Technology and Tradition: How Notre Dame Stadium got its Wi-Fi network

Notre Dame logo on Wi-Fi railing enclosure at Notre Dame Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

How do you bring new technology into a building and institution that embraces history as an integral part of its brand? There may be many answers but in the sports stadium world, Notre Dame’s renovation of its hallowed football stadium and the addition of high-speed Wi-Fi look like a good example for any other venues trying to solve the same issues.

As part of its $400 million “Campus Crossing” stadium renovation, the University of Notre Dame made adding a high-definition stadium Wi-Fi network a priority, according to Rob Kelly, associate athletics director of ticketing, premium and technology for the school. Though such big projects often face budget trimming en route to completion, Kelly said the network was never on the chopping block.

“I’m pleased to say, Wi-FI was a priority,” said Kelly during an MSR visit in August. “It will power what we want to do for the future. Our vision is greater, and the things we want to do won’t work without the network.”

Future is now for Wi-Fi, video boards, premium seating

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Fall 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Colorado State’s new stadium, and the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

An outside look at the new construction surrounding the ‘old’ stadium bowl

Future aside, the new technology reality at Notre Dame Stadium is a huge step forward for a facility that first appeared in 1930, when the legendary coach Knute Rockne led the Fighting Irish football team. Since then the old concrete oval underwent only one significant upgrade, a 1997 enhancement that added another ring to the top of the stadium, boosting capacity from 59,075 to 80,795.

The Campus Crossing project, however, takes Notre Dame Stadium into a new era completely. By basically building three new buildings onto the back of the east, west and south sides of the stadium, Notre Dame added the ability to now have expanded premium club areas and seating sections, added classroom and other office space, and the ability to finally have a huge TV screen to show replays, a big upgrade to the experience from the Notre Dame games of the past.

Thanks to the video board, “we won’t have to text family or friends not at the game to find out if a player was in or out of bounds,” said Kelly. Though the tradition of attending a game in the same facility where legends like Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Joe Montana roamed the field is part of the game-day attraction, Kelly said that Notre Dame fans’ visits to away games made them well aware of amenities that were becoming commonplace elsewhere.

A good look at the railing AP enclosures in the east stands

“That old saying about ‘you don’t know what you don’t have’ just wasn’t true anymore,” said Kelly, who notes that currently most Notre Dame seasons will see the team playing in one or two NFL venues for prime-time contests. Brought in right at the start of the Crossroads project, Kelly said he had to become an “instant expert” on premium seating and on technology, especially on the Wi-Fi front. That wasn’t all bad, since it meant multiple visits to other stadiums to evaluate their technology deployments and seating options.

On the Wi-Fi front, Notre Dame paid special attention to Wi-Fi deployments in Green Bay (since Lambeau Field is similar to Notre Dame Stadium in construction and layout) and in Minnesota, where the new U.S. Bank Stadium had opened. The biggest question for Notre Dame’s Wi-Fi deployment in its no-overhang exposed bowl was about which method would be used — with the early leaders being under-seat or top-down placement of Wi-Fi APs. According to Kelly, a railing-mounted solution like the one used at U.S. Bank Stadium was not originally given much thought, mainly because the lower bowl seating area at Notre Dame Stadium didn’t have any handrails.

Shake down the Wi-Fi … from the railings

Though the new top part of the bowl required handrails for safety regulations when it was added in 1997, the lower bowl was historically exempt from those considerations, Kelly said. Notre Dame information architect John Buysse, one of the leads on the school’s network team, said the first reactions during network planning meetings rejected the idea of Wi-Fi on railings, with debate suggesting that the lower-bowl aisles weren’t wide enough.

Wi-Fi enclosures blend well in the concourse area

Under-seat deployment AP would be a challenge as well, for both the extra cost of drilling more holes through the concrete — many at locations “below grade,” or in the dirt, since the playing field is well below ground level — as well as a lack of space between the floor and the bench seats.

“Whoever had an AP [under the bench] would be miserable,” Buysse said.

Somewhere during the process, however, a survey of alumni found that the lack of railings in the lower bowl was a serious safety concern, especially during the rainy and snowy parts of the season.

“The alumni complained about how difficult it was” to negotiate getting to their lower-bowl seats without any handrails, Buysse said. With the ability to score a double positive with one move — adding handrails for safety and for Wi-Fi — the railing-mounted AP plan moved in for the win.

“It also really helped that Minnesota had done it [handrail deployments] and had success,” said Buysse, who got good performance statistics from the Vikings to back up the railing-mount idea. After seeing those numbers, he said, “any potential concerns went away.”

So far this season, the network has already performed like a winner. For Notre Dame’s Sept. 9 home game against Georgia, the network saw 6.2 terabytes of data used, the highest total ever recorded for a college football game.

Handrail AP mounts, Kelly said, “were better than the alternative of under-seat — it costs less, and there are fewer holes in the concrete.”

It also didn’t hurt, Kelly said, to make a double positive from a single move.

“Adding handrails [for safety] was a positive, and better connectivity was another positive,” Kelly said. And the fact that the enclosures look cool — with a snappy ND logo embossed into each cover — also probably doesn’t hurt.

AmpThink steps up to lead Wi-Fi deployment

The custom AP enclosures with the ND logo embossed into the molded plastic were courtesy of AmpThink, a Dallas-area firm that in most of its previous history had provided its Wi-Fi skills in a specialist or subcontractor role where it had full responsibility for network deployments. But with an increasing amount of experience in its resume — including doing designs for several of the recent Super Bowl networks, as well as new network installs at Texas A&M University and U.S. Bank Stadium, among others — AmpThink bid and won the lead on the Notre Dame Wi-Fi project, another football-size stadium project on a list that also includes the renovated Wi-Fi network at the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., and the ongoing renovation at the Alamodome in San Antonio, which will host the 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four.

Fans at a summer scrimmage enjoy the new premium seats

In AmpThink, Notre Dame found a partner not just with technical skills but also with the appreciation with how making things that look good as well as perform well matters. One look at the custom Wi-Fi AP handrail enclosures tells you a lot about this commitment, when you see the sharp, widely recognizable yet understated “ND” logo stamped into each ABS plastic casing.

AmpThink execs showing off the gear during a recent tour pointed out details like the slightly roughened surface, finished that way to keep any scratches from showing. AmpThink also made sure all the logos were horizontal when installed, no small feat with numerous different angles of slope on various railings.

“There are different [railing] angles all over, and only one of the ones AmpThink delivered didn’t match — and they had a spare to fix it on hand,” Buysse said.

“AmpThink has been a tremendous partner,” said Kelly, noting the early help AmpThink provided by bringing in demo units to mock up what the deployment would look like.

Of the 1,096 total Wi-Fi APs in the new network, a full 685 serve the seating bowl, Buysse said. For the below-grade APs located near the bottom of the seating bowl, AmpThink and Notre Dame brought bandwidth to the railings by drilling a trench down the sides of stairways and covering the cables with rubber gaskets afterward. The APs in the bowl are mainly Cisco 3800 units, which have two radios each. Buysse said the bowl network will be exclusively on 5 GHz channels, like many other stadiums these days.

AmpThink’s engineering ingenuity is apparent in other places as well — for flat-ceiling AP locations like those in suites, the firm developed an AP enclosure that can be installed by one person, instead of having to have electricians and other construction specialists teaming up to get all the work done. It might not sound particularly interesting, but when you are installing hundreds of APs in far-flung locations, finding a way to save time on each one ends up being a big benefit in the end.

Even with all the new construction the main concourses of Notre Dame stadium have successfully combined the old hallowed-ground feel with modern amentities like new and more concessions stands, as well as Wi-Fi and DAS antennas painted and mounted in ways to keep them out of direct sight. Our speedtest in the concourse area showed a connection of 70 Mbps on the download and 52 Mbps up. Crown Castle built and operates the neutral-host DAS, which already has AT&T and Verizon Wireless working with T-Mobile set to join in soon.

Though there weren’t any fans on hand yet, our speedtests taken in late August were impressive, with Wi-Fi readings of 69 Mbps on the download and 70 Mbps on the upload in the upper deck benches on the stadium’s east side; we also got a reading of 67.56 / 68.68 inside the new premium club area on the west side; and a test of Verizon DAS connections at 46.68 / 11.39, also on the west side of the stadium.

TV production, mobile app plans ready for the future

The next tale to tell from Notre Dame Stadium may be on the content and application side, where the Fighting Irish are just getting ready to play with their new toys. At the SEAT Conference in Atlanta this summer, Notre Dame execs talked about starting slow with the stadium mobile app, not trying to do too much so that fans wouldn’t be turned off by the approach if features failed. For this season the app will focus mainly on digital ticketing, allowing fans to show tickets, transfer tickets via email, or donate unused tickets back to the university. Kelly said the school will explore using a portal for Wi-Fi login in the future, to “reinforce” the value of the app.

A look at the cabling path drilled alongside stairways for the lower bowl seats

On the video production end, the building on the stadium’s west side provided the space to create a multi-headed content production facility that hosts the new “Notre Dame Studios,” an internal startup of sorts that will centralize all kinds of video and streaming production not just for sports but for all the content being created all over the South Bend, Ind., campus and beyond. For football game days, the production facilities can be used by network crews, who no longer will need to bring a separate production truck to the venue.

For Notre Dame fans, the improvements bring the facility well to the forefront of the connected-stadium world, as well as for premium seating, especially for those with access to the rooftop club areas, where fans can relax on outside couches with an excellent view of the field, a commanding view of the greater South Bend landscape, and excellent connectivity for their mobile devices. All in the old stadium with its sturdy brick-and-concrete foundations, and the statue of Rockne out front, ready to shake down the thunder and then share that experience on Facebook or Snapchat.

“There’s a fine line in finding the balance between aesthetics and performance,” Kelly said. “Leadership understood that we couldn’t compromise the aesthetics of Notre Dame Stadium.”

But, Kelly added, he’s also “never heard that people don’t want better cell coverage.” While the changes may be startling to veteran Notre Dame fans — especially the video board — Kelly thinks the end result will be another positive, as the practice of combining technology and tradition with a commitment to quality becomes apparent.

“I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised,” he said.

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Fall 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Colorado State’s new stadium, and the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Notre Dame’s new Wi-Fi, Mercedes-Benz Stadium first look — all in our new Stadium Tech Report!

We always get excited here at Mobile Sports Report when we have a new quarterly report out, but the stories, profiles and analysis in our Fall 2017 issue just may be our best-ever effort. With a detailed look at the new Wi-Fi network at Notre Dame Stadium, and a first look at the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, our Fall 2017 issue starts off with a doubleheader of deep information profiles and it doesn’t stop there!

In addition to Notre Dame and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this issue also has a detailed look at the new football stadium at Colorado State University, which also has high-performing Wi-Fi and a neutral-host DAS deployment. We also take a look at the Wi-Fi renovation taking place at the Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Field at Mile High, a network upgrade that should lift the Broncos’ home to the top of the list of NFL stadium networks. And we’re still not done!

Also in this issue is a well timed, deeply informed essay from Chuck Lukaszewski about unlicensed LTE and what it means to venues. Chuck, the top wireless guru at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, digs into this developing cellular/Wi-Fi issue and delivers some heads-up knowledge that all venue tech professionals should absorb. We also have one more profle in the issue, a look at a temporary Wi-Fi network being installed at the Los Angeles Coliseum. That’s a lot of reading, so get started by downloading your free copy today!

Part of the reason we’re able to bring you so much good content is the support we get from our industry sponsors. In this issue we also have a record number of sponsors, including Mobilitie, Crown Castle, CommScope, JMA Wireless, Corning, Huber+Suhner, American Tower, Extreme Networks, Oberon, Cox Business, 5 Bars, Boingo Wireless and Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. The support of our sponsors allows Mobile Sports Report to not only do all the work necessary to bring you these great stories, but it also allows us to offer our reports to readers free of charge! We’d also like to welcome new readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our new partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers.

Download the Fall 2017 Stadium Tech Report today!

Notre Dame sees 6.2 TB of Wi-Fi traffic for Georgia game

Notre Dame logo on Wi-Fi railing enclosure at Notre Dame Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The final score on the football field may not have made Fighting Irish fans happy, but on the connectivity side of things the new Wi-Fi network at Notre Dame Stadium scored a big win with 6.2 terabytes of traffic used during Notre Dame’s Sept. 9 home game against Georgia.

Deployed by AmpThink, the new Wi-Fi network is part of a $400 stadium renovation called Campus Crossroads that debuted in time for this year’s college football season. Mobile Sports Report got a look at the new stadium renovations, which include new premium seating areas and a large video board, during an August football scrimmage event that was open to fans.

On Sept. 3, the Irish formally opened the stadium with a home game against Temple, which Notre Dame won 49-16. According to Notre Dame, the new Wi-Fi network saw 4.8 TB of traffic for the season opener, with 21,395 unique client connections and a peak concurrent connection number of 15,800. For the Sept. 9 game against Georgia, a prime-time night game that saw the Irish just fall on the short end of a 20-19 score, the network saw 6.2 TB of traffic, with 25,856 uniques and 19,475 peak concurrent connections.

By our unofficial records, the 6.2 TB mark is the highest Wi-Fi traffic number recorded for a single-day college event. The previous high mark was a 5.7 TB total reported by Texas A&M for a 2015 season game against Alabama. (Any other big marks out there that we don’t know about, please let us know!)

Total attendance for both Notre Dame games this season was 77,622, which sounds like the new sellout capacity for the stadium, a number not previously reported since the renovation. Notre Dame can probably expect another big network experience on Oct. 21, when the Irish host Pac-12 rival USC.

The MSR Interview: David Payne, University of Oklahoma

Welcome to the new season of MSR Podcasts! We are thrilled to start off this season of interviews with one of our favorite people from the realm of stadium technology deployment and operation — David Payne, who is the senior technology strategist at the University of Oklahoma. With “school in session,” join us as we talk with David about how a patient, steady approach to technology deployments allows you to keep the focus on the fan, and improving the fan experience instead of just looking at the next shiny object in wireless tech.

Here is an older story about part of the process David went through:

Wi-Fi to the RV: Oklahoma brings Wi-Fi services to RV parking lot

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST:

Here is the link to the podcast on iTunes!

Here are some photos David was kind enough to send us:

Outside the football stadium entrance

A look at some handrail-mounted AP enclosures

Alamodome taps AmpThink for new Wi-Fi ahead of 2018 Final Four

A new full-stadium Wi-Fi network installed by AmpThink is coming to the Alamodome, scheduled to be finished just ahead of this year’s Alamo Bowl and well in place for next spring’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament’s Final Four, Alamodome executives said.

Scheduled to be announced publicly by the San Antonio, Texas, venue today, the new network is part of a $50-million-plus renovation project that includes updated video boards, sound systems and TV screens throughout the stadium. Nicholas Langella, general manager of the Alamodome, said the new Wi-Fi network was financed in part by donations from Alamodome customers, including the Valero Alamo Bowl, scheduled this year for Dec. 28. The network will use Wi-Fi gear from Cisco, according to Langella.

According to Langella, approximately $6 million out of the roughly $10 million needed for the Wi-Fi upgrade came from the Alamo Bowl. Langella also said that the venue now has an updated DAS as well, built by Verizon, which will also have AT&T and T-Mobile on board. “We’re very happy about that [the DAS],” said Langella in a phone interview.

Going under seat for Wi-Fi

Though Wi-Fi deployment firm AmpThink has lately preferred railing Wi-Fi enclosures for proximate network builds, such as at Notre Dame, Langella said the Alamodome deployment will use more under-seat AP placements than railings, given the designed mobility of the Alamodome seating areas. “We have so much mobility with the stands, it’s hard to do lots of railing [placements],” Langella said.

According to Langella when the Wi-Fi deployment is finished — the network is scheduled to be fully completed by Dec. 1 — there will be approximately 750 APs installed, allowing the Alamodome to increase coverage from being able to serve 3,500 fans to being able to cover 65,000 fans, meaning every seat in the house. The improvements, he said, were part of a plan to attract the Final Four, which succeeded.

“We always thought we would improve the Wi-Fi,” Langella said. With the Final Four looming, he said, “we took the bull by the horns and got it done.”

Wi-Fi, app ready to go for Falcons’ preseason opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The shiny new stadium gets ready to host its first big event this weekend. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

It might have taken some recent all-nighters, but the crew behind the technology at Mercedes-Benz Stadium said that the Wi-Fi and DAS networks, as well as the new app, will be ready to go when the Atlanta Falcons hold their first big event at their new home this Saturday.

“We’ve spent the last week really tuning the Wi-Fi, and it’s awesome to see the speeds we’re getting as I walk around,” said Jared Miller, chief digital officer for the Falcons, in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m anxious to see how it will do with a full house.”

The first potential for a packed stadium comes Saturday night, when the Falcons host the Arizona Cardinals in an NFL preseason game. With roughly 1,800 Aruba Wi-Fi APs installed inside (1,000 in the seating bowl and the rest in concourses and other areas), Mercedes-Benz Stadium should have excellent Wi-Fi coverage, even if it takes several events to figure out the things you can only figure out once you have live people in the seats.

“We’ll need a few events until we get to a spot where we’re dialed in [with network performance],” said Miller. Though Miller said the Falcons were able to get some network feedback during a recent season-ticket holder open house, real performance stats won’t come until fans are filling the venue for an NFL game.

“You just have to go through a series of events to see actual performance,” Miller said.

Home page of the new Falcons app from IBM

Curiously, Miller would not comment directly when asked if any carriers other than sponsor AT&T had officially signed on to be on the Falcons’ neutral-host DAS. However, he did say that “all the fans who [are at the game] should be able to have cellular connections.” (Any attendees who want to send us speedtests of Wi-Fi or DAS, you know where to find us.)

New app gets its debut

One area that might cause some delays getting into the arena is the Falcons’ decision to go to all-digital ticketing — fans must either have an RFID card (for season tickets) or must download the new team app so they can have digital tickets on their phones. Both the RFID cards and phones can be scanned at the SkiData turnstyle machines.

“We’re encouraging fans to download the app before they get to the game,” Miller said.

The new version of the team app, which was only made live in the last couple days, was built by main IT contractor IBM.

App view of a wayfinding map

The IBM app will do things a little bit differently than other stadium apps; the wayfinding maps are not “blue dot” or interactive like Google Maps or other stadium apps like those at Levi’s Stadium or Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. Instead, fans must enter both their location and their desired destination to see a path on a stored map.

Food ordering via the app is also handled differently than apps that support in-seat delivery or express window pickup. With the Falcons app fans will select from a list of concession stands, then enter credit card information and their order, which will be scanned at the stand, according to IBM. While such new services always take some time for fans to discover and use, Miller is keen to see if the new systems work as promised.

“We want to see not just quantitative numbers but qualitative data too,” Miller said. “Did it really benefit fans? Were they able to bust the queue? Would they do it again?”

The app also has a Falcons-esque chat bot, called “Ask Arthur” for owner Arthur Blank; while the bot can quickly answer FAQ-type questions about the stadium and its operations, more open-ended queries will require perhaps some time with IBM’s Watson technology (see examples in photos below).

And on a final low-tech note, Miller said the Falcons had been in constant touch with several local groups, including the Georgia Department of Transportation, the city of Atlanta and the MARTA light rail system to get all the pertinent maps and signs updated. On Mobile Sports Report’s visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Atlanta last week, we noticed that there were very few signs up with Mercedes-Benz Stadium on them.

One big map on the wall inside the nearby CNN Center (where there is a large public food court) didn’t even have Mercedes-Benz Stadium on an area map, and a sign over the MARTA station just outside the new stadium’s doors had no mention of Mercedes-Benz Stadium but still did mention the Georgia Dome, the next-door neighbor slated for demolition. The MARTA online map still lists “Dome” but not “Mercedes-Benz Stadium” for the stop outside the venue’s doors.

“We’ve scoured the city looking for anything that still says Georgia Dome,” Miller said. Getting all the new signs up, he said, is “in the process of getting done.”

The ‘Ask Arthur’ bot can answer simple questions about Mercedes-Benz Stadium but…

… don’t ask the app for Super Bowl odds

We’re hoping this map, seen here on a wall inside the nearby CNN Center, has been updated

One of the many under-seat Wi-Fi APs that will be getting their first test this weekend

Chief digital officer Jared Miller answers questions at the recent media day

On Aug. 15, this sign over the nearby MARTA station still didn’t mention Mercedes-Benz Stadium