‘how come they’re not here?’ ” Pinc said. For the stadium owner and operator, Pinc said the self-service systems have already established their worth in many fast-casual dining establishments, and the benefits should pass over to the sports venue world.

“Fast-casual has been doing this [self-service kiosks] for some time now and it’s known that the basket size (per order) gets bigger,” Pinc said. Digital kiosks, he added, can also be more efficient at upselling customers, something that human employees may forget to do.

LSU, AT&T Center see kiosk gains

Appetize’s news announcement said that the eight kiosks installed at LSU’s basketball arena, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, produced a 16% increase in average order size and 25% more items per order compared to human-operated terminals at point of sale counters. At the San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center, an initial test in the stadium’s Rock & Brews location was positive and led to the installation of six of the Appetize “Interact” kiosks, where the stadium saw an 18 percent increase in order size.

Self-serve kiosks in the Denver Broncos’ club-area food court. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“The Appetize Interact platform offers a modern and dynamic digital experience for guests while driving increased share of wallet for the business,” said Max Roper, co-founder and CEO at Appetize, in a prepared statement. “In the past six months, over 45% of our deployments have included self-service kiosks, and we expect this trend to continue as businesses require more automation and consumers desire a more frictionless experience.”

Oracle’s Pinc, whose company uses its Simphony POS system to help enable all operations including kiosk support, said that small, proof-of-concept deployments are a good start for any stadium interested in kiosks, since there are real-world details that need to go along with the automated systems.

“There’s a lot of thought that needs to go into a kiosk install, from educating the customer to where you put it, to where you go to pick up the food,” Pinc said. “There’s a lot of trial and error.”

Last fall MSR did a profile on how the Seattle Seahawks were using the Clear system to speed up beer-line payments, and also did some hands-on driving at a self-service POS terminal at the Denver Broncos’ Bronco Stadium at Mile High, where a system developed by Centerplate and PingHD was used to let fans order from individual chef stations in the club-level food court. Though Centerplate is no longer the concessionaire at Mile High, it’s just another sign that self-service is increasing inside stadiums, which is good news for fans tired of waiting behind the guy ordering 20 different things.

AT&T sees 2.5 TB of DAS traffic at men’s Final Four championship game

The concourses at U.S. Bank Stadium were well covered by DAS and Wi-Fi antennas for the recent Final Four. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

In addition to the big Wi-Fi numbers seen at the NCAA men’s 2019 basketball championship game, AT&T said it saw 2.5 terabytes of data used by its customers on its DAS network at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for the final game of the men’s Final Four weekend.

The neutral-host DAS in U.S. Bank Stadium, which is operated by Verizon, tested strong during MSR’s visit to the Final Four — we saw a mark of 37.5 Mbps on the download and 45.0 Mbps on the upload during the championship game, on a Verizon phone. Verizon, however, declined to provide any data totals from the Final Four.

In addition to its championship game numbers, AT&T said it saw 44.6 TB of data used on its networks in and around U.S. Bank Stadium for the entire men’s Final Four weekend.

Women’s Final Four sees 1.1 TB of DAS

At the NCAA women’s Final Four weekend in Tampa, Fla., AT&T said it saw a total of 1.1 TB of traffic used by its customers on the new MatSing Ball-powered DAS at Amalie Arena. That number includes traffic from both semifinal games as well as the championship game on April 7.

Colorado brings Wi-Fi and DAS to Folsom Field

Folsom Field at night. Credit: University of Colorado (click on any picture for a larger image)

There will be a change in the air at Folsom Field this fall, and not just from the team that new head coach Mel Tucker will lead onto the gridiron. For the first time, the mile-high atmosphere inside the University of Colorado’s historic venue will be filled with fan-facing Wi-Fi and cellular signals, thanks to new networks being installed this offseason by third-party host Neutral Connect Networks (NCN).

In a deal that will also bring Wi-Fi and a cellular DAS to the school’s basketball arena, NCN will use Cisco gear for the Wi-Fi network and JMA Wireless gear for the cellular networks. A centrally located head-end will serve both venues via fiber connections, some run through existing tunnels from the campus’ old steam-heating infrastructure.

Due to be live before the 2019 football season begins on Sept. 7 when CU hosts Nebraska, the Wi-Fi network will use 550 APs in a mostly under-seat deployment at Folsom Field, where there are no overhangs over any of the seating areas. DAS deployment in Colorado’s historic football stadium — which first hosted games in 1924 — will use antennas pointing down from the stadium’s top edges, with some new flagpoles scheduled to help provide antenna-mounting locations.

While its incredibly picturesque location at the edge of the Rocky Mountains has historically made Folsom Field a fan-favorite place to visit (at least for photos), the lack of any comprehensive wireless coverage of any sort has produced some grumbling from Buffs fans in recent years. According to Matt Biggers, CU’s chief marketing officer and associate athletic director for external affairs, wireless coverage inside the sports venues has been a topic of internal research for more than 6 years.

“It was all about finding a partner and a financial model that works for us,” said Biggers. “It finally got to a point where it made sense to pull the trigger.”

Neutral host model appealing to schools

Editor’s note: This report is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the Wi-Fi records set at Super Bowl 53, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

The CU Events Center, home of Colorado hoops teams. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The model brought to CU is a classic neutral-host operation, where a provider like NCN (which bought the former sports-stadium practice from 5 Bars) will build a school’s Wi-Fi and DAS networks under a revenue-sharing deal with the school where the carriers help some with upfront payments and then provide payments over a long-term lease to operate on the DAS.

The neutral-host option is one good way for schools or teams with smaller budgets or lightly used facilities to bring connectivity to arenas. CU’s Folsom Field, for example, doesn’t see much use other than the six home games per football season. This year, the stadium will see big crowds beyond football only at a few events, including the Memorial Day Bolder Boulder 10K footrace (which ends inside the stadium), a Fourth of July fireworks celebration, and a couple of July concerts featuring the Dead & Company tour.

According to James Smith, vice president of carrier services for NCN, AT&T will be the anchor tenant on the DAS, and will be first to be operational. Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, Smith said, are still negotiating long-term agreements but are expected to be on the DAS by 2020.

NCN [then under its old name of 5 Bars] negotiated a similar neutral-host deal with CU’s neighbor to the north, Colorado State University, for CSU’s new football stadium which opened in 2017. Now known as Canvas Stadium, the 41,000-seat venue had 419 total Wi-Fi access points when it opened, with approximately 250 of those used in the bowl seating area. Like CSU’s deployment, the Wi-Fi network at Folsom Field will use primarily under-seat AP deployments, mainly because the stadium’s horseshoe layout has no overhangs.

DAS gear already installed in the CU Events Center

According to NCN’s Smith, the current plan sees a deployment of 550 APs in Folsom Field, with another 70 APs in the basketball arena, the CU Events Center. Both venues’ networks will be served by a central head-end room located in an old telephone PBX space near the center of campus. Fiber links will run from there to both Folsom Field and the Events Center.

At Folsom, the NCN team will have a long list of deployment challenges, mainly having to navigate the construction particulars of a stadium that has been gradually expanded and added onto over the years.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s behind a brick,” said NCN director of program management Bryan Courtney, speaking of existing infrastructure that has been around for decades. Smith said the Folsom Field DAS will make use of overhead antennas, including some that will require new flagpole-type structures that will need to match Folsom Field’s architectural heritage.

Basketball arena is all top-down

At the 11,064-seat CU Events Center, formerly known as the Coors Events Center, deployment of both Wi-Fi and DAS will be somewhat easier, as all the gear servicing the seating area will be suspended from the catwalks. With the main concourse at stadium entry level and all the seats in a single rectangular bowl flowing down from there, the ceiling is close enough for good top-down coverage for both Wi-Fi and celluar, NCN’s Smith said.

The Golden Buffalo Marching Band on a CU game day. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Though deployment of both networks in the Events Center is currently underway, neither will be active until after the current college basketball season is completed. However, the Events Center stays somewhat more busy than the football stadium, with events like local high school graduations and other special events (like a Republican Party debate in 2015) making use of the space. Both networks should be fully up and running by the next basketball season, according to NCN.

Unlike some other universities that are aggressively pursuing digital fan-connection strategies, CU’s Biggers said the school will start slowly with its fan-facing networks, making sure the experience is a solid one before trying too hard.

“We’re pretty conservative, and this is a complicated project and we want to make sure we get it right,” said Biggers. Though Biggers said CU fans haven’t been extremely vocal about connectivity issues inside the sports venues, he does admit to hearing about “some frustration” about signals in some areas of the stadium (which until now has only been served by a couple of dedicated macro antennas from the outside).

“There’s definitely a hunger [for wireless service],” Biggers said.

On the business side, Biggers said CU will also be taking more time to evaluate any additions to its game-day digital operations. Though CU recently introduced a mobile-only “buzzer beater” basketball ticket package that offered discounted passes that would deliver an assigned seat to a device 24 hours before game time, Biggers said that for football, a longtime paper-ticket tradition for season ticket holders would likely stay in place.

Colorado will also “re-evaluate” its game-day mobile application strategy, Biggers said, with the new networks in mind. “But the real game-changer for us is data collection,” he said. “We’re most excited about having data to better serve the fans.”

Commentary: Cheer, Cheer for old Wi-Fi

A hoops fan records action during the FInal Four at U.S. Bank Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

News item: Super Bowl 53 sees 24 terabytes of Wi-Fi data used.

Second news item: Final Four weekend sees 31.2 terabytes of Wi-Fi data used.

Even as people across the wireless industry seem ready to dig Wi-Fi’s grave, the view from here is not only is Wi-Fi’s imminent death greatly exaggerated, things may actually be heading in the other direction — Wi-Fi’s last-mile and in-building dominance may just be getting started.

The latest ironic put-down of Wi-Fi came in a recent Wall Street Journal article with the headline of “Cellphone Carriers Envision World Without Wi-Fi,” in which a Verizon executive calls Wi-Fi “rubbish.” While the article itself presents a great amount of facts about why Wi-Fi is already the dominant last-mile wireless carrier (and may just get stronger going forward) the article doesn’t talk at all about the Super Bowl, where Verizon itself basically turned to Wi-Fi to make sure fans at the big game who were Verizon customers could stay connected.

Wi-Fi speedtest from U.S. Bank Stadium during the Final Four championship game.

As readers of MSR know, the performance of the cellular DAS at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta has been a question mark since its inception, and the emergence of competing lawsuits between lead contractor IBM and supplier Corning over its implementation means we may never learn publicly what really happened, and whether or not it was ever fixed. Though stadium tech execs and the NFL said publicly that the DAS was fine for the Super Bowl, Verizon’s actions perhaps spoke much louder — the carrier basically paid extra to secure part of the Wi-Fi network bandwidth for its own customers, and used autoconnect to get as many of its subscribers as it could onto the Wi-Fi network.

While we did learn the Wi-Fi statistics in detail — thanks to the fact that Wi-Fi numbers are controlled by the venue, not the carriers — it’s interesting to note that none of the four top cellular providers in the U.S. would give MSR a figure of how much cellular traffic they each saw in the stadium on Super Sunday. For the record, stadium officials said they saw 12.1 TB of data used on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium DAS on Super Bowl Sunday, a figure that represents the total traffic from all four carriers combined. But how that pie was split up will likely forever remain a mystery.

AT&T did provide a figure of 23.5 TB for Super Bowl traffic inside the venue as well as in a 2-mile radius around the stadium, and Sprint provided a figure (25 TB) but put even a less-measurable geographic boundary on it, meaning Sprint could have basically been reporting all traffic it saw anywhere inside the greater Atlanta city limits. Verizon and T-Mobile, meanwhile, both refused to report any Super Bowl cellular statistics at all.

An under-seat Wi-Fi AP placement in the end zone seating at the Final Four.

Verizon also did not reply to a question about how much traffic it saw on the Verizon-specific Wi-Fi SSID inside the venue. While we get the marketing reasons for not reporting disappointing stats (why willingly report numbers that make you look bad?), it seems disingenious at best for one Verizon executive (Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and president of Verizon Wireless) to call Wi-Fi “rubbish” when another part of the company is relying heavily on that same rubbish technology to make sure its customers can stay connected when the cellular network can’t keep up. One man’s trash, I guess, is another division’s treasure.

Wi-Fi 6 and more spectrum on the way

For venue owners and operators, the next few years are likely going to be filled with plenty of misinformation regarding the future of wireless. The big carriers, who pull in billions each quarter in revenue, are staking their near-term future on 5G, a label for a confusing mix of technologies and spectrum chunks that is unlikely to be cleared up anytime soon. Unlike the celluar industry change from 3G to 4G — a relatively straightforward progression to a new and unified type of technology — the change to 5G has already seen carriers willing to slap the marketing label on a different number of implementations, which bodes many headaches ahead for those in the venue space who have to figure out what will work best for their buildings and open spaces.

There’s also the imminent emergence of networks that will use the CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz, which will support communications using the same LTE technology used for 4G cellular. Though CBRS has its own challenges and hurdles to implementation, because it is backed by carriers and the carrier equipment-supply ecosystem, you can expect a blitz of 5G-type marketing to fuel its hype, with poor old Wi-Fi often the target for replacement.

While the Wi-Fi Alliance and other industry groups rallying around Wi-Fi might seem like the Rebel Alliance against a First Order dreadnought, if I’ve learned anything in my career of technology reporting it’s that you should never bet against open standards. I’ve been around long enough to see seemingly invincible empires based on proprietary schemes collapse and disappear under the relentless power of open systems and standards — like Ethernet vs. DEC or IBM networking protocols, and TCP/IP vs. Novell — to count out Wi-Fi in a battle, even against the cellular giants. In fact, with the improvements that are part of Wi-Fi 6 — known also as 802.11ax in the former parlance — Wi-Fi is supposed to eventually become more like LTE, with more secure connections and a better ability to support a roaming connection and the ability to connect more clients per access point. What happens then if LTE’s advantages go away?

With Wi-Fi 6 gear only now starting to arrive in the marketplace, proof still needs to be found that such claims can work in the real world, especially in the demanding and special-case world of wireless inside venues. But the same hurdles (and maybe even more) exist for CBRS and 5G technologies, with big unanswered questions about device support and the need for numerous amounts of antennas that are usually ignored in the “5G will take over the world soon” hype stories. I’d also add to that mix my wonder about where the time and talent will come from to install a whole bunch of new technologies that will require new learning curves; meanwhile, as far as I can tell the companies supporting Wi-Fi continue to add technology pros at ever-growing user and education conferences.

So as we ready for the inevitable challenge of sifting through cellular FUD and hype let’s have a cheer for good old Wi-Fi — for now the champion of the biggest data-demand days in venues, and maybe the leader for years to come.

Minnesota United MLS home opener at Allianz Field sees 85 GB of Wi-Fi

One of the Cisco Wi-Fi APs installed by Atomic Data inside the new Allianz Field in Minneapolis. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

A chilly home opener for the Minnesota United soccer team in their brand-new Allianz Field saw 85 gigabytes of data used on the stadium’s Wi-Fi network, according to statistics provided by Atomic Data, the stadium’s technology provider.

With 19,796 fans on hand on April 13 to pack the $250 million venue, Atomic Data said it saw 6,968 unique Wi-Fi device connections, a 35 percent take rate. The Allianz Field Wi-Fi network uses Cisco gear with 480 Wi-Fi APs installed throughout the venue. Approximately 250 of those are located in the seating bowl, with many installed under-seat. The stadium also has a neutral-host DAS built by Mobilitie, though none of the wireless carriers are currently online yet. (Look for an in-depth profile of the Allianz Field network in our upcoming Summer STADIUM TECH REPORT issue!)

According to the Atomic Data figures, the stadium’s Wi-Fi network saw peak Wi-Fi bandwidth usage of 1.9 Gbps; of the 85 GB Wi-Fi data total, download traffic was 38.7 GB and upload traffic was 46.3 GB. Enjoy some photos from the opening game (courtesy of MNUFC) and a couple from our pre-opening stadium tour!

The game was opened with a helicopter fly-by


A look at the standing-area supporter end zone topped by the big Daktronics display

The traditional soccer scarves were handy for the 40-degree temperatures

A view toward the field through the brew house window

The main pitch gets its opening salute

Entry ways were well covered with Wi-Fi to power the all-digital ticketing

The Loons have a roost!

The view as you approach the stadium crossing I-94

One of the under-seat Wi-Fi AP deployments

Message boards let fans know how to connect