Preakness gets Aruba Wi-Fi network just in time for Saturday’s race

Selfies should be easier to share this year at the Preakness, thanks to a new Wi-Fi network at Pimlico Race Course. Credit: Preakness Instagram (click on any photo for a larger image)

Talk about a photo finish: According to executives at the Pimlico Race Course, a new Wi-Fi network using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, will be ready to greet fans who arrive for Saturday’s 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes.

Thanks to some hard work from network construction teams who are good mudders, the new network and its 330-plus APs for both the main buildings and the infield at the Baltimore, Maryland track that hosts the second stop of the Triple Crown got finished at the wire, according to Joe Blaylock, director of IT for Pimlico.

“We took a 4-to-6 month project and did it in 3 weeks,” said Blaylock in a phone interview, chuckling as he recalled the challenges of deploying a network around bad weather and tight deadlines.

“We weren’t laughing three weeks ago,” Blaylock said. “But we’re at 99 point 5 percent. Anyone at the property [Saturday] will get on Wi-Fi.”

Improving the fan experience

Though Pimlico had some limited Wi-Fi prior to this year, Blaylock said Belinda Stronach, the chairman and president of track owners the Stronach Group, gave his group a goal to bring more extensive connectivity to the venue so fans could use mobile devices however they wanted. With a history of using Hewlett Packard technology in its back end networks the track’s IT team found what they needed in the Aruba Wi-Fi offerings and with the help of deployers MS Benbow, got the network installed just before post time.

Two hundred-plus new APs will serve the infield crowd at the Preakness

According to Blaylock the new network increased the AP count for the infield (where 60,000 or more of the expected Preakness crowd of 140,000 congregates) to 200 APs, up from about 38 last year; in the main seating structures, there are now 130 Wi-Fi APs, up from 40 in 2017.

“Last year we could barely support 4,000 or 5,000 fans [on the network],” Blaylock said. “Now we can handle 50,000 concurrent users.”

One thing the new network will enable is mobile betting for the entire facility, through the Xpressbet service also owned and run by the Stronach Group. While the venue does not have a distributed antenna system (DAS) for enhanced cellular service, Blaylock said both AT&T and Verizon Wireless have brought in Matsing Ball antennas for temporary coverage, especially for the infield crowds. There is also a new 10 Gbps backbone pipe to support the new Wi-Fi network, Blaylock said.

And thanks to his crew’s ability to conquer a construction “trifecta” of “no time, bad weather and tired humans,” fans at this year’s race who don’t cash in at the betting window should still find the Wi-Fi connectivity a winning bet, Blaylock said.

(Thanks to the Pimlico folks, Aruba and MS Benbow for sending along the following photos.)

We are guessing on these photos, but some like this one are pretty self-explanatory.

Guessing again but most likely an infield AP deployment.

That’s one way to get an AP out over the overhang to cover seats below.

AP in upper right corner to serve what looks like betting/hospitality area.

If you look closely there are APs on larger front stanchions serving this premium seating area.

Intel True View coming to Niners, Vikings apps; but will anyone watch?

Screen shot of an Intel-powered 3D view of an NFL game.

From a sports viewing standpoint, there may not be a more compelling new technology lately than Intel’s True View platform, which can provide 360-degree 5K-resolution looks at a sporting event that are equally stunning and informative, a true leap in performance for TV-watching fans. Last week, a move by Intel to provide venture funding for app development firm VenueNext seemed like a great deal for fans of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings, whose stadium apps are slated to get the Intel technology to support 3D replay views, perhaps as early as next season.

While both the funding and the replay plans are positive moves for sports fans, our question is, will anyone really watch? While VenueNext’s app platform seems to be gaining momentum with pro teams from all the major U.S. sports leagues, the instant replay function — which was part of VenueNext’s first platform, the app for the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium — has never really caught on, peaking at the start and slowly dwindling thereafter. Replays on other mobile platforms, however — like Twitter — are enormously popular, with one Vikings video alone earning more than 4 million views.

VenueNext CEO John Paul at last week’s Intel event.

Though the Intel/VenueNext announcement garnered a lot of headlines last week, none of the other stories mentioned how little-used the instant replay function is. In fact, almost every team or stadium that has instant-replay functionality in its app declines to provide any statistics for the feature, a shyness we can only attribute to the fact that the numbers are embarrassingly low. The only one VenueNext was able to tell us about was the Niners’ app, which according to VenueNext generated approximately 1,000 views per game last season.

During 2014, the first season Levi’s Stadium was open, the app peaked early with 7,800 replays during that year’s home opener; by the end of the season that number was down to fewer than 4,000 replays per game, which prompted Niners CEO Jed York to label the service’s low uptake a surprising disappointment. Now it’s even used far less often. (VenueNext competitor YinzCam also has instant replay available for many of its team apps, but also does not provide team-by-team viewing stats.)

One reason York cited for the low replay use was the quality and frequency of replays shown on the Levi’s Stadium large video boards; while in the past many pro teams kept replays to a minimum (especially if they were unflattering to the home team) the acceptance of replay review in many leagues and a general change of behavior now sees almost constant replay showing, as well as live action on in-stadium video boards. And while the process to produce in-app video replays is stunningly quick, even the fastest replay functionality combined with the need to navigate a device screen is usually well behind live play.

Screen shot of instant replay service inside Levi’s Stadium app.

Since the amount of funding Intel is providing VenueNext was not announced, it’s hard to tell whether or not either company will consider the transaction worthwhile if the replay viewing numbers remain low. Another problem with the app replays is that many are confined to in-stadium views only due to broadcast rights restrictions; compare that handcuff to the openness of Twitter, where a video of the “Minnesota Miracle” walkoff TD shot by a quick-thinking Minnesota Vikings employee (Scott Kegley, the team’s executive director of digital media & innovation) during last year’s playoffs garnered more than 4 million views and recently won a Webby award.

If there’s a dirty not-so-secret about stadium wireless connectivity, it’s that almost every report we’ve ever seen about app and service usage inside venues puts use of open social media platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook far, far above team and stadium app usage. Though stadium and team apps are gaining more traction recently due to their embrace of service functionality for things like parking, concession transactions and digital ticketing, we still haven’t seen any reports or evidence that in-stadium instant replays are gaining in use.

Will Intel’s revolutionary technology change the game for in-app replays? We’ll track the developments and keep asking for stats, so stay tuned.

AT&T: Kentucky Derby weekend DAS traffic jumps again, with 19 TB used

Kentucky Derby winner Justify. Credit: ChurchillDowns.com / Coady Photography

Big sporting events continue to show no end in the growing demand for mobile bandwidth needs, as AT&T’s traffic for this year’s Kentucky Derby weekend of events jumped far ahead of last year’s total. With nearly 19 terabytes of cellular data used by its customers over the big race weekend at famed Churchill Downs, AT&T eclipsed last year’s mark of 13.6 TB.

Just two years ago, AT&T saw “only” 11.4 TB of data used on its networks for Derby weekend, meaning that in that time the traffic demands have just about doubled. We didn’t hear from DAS operator Mobilitie prior to this year’s events but it’s a good bet that the neutral-host DAS at Churchill Downs underwent some more enhancements prior to this year’s races. We have not yet received any stats from other wireless carriers for the weekend’s events.

Technology central to Target Center renovations

The new scoreboard is one of the highlights of the Target Center renovation. Credit: Target Center (click on any photo for a larger image)

For Minneapolis residents who passed by every day, the renovation of the Target Center might have seemed like a mining project, chipping away at a somewhat blank slate until a sparkling gem was revealed.

Now complete, the 2-year, $145 million project to update the 28-year-old downtown venue has brought the 19,356-seat arena to the forefront of advanced fan experiences, with its main tenants, the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Lynx, now able to offer fans amenities like open club spaces, high-density Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, and a new mobile app as well as a huge new center-hung video scoreboard.

All those features are located inside the arena’s shiny new exterior, which includes a multi-level atrium with glass windows facing the streets, replacing the old concrete walls. According to Ted Johnson, chief strategy officer for the Timberwolves, the renovation “touched every surface,” with new seats, bathrooms and other hard-to-notice items like a real loading dock to make it easier to move equipment (like concert staging) in and out of the arena.

Technology to the forefront

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT issue for Spring 2018, which includes a look at Wi-Fi performance during the Final Four, a recap of wireless performance at Super Bowl 52, a profile of new venue construction in Los Angeles and more! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY right now from our site!

Target Center’s new entryways use lots of glass. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

On top of the physical changes came the technology layer, with obvious improvements including the center scoreboard, which Johnson said is “the largest in the Midwest,” and four new large video boards in each of the stadium’s upper corners. New LED ribbon boards circle the stadium bowl as well, with one lower one and another series of ribbons above higher entryways that create what Johnson calls an “optical illusion” of a second continuous ribbon.

A new fiber-based network backbone was also installed, to support a cellular DAS deployment as well as a new Wi-Fi network designed and deployed by AmpThink, a company extending its mark in Minneapolis after previous Wi-Fi deployments at U.S. Bank Stadium and the Mall of America.

According to AmpThink, the Wi-Fi network inside the Target Center has approximately 400 access points, but since many of those are the newer Cisco 3800 versions with two radios in each AP, there are actually about 550 radios serving the stadium.

During a visit to the arena during a game in November, Mobile Sports Report found solid Wi-Fi speed results in all parts of the venue, including the upper seating areas and the concourses. Walking around the upper concourse by section 240 we got a Wi-Fi speed test of 34.42 Mbps on the download side and 45.20 on the upload; in the same location, a test of the DAS network for a Verizon Wireless client saw speeds of 22.88 Mbps / 22.66 Mbps.

Moving into the upper stands, at the top rows of section 239 we still got Wi-Fi speeds of 33.73 Mbps / 61.56 Mbps; looking up, we could see multiple Gillaroo antennas mounted up in the catwalks, along with the glowing blue lights of the APs.

Lots of light is a hallmark of the new Target Center. Credit: Target Center

Down in the open gathering area near the brewpub (located in the stands behind one of the baskets) we got Wi-Fi marks of 21.26 Mbps / 67.07 Mbps. Then in one of the stadium’s club suites we got a test of 42.27 Mbps / 68.83 Mbps, with all tests taken during game-action times. We did not get any lower-bowl seating area tests, where AmpThink said it has deployed APs under seats.

Linking digital displays and Wi-Fi

In addition to its Wi-Fi design and deployment, AmpThink is also assisting the Timberwolves in using the digital displays to drive fan engagement with the app and the Wi-Fi network. The AmpThink tests, Johnson said, along with the decision to switch to VenueNext for a new app (which supports more fan services than the previous, content-focused team app), are part of a deliberate strategy to build a next-generation “seamless fan experience” that starts long before fans get to the arena.

“We’ve used Flash Seats for some time now — we were one of the first [teams] to disable paper printing [for tickets],” Johnson said. “We had already educated fans to use a mobile device, so we decided to use that advantage as much as we could.”

A big part of the physical renovation, Johnson said, included improvements to the intersections between the arena and downtown Minneapolis’ famed Skyway, the connected maze of in-building public walkways and skybridges that links much of downtown together.

“Right now 12,000 to 15,000 people a day come through our building via the Skyways, and about 66 percent of our fans come into the building through there [the Skyway],” Johnson said. As part of the renovation the Target Center added digital displays to its Skyway territory, and the team is part of a city-wide plan to bring beacon technology to the Skyway system so that a wayfinding app could be used to help visitors, residents and anyone else better find their way around.

New video boards on the concourses relay messages to fans walking by

Vegas Golden Knights get Wi-Fi boost at T-Mobile Arena

Vegas Golden Knights fans congregate during pregame in the outdoor “Park” next to T-Mobile Arena. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

In hockey, it’s called being caught shorthanded. Outnumbered on a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 rush, or down a player due to a penalty, it’s never fun to compete without an appropriate amount of resources.

In Las Vegas this winter the NHL’s newest team, the Vegas Golden Knights, found themselves somewhat shorthanded on the wireless side of things when the Wi-Fi network in their castle — a building also known as T-Mobile Arena — couldn’t quite keep up with the demand generated by the Knights’ smashing debut.

But by deploying a classic Vegas strategy — going “all in” with a quick network upgrade that added nearly 200 access points — The Knights, T-Mobile Arena and connectivity partner Cox Business brought the Wi-Fi in line with the team’s first-place level of play, ensuring that fans will be able to share whatever happens in Vegas during the upcoming playoff run on a high-density network that reaches from the rink to the roof, as well as outside the arena.

Needing the feedback of regular fans

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT issue for Spring 2018, which includes a look at Wi-Fi performance during the Final Four, a recap of wireless performance at Super Bowl 52, a profile of new venue construction in Los Angeles and more! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY right now from our site!

Visiting team fans also have made T-Mobile Arena a popular NHL spot this season.

While the building itself has been open now for nearly 2 years, its original accelerated construction time frame and the uncertainty of the NHL bid meant that network deployments inside T-Mobile Arena were always going to have some wait and see attached.

“The original network design was kind of a best guess,” said Vikrant Bodalia, director of technology operations for MGM Resorts International (which co-owns T-Mobile Arena in a joint venture with the Anschutz Entertainment Group), during an interview and tour of the stadium the day after MSR attended a Knights game during the regular season.

When the arena opened there were approximately 520-plus Cisco Wi-Fi APs throughout the building, but according to Bodalia there were only about 66 of those in the lower seating bowl. While there were some that were mounted under seats, those APs were few in number and mainly in the lowest rows, where Bodalia said performance was weakened by interference from fans’ bodies.

In between the time when T-Mobile Arena opened its doors in April of 2016 and the start of the current NHL season, every event was different from the next one, meaning that new fans filled the arena each time. The high percentage of “transient” crowds, Bodalia said, made it hard to get good feedback on how the Wi-Fi network was performing.

Cisco Wi-Fi APs in custom enclosures designed by Cox Business ring the overhangs above the main seating bowl.

Once the Golden Knights started playing, however, fan feedback was “very vocal and very good,” Bodalia said. Though it was always expected that there would be some rush in popularity for an expansion team, the surge in season ticket sales (team officials said attendance is more than 75 percent season ticket holders) is probably at the high end of expectations.

Add in to that the appeal for visiting teams’ fans to spend time in Vegas, along with the completely unexpected division-leading on-ice performance, and you have a sort of perfect storm that pushed bandwidth demands early on. For Bodalia and his IT team it was game on, with a quick research project into the best way to add more capacity, followed by an all-hours plan to get the job done.

Going under seat, without core drilling

One technique that has worked well in other stadiums — putting Wi-Fi APs into handrail enclosures — didn’t work at T-Mobile Arena mainly because the height of the railings was too low. A few test deployments didn’t produce the desired performance, Bodalia said, so that path was rejected.

Instead, the team of Cox Business, T-Mobile Arena and Bodalia’s MGM squad settled on a plan to deploy under-seat Wi-Fi APs, a deployment with a split degree of difficulty since about half the lower-bowl seats are on a retractable metal infrastructure to allow for customizable seating arrangements.

New under-seat Wi-Fi APs in the lower bowl

For the APs placed under concrete-mounted seats, Bodalia’s team devised a method of deployment that did not require them to drill through the concrete for each placement. Instead, the APs used low-profile conduit that stretched beneath the seats to the walkways, where connections could be consolidated. The T-Mobile Arena crew even tucked some of the wiring underneath rubber gaskets between concrete partitions, a method also used at Notre Dame Stadium to get cabling to APs without going through the concrete.

For the APs located on movable stands, Bodalia said the key was to find a method that didn’t disrupt the sometimes daily need to move the seats back and forth to comply with the venue’s busy schedule of concerts and events other than Knights games. What they ended up with was a design that included multiple switch-mounting sites on the walls underneath the backs of the stands, and then flexible “caterpillar” tracks to host cables, which would curl up or stretch out as needed, without having to detatch cables while physically moving the stands. At project’s end, there are now 200-plus APs in the main lower seating bowl, more than triple the initial deployment.

Wi-Fi as solid as the team on the ice

So with the three-month project now finally complete — after a lot of midnight shifts to get the work done between games and other events — how does the T-Mobile Arena Wi-Fi perform now? In a one-game visit by Mobile Sports Report during a Knights contest against the visiting Vancouver Canucks, we found Wi-Fi connectivity solid in every part of the venue, from the fan park outside to the rinkside seats to the upper reaches of the “castle.”

One of the many solid Wi-Fi speed tests we took in T-Mobile Arena.

What was surprising upon arriving at the venue was the relative “maturity” of the fan base — while some had predicted that visiting fans would overwhelm the locals this season, instead the opposite is true, with families, couples and packs of Knights fans flooding the zone outside T-Mobile. In a well-thought arrangement, the surrounding area between the New York, New York, the Monte Carlo and T-Mobile Arena is an already successful “fan zone” with open spaces for games and portable concession stands, and several watering holes filled to the brim an hour before game time.

After clicking a single box on a splash screen to accept terms for the Wi-Fi service, we got speed results of 42.4 Mbps on the download and 33.7 Mbps on the upload standing in the middle of the plaza outside the main gates as fans flowed by. Switching to cellular, we got a reading of 16.2 Mbps/9.25 Mbps at the same spot on the Verizon network. According to T-Mobile Arena, there is a neutral host DAS in and around the venue that supports all four of the top carriers.

Inside the arena, we went right down to the lower bowl to find and test some of the new under seat APs, and got a mark of 56.5 Mbps/54.7 Mbps in Row J of Section 17, in line with a face-off circle near one of the goal lines. Moving up we got a test of 61.5 Mbps/52.3 Mbps in a packed-house Bud Light Club on the main concourse and a 56.2 Mbps/50.3 Mbps mark in the Goose Island club, which serves the suite level on the third floor.

The world’s lonliest seat.

We couldn’t get inside either of the two “sky lounges” or the Hyde Park club on the arena’s top levels since they had private parties that night, but we did find the lonliest seat in the arena — a single-seat row in section 209, at the highest regular-seating apex. Even with the challenging RF and tight spaces we still got a Wi-Fi reading of 21.8 Mbps/22.4 Mbps, showing that Bodalia’s team didn’t ignore the hard places.

It was fun to watch the Golden Knights’ Vegas-style pregame ceremony, which includes a fun “pulling the sword from the stone” routine to help fire up the fans. But the very vocal Vegas contingent — watch out for their clever coordinated shout during a certain part of the national anthem — doesn’t appear to need much help, as there is an infectious enthusiasm pervading the building, one that you might not expect from such a non-traditional “hockey town” as Las Vegas.

On one level, the team is a perfect antidote for the local pain caused by the mass shooting outside the Mandalay Bay last fall; many fans sported Knights jerseys with “Vegas Strong” written across the top of the back, and there is a very classy segment during the evening where a “Vegas Strong Hero” gets honored. The night we attended the “hero” was a nurse who stayed on duty that dark night helping to save many lives; she was honored with a standing ovation.

But now, following the Knights’ first-round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs, you can add Stanley Cup excitement to the mix, adding to the network pressure as fans will want to connect and share more. The good news is, thanks to the recent upgrades there is now a Wi-Fi network to match the team’s performance, no matter how far they advance.


Fans pack a nearby beer garden before a Knights game

A view of the Park from one of the arena’s outside lounge areas

Some premium loge seats have interactive TVs at T-Mobile Arena

One of the two sky lounges that extend over the main seating area

Knights games offer a savvy blend of hockey and Vegas showbiz expertise

Wi-Fi gear for new APs mounted on walls underneath the moveable stands

APs for under-seat deployments in moveable stands were mounted underneath the seating floor

A unique ‘caterpillar’ track keeps APs connected as stands are moved back and forth

Final Four sees 9.97 TB of data used on Alamodome Wi-Fi

Fans at the Alamodome using mobile devices before the big game. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

The final stats are in, and this year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament Final Four weekend in San Antonio saw a total of 9.97 terabytes of data used on the Wi-Fi network inside the Alamodome, according to official NCAA network reports.

With 4.9 TB of traffic used during the Saturday semifinal games and 5.07 TB used during the Monday night final the Alamodome Wi-Fi mark fell a bit below the 11.2 TB of data use seen during the 2017 Final Four weekend at the University of Pacific Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. With about 10,000 more fans per game (attendance at last year’s two sessions was 77,612 for Saturday’s semifinals and 76,168 for Monday’s championship, which were both second-highest ever numbers) and a more mature network it’s not surprising that there was a dip in Wi-Fi usage; the somewhat smaller Alamodome had 67,831 in attendance for the Monday night championship game.

So far only AT&T has reported DAS stats from this year’s Final Four, with 2 TB used on Saturday and 1.1 TB used Monday. Last year in Glendale AT&T said it saw 6.4 TB of DAS use. We have asked Verizon and Sprint for numbers but so far have not yet gotten any replies. As a stated policy T-Mobile does not report data traffic numbers from big events.

In a slight change from the preliminary reports we got, the official numbers show that the Alamodome Wi-Fi network saw 19,557 unique devices connect to the network on Saturday, with a peak concurrent total that day of 12,387 devices. On Monday night those numbers were 17,963 unique connections and 12,848 peak concurrent connections. Peak throughput for the Wi-Fi network on Saturday was 2.1 Gbps, while on Monday the mark was 1.6 Gbps.