PGA Tour gives CBRS a test

Volunteers track shots with lasers on the fairways of PGA Tour tournaments. Credit: Chris Condon/PGA TOUR (click on any photo for a larger image)

CBRS technology doesn’t need spikey shoes to gain traction on the fairways, if early results from technology tests undertaken by the PGA Tour at courses around the country are any indication.

A recent 14-state test run by the top professional U.S. golf tour tapped the newly designated Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which comprises 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. Golf courses, which typically lack the dense wireless coverage of more populated urban areas, are easily maxed out when thousands of fans show up on a sunny weekend to trail top-ranked players like Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy or perennial favorite Tiger Woods.

To cover the bandwidth needs of tournaments, the PGA Tour has over time used a mix of technologies, many portable in nature given the short stay of a tournament at any given course. Like Wi-Fi or temporary cellular infrastructures used in the past, the hope is that CBRS will help support public safety, scoring and broadcast applications required to keep its events operating smoothly and safely, according to the PGA Tour.

“We’re looking at replacing our 5 GHz Wi-Fi solution with CBRS so we can have more control over service levels,” said Steve Evans, senior vice president of information systems for the PGA Tour. Unlike 5 GHz Wi-Fi, CBRS is licensed spectrum and less prone to interference the Tour occasionally experienced.

CBRS will also make a big difference with the Tour’s ShotLink system, a wireless data collection system used by the PGA Tour that gathers data on every shot made during competition play – distance, speed and other scoring data.

“CBRS would help us get the data off the golf course faster” than Wi-Fi can, Evans explained. “And after more than 15 months of testing we’ve done so far, CBRS has better coverage per access point than Wi-Fi.”

The preliminary results are so encouraging that the Tour is also looking to CBRS to carry some of its own voice traffic and has already done some testing there. “We need to have voice outside the field of play, and we think CBRS can help solve that problem,” Evans added.

But as an emerging technology, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of CBRS. Compatible handsets aren’t widely available; the PGA Tour has been testing CBRS prototypes from Essential. Those units only operate in CBRS bands 42 and 43; a third, band 48, is expected to be added by device makers sometime in the first half of 2019.

“We’re waiting for the phones to include band 48 and then we’ll test several,” Evans told Mobile Sports Report. “I expect Android would move first and be very aggressive with it.”

CBRS gear mounted on temporary poles at a PGA Tour event. Credit: PGA Tour

The PGA Tour isn’t the only sports entity looking at CBRS’s potential. The National Football League is testing coach-to-coach and coach-to-player communications over CBRS at all the league’s stadiums; the NBA’s Sacramento
Kings are testing it at Golden 1 Center with Ruckus; NASCAR has been testing video transmission from inside cars using CBRS along with Nokia and Google, and the ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz., recently launched a live CBRS network that it is currently using for backhaul to remote parking lot Wi-Fi hotspots.

Outside of sports and entertainment, FedEx, the Port of Los Angeles and General Electric are jointly testing CBRS in Southern California. Love Field Airport in Dallas is working with Boingo and Ruckus in a CBRS trial; service provider Pavlov Media is testing CBRS near the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana with Ruckus gear. Multiple service providers from telecom, cable and wireless are also testing the emerging technology’s potential all around the country.

Where CBRS came from, where it’s going

Editor’s note: This profile 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 new game-day digital fan engagement strategy at Texas A&M, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at Merceds-Benz Stadium, home of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

CBRS has undergone a 6-year gestation period; 150 MHz worth of bandwidth was culled from the 3.5 GHz spectrum, which must be shared (and not interfere) with U.S. government radar operations already operating in that same spectrum.

From a regulatory perspective, CBRS’s experimental status is expected to give way to full commercial availability in the near future. Consequently, wireless equipment vendors have been busy building – and marketing – CBRS access points and antennas for test and commercial usage. But entities like the PGA Tour have already identified the benefits and aren’t waiting for the FCC to confer full commercial status on the emerging wireless technology.

CBRS equipment vendors and would-be service providers were hard to miss at last fall’s Mobile World
Congress Americas meeting in Los Angeles. More than 20 organizations – all part of the CBRS Alliance – exhibited their trademarked OnGo services, equipment and software in a day-long showcase event. (Editor’s note: “OnGo” is the alliance’s attempt to “brand” the service as something more marketable than the geeky CBRS acronym).

The CBRS Alliance envisions five potential use cases of the technology, according to Dave Wright, alliance president and director of regulatory affairs and network standards at Ruckus:
• Mobile operators that want to augment capacity of their existing spectrum
• Cable operators looking to expand into wireless services instead of paying a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO)
• Other third-party providers looking to offer fixed broadband services
• Enterprise and industrial applications: extending or amplifying wireless in business parks and remote locations; Internet of Things data acquisition.
• Neutral host capabilities, which some have likened to LTE roaming, an important development as 5G cellular services ramp up.

Previously, if customers wanted to extend cell coverage inside a building or a stadium, their best option was often distributed antenna systems (DAS). But DAS is complicated, expensive and relies on carrier participation, according to Wright. “Carriers also want to make sure your use of their spectrum doesn’t interfere with their macro spectrum nearby,” he added.

CBRS uses discrete spectrum not owned by a mobile operator, allowing an NFL franchise, for example, to buy CBRS radios and deploy them around the stadium, exclusively or shared, depending on their requirements and budgets.

More CBRS antenna deployment. Credit: PGA Tour

On a neutral host network, a mobile device would query the LTE network to see which operations are supported. The device would then exchange credentials with the mobile carriers – CBRS and cellular – then permissions are granted, the user is authenticated, and their usage info gets passed back to the carrier, Wright explained.

With the PGA Tour tests, the Essential CBRS devices get provisioned on the network, then connect to the CBRS network just like a cell phone connects to public LTE, Evans explained. The Tour’s custom apps send collected data back to the Tour’s network via the CBRS access point, which is connected to temporary fiber the Tour installs. And while some of Ruckus’s CBRS access points also support Wi-Fi, the Tour uses only the CBRS. “When we’re testing, we’re not turning Wi-Fi on if it’s there,” Evans clarified.

While the idea of “private LTE” networks supported by CBRS is gaining lots of headline time, current deployments would require a new SIM card for any devices wanting to use the private CBRS network, something that may slow down deployments until programmable SIM cards move from good idea to reality. But CBRS networks could also be used for local backhaul, using Wi-Fi to connect to client devices, a tactic currently being used at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

“It’s an exciting time… CBRS really opens up a lot of new opportunities,” Wright added. “The PGA Tour and NFL applications really address some unmet needs.”

CBRS on the Fairways

Prior to deploying CBRS access points at a location, the PGA Tour surveys the tournament course to create a digital image of every hole, along with other data to calculate exact locations and distances between any two coordinates, like the tee box and the player’s first shot or the shot location and the location of the hole. The survey also helps the Tour decide how and where to place APs on the course.

Courses tend to be designed in two different ways, according to the PGA Tour’s Evans. With some courses, the majority number of holes are adjacent to each other and create a more compact course; other courses are routed through neighborhoods and may snake around, end-to-end.

“In the adjacent model, which is 70 percent of the courses we play, we can usually cover the property with about 10 access points,” Evans explained.

Adjacent-style courses where the PGA Tour has tested CBRS include Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.; Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Penn.; and East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

In the second model, where the holes are strung back to back, the PGA Tour may have to deploy as many as 18 or 20 APs to get the coverage and throughput it needs. That’s the configuration used during a recent tournament at the TPC Summerlin course in Las Vegas, Nev., Evans told Mobile Sports Report.

On the course, CBRS APs get attached to some kind of structure where possible, Evans added. “Where that doesn’t make sense, we have portable masts we use – a tripod with a pole that goes up 20 feet,” he said. The only reason he’d relocate an AP once a tournament began is if it caused a problem with the competition or fan egress. “We’re pretty skilled at avoiding those issues,” he said.

A handful of PGA Tour employees operates its ShotLink system, which also relies on an army of volunteers – as many as 350 at each tournament – who help with data collection and score updates (that leader board doesn’t refresh itself!). “There’s a walker with each group, recording data about each shot. There’s technology for us on each fairway and green, and even in the ball itself, as the ball hits the green and as player hits putts,” said Evans.

The walker-volunteers relay their data back to a central repository; from there, ShotLink data then gets sent to PGA Tour management and is picked up by a variety of organizations from onsite TV broadcast partners; the pgatour.com Website; players, coaches and caddies; print media; and mobile devices.

In addition to pushing PGA Tour voice traffic over on to CBRS, the organization is also looking for the technology to handle broadcast video. “We think broadcast video capture could become a [CBRS] feature,” Evans said. The current transport method, UHF video, is a low-latency way to get video back to a truck where it can be uploaded for broadcast audiences.

A broadcast program produced by the organization, PGA Tour Live, follows two groups on the course; each group has four cameras and producers cut between each group and each camera. That video needs to be low latency, high reliability, but is expensive due to UHF transmission.

Once 5G standards are created for video capture, the PGA Tour could use public LTE to bond a number of cell signals together. Unfortunately, that method has higher latency. “It’s fine for replay but not for live production,” Evans said, but is expected to eventually improve performance-wise. “The idea is eventually to move to outside cameras with CBRS and then use [CBRS] for data collection too,” he added. “If we could take out the UHF cost, it would be significant for us.”

In the meantime, the Tour will continue to rely largely on Cisco-Meraki Wi-Fi and use Wi-Fi as an alternate route if something happens to CBRS, Evans said. “But we expect CBRS to be primary and used 99 percent of the time.”

San Antonio Spurs refresh mobile app with new features from YinzCam

Screen shot of new app design for the San Antonio Spurs. Credit: YinzCam

The San Antonio Spurs announced a new version of the team’s mobile app, which includes new features both for fans attending Spurs home games at AT&T Center as well as for fans following the team remotely. The new features were added to the app by developer YinzCam, which also designed previous versions of the team’s app.

According to YinzCam and the Spurs, a new interface designed for clarity and faster navigation will help fans find new features like blue-dot wayfinding (available only for Apple iOS devices) as well as new interactive maps available for both iOS and Android devices. Another update is the inclusion of on-demand replays for fans at AT&T Center, with four different camera angles to choose from, according to YinzCam.

In a nod toward a trend of team and stadium apps adding more attendance-specific services, the new version of the Spurs app will inlcude a “Season Ticket Member Club,” which the Spurs and YinzCam said will provide special offers and discounts, as well as the ability for season ticket holders to have single sign-on access to Ticketmaster’s account manager, which they can then use to digitally manage their tickets.

What’s not clear is if this update is an addition to an update YinzCam was scheduled to provide to the Spurs in the wake of a 2015 deal with the NBA under which YinzCam was to redesign 22 NBA team apps, including the Spurs’. Since that deal several teams have replaced YinzCam with a competitor — the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Hornets are all currently working with VenueNext to deliver their team apps. The Orlando Magic are also a VenueNext client, the first NBA team to pick that developer.

YinzCam, however, still claims to have developed 21 of the NBA team apps in use this season, including apps for the following teams: Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards. The Sacramento Kings and the Miami Heat use apps designed by Built.io, another newcomer in the stadium and team-app market. This year the Detroit Pistons turned to Venuetize for their team app in their new home, Little Caesars Arena. According to this release Venuetize also helped design the new app for the Portland Trailblazers. The Dallas Mavericks’ team app is supplied by Tixsee.

BNP Paribas Open serves up new app from YinzCam

Screen shot of new BNP Paribas Open app from YinzCam.

The BNP Paribas Open, one of the premier stops on the professional tennis tour, has tapped YinzCam to provide a new app for this year’s event that includes support for a wide range of services including ticket purchases, wayfinding, transportation to and from the venue, and a schedule of matches.

The new app, available for iOS and Android devices, is the first tennis-venue app for YinzCam, whose market-leading list of customers is mainly in U.S. professional sports, including the NHL, the NFL and the NBA. Reflecting YinzCam’s historic excellence in providing content to mobile apps, the BNP Paribas Open app will include biographies and photos for the more than 200 women and men players from the WTA and the ATP World Tour. According to YinzCam, the app will also support live scoring and real-time match results.

Probably one of the more important features to fans at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the tournament’s host venue, is the interactive map, which provides information on food and beverage options as well as other services (restrooms, ticket offices, etc.) as you scroll through the map. YinzCam said the app also has a chatbot to answer questions, though when we tried asking it “will Roger Federer win?” it asked us to rephrase the question because it didn’t understand.

As previously reported by MSR, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is well covered for Wi-Fi with a network using gear from Ruckus; apparently, the new app replaces the previous app developed by The App Company of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

Tampa Bay Lightning pick Venuetize for new Amalie Arena app

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Amalie Arena have selected developer Venuetize for a new team and stadium app that will bring features including a multi-purpose digital wallet that will help fans manage their ticket options for hockey games and other events at the venue.

Screen shot of the new Amalie Arena app by Venuetize.

Announced in January, the new app is already available for iOS and Android devices. According to the team, the app supports the ability to purchase concessions and merchandise with a mobile device, as well as being able to perform detailed ticketing transactions including transfers and even transfers of discounts.

The deal with the Lightning represents Venuetize’s second NHL deal this season, following the company’s win to provide a similar stadium and team app for the Detroit Red Wings (and the Detroit Pistons) at Little Caesars Arena. Venuetize also previously built an integrated app for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres.

With new entrants like Hopscotch challenging established app players like YinzCam and VenueNext in the stadium and team app arena, Venuetize seems to be claiming its own turf with apps that lean heavily on transaction features, as well as the ability to easily shift between sporting events and other events at stadiums.

YinzCam, which made its name early in the space with content-focused apps, recently unveiled a feature that allows app users to order and pay for food and beverages. Clearly, the ability to support more transaction-based services seems to be part of the increased table stakes in the stadium and team app market going forward.

AVAI Mobile scores big with new Daytona Speedway app

Screenshot of Daytona app. Credit: AVAI Mobile

Screenshot of Daytona app. Credit: AVAI Mobile

Denny Hamlin may have won the race, but there was another victor at the Daytona 500 this year, as the 2016 event saw the debut of a new mobile app for the speedway designed by AVAI Mobile of Austin, Texas. According to AVAI the Daytona app was just the first in a series of apps for International Speedway Corp. (ISC) tracks, a deal that may signal another serious entrant into the growing market for stadium and other large-venue mobile apps.

AVAI Mobile CEO Rand Arnold said that ISC approached AVAI looking for a way to combine different parts of a race-day digital fan experience that ISC was already using, including racing content, a beacon/wayfinding infrastructure as well as a loyalty program and push marketing.

“They were looking to completely change the [digital] fan experience, and they needed someone to tie all the things together,” said Arnold in a recent phone interview. Under a NASCAR-fast deadline — Arnold said AVAI completed the app project in 90 days from design to launch — AVAI used its modular architecture to build and launch a new Daytona venue app ahead of this year’s race, one that Arnold said was used by 30 percent of attendees.

Wayfinding an important feature at sprawling Daytona

If there was one feature that was key in getting fans to use the app it was the active wayfinding and maps feature, Arnold said. As an enormous, sprawling venue, a NASCAR track is always a challenge for fans to find their way around; it was especially so at Daytona this year given all the renovated spaces that were part of the track’s “Daytona Rising” refurbishment of grandstands and other fan areas.

“It’s a huge venue,” Arnold said of Daytona. “And if as a fan you wanted to take advantage of technology [to find your way around], that meant you were going to use the app.”

Map interface from Daytona app.

Map interface from Daytona app.

The Daytona app also featured integration with the existing FanVision experience, which provides race fans with in-car camera and scanner content; it also had a fully interactive site map, with the ability to “mark” areas like favored concession stands or where you parked your car; there is also support for a fan loyalty program as well as user-selected push messaging, where fans could be alerted to things like shorter concession lines, or autograph sessions with drivers.

Arnold said AVAI’s overall strategy of having an app platform that was purpose-built to integrate easily with third-party features enabled the quick turnaround on the Daytona app. He said that “making it easy to integrate APIs and SDKs” from existing services like analytics, content or other services may make sense to more venues, as they seek to integrate tools they are already using into a single mobile-app platform.

Concert deals now, more stadiums later?

Though AVAI Mobile has more than a few big-event customers — the company just announced a deal to provide mobile technology for C3 Events, which runs the Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza festivals, among others — the Daytona/ISC deal is probably the company’s biggest stadium “name” deal so far.

And unlike VenueNext, the app developer for the San Francisco 49ers that has made a name for itself by providing cutting-edge services like in-seat food and beverage delivery, AVAI Mobile will more likely seek customers who are looking for a more pragmatic approach, Arnold said.

“Some things deliver less return for a lot more money,” said Arnold, talking about possible features a stadium app could provide. “I think sometimes you can offer services that are in the end, just not that much better. You need to ask how far you want to go, and figure out what’s best.”

March Madness viewing: More digital options, plus some virtual reality

MML_iPhone_01-WatchRemember when college basketball tournament season only had a small slice of games available online? Or when you had to pay extra to watch online? It wasn’t that long ago. Thankfully though the future is here now and for 2016 the college hoops postseason has even more ways to watch games mobile or online, including one option to watch games via virtual reality programming.

Like last year, if you have a qualifying cable contract, you are basically covered and should be able to watch all the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games live, on whichever platform you want. The best way to start is to head to the NCAA’s March Madness home page, where you should be able to find any and all information on devices, apps and other avenues to streaming coverage. According to Turner Sports, the NCAA and CBS Sports the games will be available live on 12 different platforms, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku players and Roku TV models. The new March Madness Live app isn’t avalable until Thursday, so check back soon for the go-to app for everything March Madness.

Also like last year, you should be able to watch a few minutes of the first game you see without having to log in — great if you are just trying to catch a buzzer beater. The games of course will be available on regular TV, and the March Madness home page has what may be a great time saver, a widget that helps you find those obscure cable channels other than CBS or TNT where the games might be on. Since we’ve just moved, MSR’s NCAA viewing team might make good use of the Zip Code-powered channel finder.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 12.14.34 PMEven if you don’t have a cable contract you can still watch a lot of games that are streamed online; games broadcast on CBS will be available for no charge on desktop, mobile and tablet platforms, while games broadcast on the other channels (TNT, TBS, truTV and local channels) should be available on those providers’ websites. Again, if you get stuck or lost just defaulting back to the March Madness home page should give you a path to whatever game it is you’re looking for.

Big East tourney available in VR

If you have a NextVR platform you will be able to watch the 2016 Big East tournament (it starts Thursday, March 10) thanks to a partnership between FOX Sports and NextVR. We’re not VR-savvy here at MSR headquarters yet but with seven games and 15 hours of programming scheduled this might be a cool treat for VR fans. NextVR has an instruction page on how to watch the games in VR; if anyone tries this out, send us an email with a report on how it worked (or didn’t) and we’ll let everyone else know.

Also, don’t forget — this year for the first time the NCAA Men’s Championship game, scheduled for Monday, April 4, will be on TBS, NOT on CBS, the first time the champs game has been only on cable. And, there will be streaming options as well during Final Four weekend, according to the official announcement:

For the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals on Saturday, April 2, from Houston, NCAA March Madness Live will provide three distinct live video streams of both games to provide unprecedented viewing options for fans – live streaming of the traditional game coverage provided on TBS, along with “Team Stream by Bleacher Report” coverage or team-specific presentations offered via TNT and truTV. This year’s NCAA Tournament will include the National Championship airing on TBS, the first time the championship has ever been televised on cable television.