Strong showing for Wi-Fi network at SunTrust Park

The Atlanta Braves’ new home, SunTrust Park. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

After speaking with the Atlanta Braves via phone about their new home, SunTrust Park, we couldn’t wait for our recent visit to Atlanta for the SEAT 2017 Conference. Thanks to a personal tour hosted by Greg Gatti, senior director of information technology for the Braves, Mobile Sports Report got an up-close look at not just the new park’s excellent wireless networks but also its impressive innovations in seating spaces and other amenities that should keep Braves fans and visitors (like the numerous Cubs fans in attendance this week) happy for the foreseeable future.

Any doubts about whether the network reports were too optimistic were quickly laid to rest the first moment we took a Wi-Fi speedtest. While waiting outside the main right-field gate of SunTrust we got a Wi-Fi speed reading of 96 Mbps on the download and 136 Mbps for the upload, a level of connectivity we would see often during our visit. In addition to the ballpark the Braves also built the surrounding mixed-use neighborhood, called The Battery Atlanta, a mix of office space, mall-like retail and residences, a sort of instant neighborhood with superb connectivity at its core.

Both before and after our stadium tour MSR walked around the Battery, getting speed tests anywhere between 40 Mbps and 140 Mbps, depending usually how close you were to any of the numerous Wi-Fi APs mounted on buildings along the streets, walkways and public areas like the Braves fountain or on balconies of the close-by sports bars.

Yes it is, in great force

Having such good connectivity made tasks like getting an Uber ride a snap, since the Wi-Fi coverage extended out from the ballpark exits through the Battery streets to the designated Uber pickup zone.

Inside the park, Gatti first showed us (through a glass door) the Braves’ new data center room, which reminded us of the similar facility at the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center. If there’s any commonality for new stadium builds, it’s that the geeks usually get a nice, clean, efficient looking room for their gear instead of some dusty concrete dungeon in the venue basement. And though we’re not network engineers here at MSR on our walk around the visible AP mounts and other equipment installs looked sharp, well constructed and smartly hidden, placed when possible out of the normal fan’s line of sight.

Instead of listing all the speed tests we took I will simply say that in almost all places the speeds we saw were between a low of 62.29 Mbps / 65.84 Mbps (taken in the Home Depot balcony club area above the left-field bleachers) and a high of 88.17 / 101.54, in the upper deck seats along the right field line. A quick test of the Verizon Wireless DAS saw a reading of 106.36 / 25.18 in the upper deck concourse behind home plate; we didn’t have an AT&T phone with us so more thorough DAS testing will have to wait for another day.

A good look through the glass doors of the data center

Beer coolers a ‘cool’ idea

On beyond connectivity, the Braves clearly kept technology in the forefront when they made other innovations throughout the park. One that resonated with us were the electronic beer coolers we saw in several premium seating areas. Basically, these are cup-holder holes cut into a countertop with coolers inside, which keep your beer ice-cold when you’re not holding the cup.

The IPTV operations at the park were also impressive, from the tablet-based TV controls in suites (software provided by YinzCam) to the touchscreen directory kiosks in The Battery. For some of the premium seats right behind home plate, there are interactive televisions mounted between seats; another new premium area just above the first bowl of seats behind home plate has tables with four high-top chairs, which are sold as sort of very-small suites. The tables have a small TV in the middle which can be used to watch programming as well as to order food and drink to be delivered in club-seating fashion.

Several other club-type areas like the Home Depot suite, a Comcast-sponsored bar area in the upper deck near the right field foul pole and a club at field level in right field with a chain-link fence cutout view of the field give the Braves multiple options to give premium seating to groups of many sizes, along with the traditional suite areas.

An AmpThink-designed enclosure for railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs

In many of the premium seating areas the Braves have also installed USB charging ports, another nod to the ubiquity of mobile devices being brought to games. There are also numerous Big Ass Fans installed on concourse walkways, a nice amenity that takes into account the sometimes stifling humid heat in Atlanta.

If there was one snag to the game-day experience at SunTrust Park we’d say that the traffic situation of getting to and from the venue needs some more thought. Even though the park sits right by a major freeway, the exits and entrances don’t seem to offer a quick flow in our out for anyone who is arriving from, say, downtown Atlanta, which is about 10 miles away. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s good MARTA subway service doesn’t go anywhere near the park, making all transportation a wheels-based necessity.

The designated Uber dropoff area is a good example of an idea that needs some experience-based tweaking, with pickup and dropoff zones on the opposite side of a street that seemed congested from well before the game to afterward. While having a clearly signed place for ride-share activity is smart, the attempt to do dropoffs on one side and pickups on another led to several confusing U-turn attempts even in our small number of interactions. There’s also no oversight or on-site assistance or staffers to help either customers or drivers, which for a first-time venue seems an error in judgement.

But overall, SunTrust Park seems like a huge success that will only get better over time — according to Braves president of development Mike Plant, only about 30 percent of the space in the Battery is currently open, meaning there will be more businesses and residents surrounding the park in the near future. Already it’s clear that fans have found the space an agreeable one to hang out before games — while speaking at the SEAT Conference Plant said that most of the bars and restaurants are full well before game times, so he warned SEAT visitors to get there early if they wanted to grab a bite to eat or a drink before a ballgame.

More pictures from our visit below. Thanks to the Braves for our tour and to MLB for media access during our stay.

Panoramic view of SunTrust Park

A club space with a view out the right field wall

Wi-Fi AP mounted on outfield concourse

A look at railing AP mounts in the outfield bleacher seating

The IPTV control screen for suites

IPTVs located between premium seats right behind home plate

Tabletop seating with TV just above home plate

The big ball with its 360-degree LED screen

Fans walking through The Battery on their way to the game

Another Battery view with the Comcast office building behind right field visible

Main scoreboard promoting the MLB app

Sightlines and decks at SunTrust seem built for selfies

Nice view from the upper deck

Closeup of a Wi-Fi AP install

Above fans’ eyes is a DAS gear placement (and a Big Ass fan)

DAS gear mounted on the roof of the centerfield concourse wall

Thunderstorms, the beautiful but unwelcome visitors

State of the art network shines through at SunTrust Park

Opening weekend at SunTrust Park. Credit all photos: Atlanta Braves (click on any photo for a larger image)

Seasoned major-league baseball fans know better than to get too excited by good performances in April. Many times, long seasons and league-wide competition have a way of taking some of the shine off a sparkling start.

In Atlanta, however, Braves fans can start rejoicing now about their brand-new ballpark. If network performance is any clue, the thought, care and execution that went into the building of SunTrust Park seems pretty much state of the art, guaranteeing a great fan experience, no matter what happens on the field.

Like any other stadium or large public venue network, the Wi-Fi deployment at the Braves’ new home (located about 10 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta) will likely be tested sometime in the near future, either by large crowds or a bandwidth-taxing moment like a milestone home run or an important victory. But some early positive user reviews and hard numbers showing 8.4 terabytes of data used on the network in and around the park on its MLB opening weekend, it appears that the Braves and their partners put together a network ready for high performance from the first call of “Play Ball.”

It takes a village… of partners

Editor’s note: Welcome SEAT attendees to Atlanta! This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, Westfield’s Century City Mall, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Bird’s-eye view of SunTrust Park and The Battery.

To be sure, the networking inside SunTrust Park and in the surrounding mixed-use entertainment/retail/residential/business area known as “The Battery Atlanta” had many hands in its making, starting with major partner Comcast, which helped bankroll the almost $12 million spent on the core networking components. Cisco, the main supplier of Wi-Fi and networking gear to many MLB parks, was also involved at SunTrust, not just on the equipment side but also by bringing its StadiumVision digital-display software system to the facility’s numerous TV screens.

Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company, in somewhat of a coming-out party for the firm’s advanced technology solutions division that serves the sports, entertainment and retail industries, led the way with display deployments at SunTrust Park and The Battery, starting with the stadium’s main video board, a 120.9-foot wide by 64.3-foot high 16mm-pixel pitch SMD LED display. While we don’t have any performance measurements yet, SunTrust Park also has a neutral-host DAS built by Verizon, with AT&T already on board and T-Mobile scheduled to join later this summer.

Also in the mix was the organizational and consulting efforts of Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment. Bob Jordan, senior vice president of team and venue services at Van Wagner, said the Wi-Fi network at SunTrust Park and The Battery is “the culmination of a lot of information, including best practices and learning from all the stadiums we’ve done and seen.”

Close-up of a railing Wi-Fi AP during installation.

Jordan said having a commitment to building “the most comprehensive wireless platform” available meant that known possible constraints were eliminated ahead of time, producing something close to the sum of all the good experiences seen elsewhere.

Planning for speed and capacity

With the opening weekend’s traffic numbers — supported by some on-the-scene reports of device speedtests in the 60- and 80-Mbps ranges — perhaps the Braves can be forgiven for sending out some enthusiastic press releases right after the first home series that proclaimed the SunTrust Park network as the fastest in any stadium, anywhere. While we here at MSR would rather see more data before making such broad proclamations — and would caution against trying to compare the network at a 41,149-seat baseball stadium to those built in 100,000-seat football stadiums — we have little doubt that the project is at the very least among the best, given just the raw stats and smarts behind its deployment.

Some of that starts with the backbone bandwidth supplied by sponsor Comcast, a pair of 100 Gbps pipes that are for now probably overkill, since even fully loaded football stadiums at Super Bowls will only use a fraction of that kind of throughput. While those knowledgeable about networking know that just having lots of backbone capacity doesn’t automatically mean your network will have great client-side speeds, it also doesn’t hurt to have way more than you need before you even start.

Another aerial view of the park.

“We wanted to make sure we had ample connectivity for everything we did,” said Greg Gatti, senior director of information technology for the Braves, in part explaining the humongous backbone bandwidth, which so far in sports we’ve only heard of at one other new stadium, the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, where Comcast also was the supplier of two 100 Gbps connections.

According to Gatti the Wi-Fi network “is the enabler for everything we do” at the park and the surrounding business areas, including fan-facing services as well as business needs and things like concession kiosks. The Wi-Fi runs off a fiber-based network that Gatti said connects almost all devices in the stadium. “Pretty much every single thing, including sprinklers, HVAC, elevators and lighting are connected to the network,” he said.

And while we here at MSR would like to see more data and tests before we agree with any self-proclaimed claims of being “the fastest” stadium network, with 900 Wi-Fi APs in the stadium — many of those Cisco’s newest 3800 series — and another 450 APs out in The Battery — Gatti is confident that the Braves won’t have any issues delivering high-density Wi-Fi bandwidth to fans.

“We’ll give you as much connectivity as your device can handle,” he said.

Leaning toward a 5 GHz-only future

Like several other sports stadium networks, the Braves will be using mostly 5 GHz channels only for fan-facing Wi-Fi. The reasoning behind this so far (at stadiums like Golden 1 Center, Bankers Life Fieldhouse and SAP Center) is that with most fan devices now having 5 GHz support, it’s easier and cheaper to offer only 5 GHz channels, leaving behind the challenges of supporting the 2.4 GHz band.

Putting the gear in place.

During an exhibition game ahead of the Braves’ MLB opener, Gatti said the SunTrust Park Wi-Fi network offered only 5 GHz connections for the first five innings. “After that, we turned on 2.4 [GHz] but we didn’t have much uptake,” Gatti said. “We’re leaning toward staying with 5 GHz only and avoiding 2.4 GHz if at all possible.”

Some of the 700 Wi-Fi APs in the main seating bowl are mounted in handrail enclosures designed by Wi-Fi integration experts AmpThink, devices used in many MLB deployments. “AmpThink has a lot of experience in MLB stadiums,” Gatti said.

One interesting note is that the Braves and Comcast did not participate in the ongoing MLB advanced media (MLBAM) program that helps pay for networking deployments in MLB stadiums; instead, Gatti said, the Braves and their sponsors footed the technology bill directly.

The Braves did work closely with MLBAM, however, on the stadium app front. According to Gatti, the team was interested in building a secondary app to expose new services available in and around the stadium and commercial area; but given that (according to Gatti) the Braves fans have the highest “take rate” on using the MLB-standard Ballpark app, MLBAM saw fit to help the Braves add additional SunTrust Park-only features to the Ballpark app; right now the Braves’ version of Ballpark includes support for digital ticketing and parking with mobile entry, mobile check-in, interactive maps and directories, integration with Waze, and seat and experience upgrades, according to the team. Some other services are not yet unveiled, as Gatti said the Braves are still testing beacon technology that will be used for wayfinding and other applications. The Braves also unveiled a kiosk-based wayfinding application, developed by YinzCam, to help fans find their way around the new stadium and The Battery area, which is all new to Atlanta and anyone visiting.

Bright future ahead

While most of the story about whether or not SunTrust Park and The Battery will be a successful combination of entertainment plus real-life activity, so far things look good, especially from a networking perspective. With The Battery’s office buildings, restaurants and living spaces, the combination may be the first real test of whether or not it building “city spaces” right next to stadiums is a winner for both customers and the owners.

Whether or not that business idea succeeds, its fortunes apparently won’t be decided by whether or not there is a good network in place. That test has already been passed, after what Gatti called “a fun and aggravating experience at the same time,” a greenfield project that doesn’t come around often in the stadium networking marketplace, that had one driving goal: Make sure the wireless worked well.

“It was pretty simple — in a modern ballpark, the expectation for fans is to have good connectivity,” Gatti said. If the opening weekend is any indication, the Braves and SunTrust Park have already recorded an important win in that category.

Editor’s note: SEAT attendees, see you at the Braves game Tuesday! This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, Westfield’s Century City Mall, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Opening day fly-by is repeated on the video board.

Let the networking fireworks begin!

New third-party wireless infrastructure company buys 5 Bars’ stadium business

NRG Stadium during Super Bowl LI. Credit: AP / Morry Gash/ Patriots.com

Neutral Connect Networks (NCN), a newly formed third-party operator of wireless systems for sports and entertainment venues, has purchased the stadium business part of 5 Bars as part of its inception, a transaction publicly announced last week.

As part of its rollup NCN also acquired DAS Communications, a third-party infrastructure provider with deployments in Boston and New York. The new company also received a $30 million funding round from M/C Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm.

Though 5 Bars recently basked in the successful glow of its biggest stadium project — building the Wi-Fi network at Houston’s NRG Stadium, home of the recent Super Bowl LI — the firm had faced challenges winning deals due to its smaller size, according to Paul McGinn, the CEO of NCN. With more personnel resources along with the $30 million war chest, McGinn said the 5 Bars sports business has a better chance to compete.

“We’re going to put tens of millions into 5 Bars,” said McGinn in a phone interview. “We’re looking forward to growing that business quickly.”

In addition to NRG Stadium, 5 Bars had built third-party networks at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Angels Stadium, and is constructing DAS and Wi-Fi networks at the new football stadium at Colorado State University, which is scheduled to be completed in time for this fall’s season.

McGinn, who was most recently at Vertical Bridge as director of business development, leads a team that includes Brian Porter, a former vice president of in-building operations at telecom gear provider Ericsson. Porter will be NCN’s senior vice president of sales and operations. Bruce Banigan, II, vice president of business development for 5 Bars’ sports operations, will continue in that role at NCN.

John Clarey, 5 Bars’ former CEO, who will continue as an investor in NCN, said in a prepared statement that “the financial commitment from NCN and M/C Partners provides 5 Bars the needed resources to continue to build and operate the large projects it has in its pipeline.” The terms of the all-cash deal for buying 5 Bars’ sports business were not revealed; 5 Bars has not yet announced whether or not its other main business line, a nascent operation looking to provide third-party wireless infrastructure for cities and communities, will continue to operate under the 5 Bars name or whether it will also undergo changes.

Though some recent comments by telco executives seem to be signaling a change in their companies’ willingness to participate in third-party DAS and Wi-Fi deployments may be waning, NCN’s McGinn said his new company will approach third-party deals with a different mindset, mainly one that looks longer into the future.

“We’re not going to be looking to recoup 100 percent of the cost of the system in one to three years,” said McGinn. Instead, McGinn said the new NCN/5 Bars approach will be one of looking for smaller cash contributions over a longer time frame.

AT&T to provide backbone bandwidth for Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wi-Fi

In a somewhat surprising announcement, AT&T said it will provide backbone bandwidth for the Wi-Fi network at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, as part of a partnership deal that makes the carrier the “Official Communications Provider” for the Atlanta Falcons’ new home.

Announced today, the deal calls for AT&T to provide twin redundant 40 Gbps pipes to power the 1,800 Wi-Fi APs that are inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. As reported earlier by MSR, the Mercedes-Benz Wi-Fi network will primarily use under-seat AP deployments in the seating bowl.

AT&T said it will also provide “monitoring and maintenance” for the stadium’s Wi-Fi network, and will also bring its DirecTV service to the venue’s IPTV system, making that content available to the more than 2,000 digital displays in the stadium. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is scheduled to formally open later this summer, for one of the Falcons’ preseason games.

What makes this announcement interesting to the stadium networking industry is the fact that there is no mention of any participation by AT&T on the venue’s DAS network, which will be running on Corning equipment. For most of the recent past, AT&T has been pulling away from stadium Wi-Fi deployments and concentrating on DAS funding in large public venues. Its main competitor Verizon Wireless has been much more active recently on the stadium Wi-Fi front, helping fund Wi-Fi deployments in a number of NFL stadiums, including those in Green Bay, Denver, Seattle, Houston and others. AT&T does continue to participate in network deployments at AT&T Park in San Francisco and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, among others.

The press release out today does not say whether or not AT&T customers will have their own SSID or network space reserved, a feature Verizon usually secures for its customers when it helps fund a stadium’s Wi-Fi network. The release did say that as part of the deal AT&T will also sponsor the “AT&T Perch,” which is described as “a permanent interactive gathering spot” located on the concourse above the stadium’s west end zone. According to the release the Perch will have multiple screens where fans can watch NFL content including DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket programming and the NFL Network’s RedZone channel.

New Report: State of the art Wi-Fi network at Braves’ new SunTrust Park

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— Coors Field profile: A look at how the Wi-Fi network at “old” Coors Field is still serving fans with solid performance;
— Westfield Century City Mall profile: A close look at a new Wi-Fi network and other digital services emerging at an extensive renovation of this historic Los Angeles shopping center;
— Additional profiles of a new DAS deployment at Sonoma Raceway and new Wi-Fi for Red Bull Arena!

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Changes ahead for DAS industry business models, technology

JMA Wireless shows ‘smart’ trash bins at DAS and Small Cells Congress in Las Vegas. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

LAS VEGAS — New technologies combined with the need for new business models are driving imminent changes to the distributed antenna system (DAS) marketplace, according to industry representatives speaking Tuesday at this year’s DAS and Small Cells Congress here.

And while the end product of the market transformation is still uncertain, executives from DAS gear manufacturers, cellular carriers and other industry experts all agreed on one thing: In the near future, the DAS industry won’t look at all like it does today.

For large public venue owners specificially, the days of carrier-funded DAS deployments may already be at an end, unless your stadium is in line to host a Super Bowl. Tightening budgets due to economic pressures on the nation’s biggest cellular carriers means that the recent years of free spending by AT&T and Verizon Wireless may have already gone by, putting more pressure on venue owners to find different financial models to bring cellular signals inside their buildings.

Cathedral Consulting’s Seth Buechley

“There was never a problem I couldn’t throw more money at,” said Philip French, executive director for the West and North Central areas for Verizon, during a Tuesday keynote session at the Planet Hollywood hotel. “Those days are gone.”

Also putting pressure on traditional DAS designs are the emergence of small cells, basically smaller versions of carrier macro towers that, like DAS, are used primarily to bring connectivity inside buildings or to urban areas with RF challenges, like crowded city streets. Experiments with newer “5G” cellular technologies and trials of networks at newer slices of spectrum, like the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) at 3.5 GHz, may also impact the traditional DAS architectures as carriers and building owners look for ways to get more connectivity bang for the buck.

Getting more worth out of the network

Seth Buechley, chairman and CEO of business-advisory firm Cathedral Consulting (and former co-founder of DAS equipment provider SOLiD USA), said that the biggest cellular carriers are under increasing pressure to improve their bottom lines, a situation that could affect the DAS industry by drying up the funds previously used to bring DAS deployments to places like stadiums and arenas. AT&T, for example, has already disbanded the internal group that led an industry charge to bring DAS to many sports venues at no charge to teams or facility owners.

“Internal [carrier] competition for resources is the biggest threat to DAS,” Buechley said.

In his remarks, Verizon’s French noted that the “unlimited” data plans that have resurfaced for major carriers like Verizon are putting “a tremendous amount of pressure” on budgets. Another current popular DAS business model, where a third-party operator builds a stadium network and then signs up carriers on a subscription model, may also be in danger as carriers hold off on participating. At Texas A&M, T-Mobile recently signed a $3.5 million deal to get its signals on the DAS network at 102,512-seat Kyle Field, where AT&T and Verizon both paid in the neighborhood of $5 million for their access to the network.

Todd Landry, JMA Wireless

Unless your facility is that big or it’s getting ready to host a big event like WrestleMania or the Super Bowl, where DAS traffic is likely to be off the charts, the carriers may not be as ready to pay.

“We still love the NFL, but neutral host [participation] can be very expensive for Verizon,” French said.

More network intelligence = more revenue opportunity

Todd Landry, corporate vice president for product and market strategy at DAS supplier JMA Wireless, said the DAS industry needs to look at its own offerings to see how it can help its customers get more out of their networks.

“We’ve got to re-imagine what we’re trying to do,” said Landry. “What do we do with the network to get more out of it?”

Specifically, Landry sees advancements in DAS network intelligence as a prime opportunity to provide more value rather than simply cutting costs. At the conference, JMA was showing a prototype of a “DAS trash can,” a hardened waste bin (with solar power) that could also host a DAS antenna inside. Another attached bin was shown with a connected sensor that could tell operators whether the can was full or not, eliminating the need for multiple truck rolls just to check on whether the bin needed to be emptied.

DAS gear inside the ‘smart’ trash can

For stadiums and other public spaces like shopping malls, Landry said parking spots might have sensors that could indicate whether or not a spot was available — and then relay that information to a self-driving car, which could drop off its passengers at the venue, then proceed on to park itself. Such a service could be offered for a fee to game or mall attendees.

“As we go forward, we need be more clever,” Landry said. “We need to take more knowledge [from] the plumbing, and extract value from it.”

And even while technologies like “5G” and CBRS, which uses LTE technology to provide what proponents see as a sort of “private cellular” environment, may be a few years off from practical deployments, Landry said their presence is already being felt and absorbed by firms building current-day DAS gear. Elements of small cells and DAS, he said, “will come together,” as the equipment vendors “re-imagine what we’re doing for the industry.”

While there may be multiple paths forward for the DAS market, all in attendance seemed to agree with Landry’s final statement: “Things will be very different from what you know today.”