Connectivity at the core of Little Caesars Arena, District Detroit

Little Caesars Arena, the new home for the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons. Credit: Olympia Entertainment (click on any photo for a larger image)

Bringing great wireless connectivity to a new stadium is almost table stakes these days. But building up a nearby commercial district — and keeping connectivity high outside the venue’s walls — is a bet of another level, especially in Detroit where networks extend outside the new Little Caesars Arena into the 50-block District Detroit.

Following the arena’s opening in September of 2017, the prognosis so far is so far, so good, with solid reports of high network performance on both Wi-Fi and cellular networks in and around the new home of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings and the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. But for John King, vice president of IT and innovation for venue owners Olympia Entertainment, the responsibilities for him and his network team extend far beyond the new stadium’s walls.

“We’re focused on the [wireless] signal not just in the bowl, but also in the surrounding elements — the streets, the outdoor arenas, and the Little Caesars Arena garage,” said King in an interview shortly after the arena opened. “The vision is, to be connected wherever you are. And to share that experience.”

An ambitious revival in downtown Detroit

Editor’s note: This profile is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT for Winter 2018, which is available for FREE DOWNLOAD from our site. This issue has an in-depth look at the wireless networks at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, as well as profiles of network deployments at the Las Vegas Convention Center and Orlando City Stadium! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!

The inside concourse at Little Caesars Arena. Credit: Olympia Entertainment

Built nearby the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field and the Tigers’ Comerica Park, the new hoops/hockey stadium seats 19,515 for hockey and 20,491 for basketball. Unlike many stadiums of the past which rise up from the ground, Little Caesars Arena is built into the ground, 40 feet below street level. The innovations in construction and accessibility, including an outdoor arena adjacent to the indoor one, may require another full profile and an in-person visit. For now, we’ll concentrate on the wireless deployment in and around Little Caesars Arena, which was funded in part by a sponsorship from Comcast Business, which provides backbone bandwidth to the arena and the district in the form of two 100 Gbps connections. The Wi-Fi network design and deployment, done by AmpThink, uses Cisco Wi-Fi gear; Cisco’s Vision for Sports and Entertainment (formerly known as StadiumVision) is used to synchronize video output to the 1,500 TV screens located in and around the venue.

On the cellular side, Verizon Wireless built a neutral-host DAS, which was getting ready to welcome AT&T as the second carrier on board shortly after the opening. According to King, the Wi-Fi network has approximately 1,100 total APs both inside and outside the arena, many of those from Cisco’s 3802 series, which each have two radios per AP. For many of the 300 APs located in the main seating bowl, Little Caesars Arena went with an under-seat deployment, with some others placed in handrail enclosures, especially for the basketball floor-seating areas.

“AmpThink did a really nice job with the deployment,” said King, who said the arena’s open-air suite spaces helped provide “lots of flow” to wireless gear, without the historical overhangs around to block signals on different levels. One early visitor to the arena saw many Wi-Fi speed tests in the 50-60 Mbps range for both download and upload, as well as several in the 80-to-100 Mbps range, signs that a strong signal was available right at the start.

“We’ve still got a lot of tuning, but early on we’re getting great results,” said King of the Wi-Fi performance. “Our goal is to make it the best it can be.”

Staying connected outside the walls

Like The Battery area surrounding the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, the District Detroit is meant to be a stay-and-play kind of space, with restaurants, clubs, office spaces and residences seeking to lure visitors and residents to do more than just see a game. For King and his team, one of their tasks is to ensure that visitors can stay connected no matter where they are inside the district, including inside restaurants, offices and other indoor spaces.

Connectivity blends well with the architecture inside Little Caesars Arena. Credit: Tod Caflisch, special to MSR

“We want the [network] signal to be robust, to carry into outdoor spaces, restaurants and many other areas” inside the District Detroit, King said. “We want to push the envelope a little bit and create a useful opportunity.”

Back inside Little Caesars Arena, the team and stadium apps are built by Venuetize, which built a similar integrated app for the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres, one that also extends outside arenas to support connectivity in city areas. King said that Little Caesars Arena will be testing pre-order and express pickup concession ordering through the app, with a focus on seating areas that don’t have ready access to some of the club facilities.

Like any other new facility, Little Caesars Arena will no doubt go through some growing pains in its debut season, but for King and others who spent time getting the venue ready it’s fun to have the doors open.

“It’s really great seeing it all come to life,” King said.

Commentary: More tech needed for signs

Security sign at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

At the Minneapolis airport, I had just checked my bag and was looking for the departure gates, wondering which way to go since I remembered from a previous trip there was a choice of security lines. Turning to my left, my question was answered without having to dig out my phone to look at an app: Instead there was a huge neon green sign that said “Less than 10 minutes… all passengers, all gates.” I smiled and kept walking toward the sign and then took a picture, to remember the power of a highly visible and intuitive message board — something stadiums and other large venues could use a lot more of.

Though we make it a point here at MSR to report as much as we can on app-based developments for stadiums, increasingly these days when at a game I find that many times it is simply not convenient to pull up information on my phone, especially so with wayfinding. Let’s leave aside wayfinding apps and beacons for a minute and ask — why, in this age when we can deliver personalized information to a phone, isn’t there more being done with large, video-based signage?

Give me direction, not just live action

Editor’s note: This column is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT for Winter 2017-18, which is available for FREE DOWNLOAD from our site. This issue has an in-depth look at the wireless networks at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, home of the upcoming Super Bowl 52, as well as profiles of network deployments at the brand-new Little Caesars Arena and Orlando City Stadium! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!

For sponsors and advertising, the revolution over the past few years of LED boards replacing static signage is like moving from telegraph to radio. Stadiums everywhere are pushing each other to see who can add more in the way of ribbon boards, big LED screens on concourses, on walls and of course, to see who can come up with the latest in big main video boards.

But even as it’s great that video screens are proliferating inside venues — you may never miss a live play anywhere inside a stadium again, including inside elevators — I would argue that in many stadiums, the strategy behind mounting signs and putting relevant content on them is still in its infancy, especially when it comes to things like updated wayfinding.

And while I doubt any of us really wants a future like the one depicted in Minority Report, where signs detect you and show you personalized marketing as you walk by, wouldn’t it be nice if the screens did more instead of just showing live action and synchronized ads? How about some proactive wayfinding, with time-sensitive messages, to help fans find what they need inside the stadium walls? With quick, easy to digest information that doesn’t require three clicks to find?

My beef with wait time apps and wayfinding

If there’s one loudly touted stadium app feature I’ve never fully bought into, it’s the whole “you can see how long the bathroom line is” app. Though it seems simple and good (and many reporters write about it without questioning it), I see a bunch of holes poking through that are never described in the press releases. First and most telling is that even with multiple versions of this service launched, nobody has yet provided us with any stats on usage, even though we’ve asked politely.

Picture of a monitor at American Airlines Arena, showing wait time information (not during a game). Credit: Miami Heat

(Consider this a mass appeal for more information from any app providers or teams with apps reading this: If there is a part of your app that shows wait times for bathrooms or other lines, how many fans have used it? Has use of the feature grown? What have you changed recently to improve it? We’ll hang up and wait for your answer.)

One reason I don’t think wait time apps are a powerful idea for crowded stadiums is the simple fact that sometimes it’s not safe to be looking at your device. At a recent Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium I got a refresher — if you are walking on a concourse during a sellout game, the last thing you want to do is pull out your phone and be a gaper snce you might get gored by some guy with three-foot horns on his head who plows into you when you stop suddenly. Blue-dot directions are great in theory but like texting while driving, in some situations trying to stare at your phone may be hazardous to your health.

How about using the app while sitting in your seat, before you leave for the restroom? My question to the app provider is — what guarantee do you provide that if I start toward the bathroom with the shortest line, that it will still be short when I get there? And paradoxically, if more fans start using the app the way I am, won’t that make the short lines instantly long if we all head there at the same time?

More questions: Do any of these things tell you how long it will take you to walk to and from the bathroom with the shortest line? Or is it smarter to wait instead of walking (especially with a full bladder)? Are wait time apps smart enough to figure all this out? I doubt it.

Can you find your way to the Uber pickup at MSP? Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

But here is where smarter signs with more limited options come into play. Like the huge neon words in the Minneapolis airport, more interactive displays could go a long way in wayfinding, especially if they are only trying to do a small number of simple things, like, “SHORTER BATHROOM LINE 100 FEET THIS WAY,” or, “HOT DOG AND A BEER FOR $10, AT NEXT TWO STANDS.” I see a big difference in how such signs could differ from an app, by providing just the last piece of information in a process already begun — without any need for click-throughs.

The Miami Heat are starting down this path, with video screens that face the fans when they come up from the stands at American Airlines Arena, with restroom and concession information (with simple arrows) provided by partner WaitTime. While we haven’t yet interviewed the folks at WaitTime to find out exactly how their sensors and algorithms stand up to our previous list of questions, our guess is that many more fans will find the information via the concourse displays than through any team app, simply because A) many team apps still aren’t well known or well used, and B) everyone pretty much knows how to read a sign.

This is what I mean when I say we need more tech for signs — the updated information is great stuff, but it doesn’t even have to be that digital. At Golden 1 Center in Sacramento there was an incredibly smart decision made to turn some concession signs on the concourse a simple 90 degrees — so you can read the sign while you are walking, without having to turn your head. It’s one of those things that when you see it for the first time, you wonder why we ever did it the other way.

Maybe what is needed are some new form factors, other than the standard horizontal TV screen. The Mall of America (story coming soon!) has some new interactive directories that are more like a big iPad than the old movie-poster models, and they are already reporting millions of user sessions and great feedback from guests. Why not install a bunch of smaller screens in stadiums and other large venues, which could be programmed for specific time-sensitive information?

Instead of one large screen with impossible to read small type about baggage-carousel information about your arriving flight, why not a monitor with BIG type that circles through the most recent flights, mounted above wherever you enter the baggage area? How about big arrows in stadiums as a game finishes, directing fans to less-crowded exits?

Where are we with this issue now? After Levi’s Stadium opened a few years ago, they had stadium employees with handheld signs after games, trying to direct fans to the light rail. In the Minneapolis airport, trying to find the Uber pickup area requires a treasure hunt of sorts, as you have to find and consult multiple portable printed signs to finally find the curbside spot. And at the Denver airport they use similar portable printed signs to direct passengers to quicker security lines. C’mon man. Time to tech up.

Maybe, yes, an app with blue-dot wayfinding could help here but in many real-life big-venue situations — a sellout crowd concourse, or hauling your carryon suitcase to the gate — taking your phone out is sometimes the least attractive option. Instead, let’s see some more tech directed to signs and the strategy behind their placement and content. Let’s call them signs of the times, shall we?

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.”

Timberwolves, Lynx partner with VenueNext for new stadium/team apps

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx announced a partnership with app developer VenueNext, under which VenueNext will build stadium and team-content apps for the NBA’s Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Lynx.

The deal represents the second NBA contract for VenueNext, which has already launched a successful app and associated marketing programs with the Orlando Magic and their home arena, Amway Center. The VenueNext partnership with the Timberwolves and Lynx coincides with a current renovation of the teams’ home arena, the Target Center, which will also get a new Wi-Fi network along with the new app in time for the 2017-2018 NBA season. The Lynx app, according to the team, will be ready before the start of the 2018 season.

Screen shot of old Timberwolves app. Anyone got an old Blackberry in a drawer that could run this?

Though service specifics and screenshots of the new apps are not yet available, the press release out today said that fans can expect the usual menu of VenueNext-type app features, including digital ticketing, arena information, and team content. In other arenas, like the NFL’s Levi’s Stadium, VenueNext apps support features such as in-seat concession ordering and delivery; other VenueNext apps like the one for the Kentucky Derby offer mobile betting.

According to the Timberwolves, the new app will replace their current mobile app, which was created by app developer YinzCam. In 2015, YinzCam sold an equity stake in the company as part of a deal to re-do 22 NBA team apps.

(If you search for mobile apps on the Timberwolves website, you can see a geeky-cool photo of the team’s first mobile app running on a vintage Blackberry, which they claim was the first NBA team mobile app.)

VenueNext, which signed the San Jose Sharks as its first NHL client this season, also recently added some more venture funding to strengthen its business operations.

Nuggets game visit shows Wi-Fi solid at Denver’s Pepsi Center

Nuggets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver’s Pepsi Center, April 9, 2017. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

About one year into its existence, the fan-facing Wi-Fi network at Denver’s Pepsi Center seems to be in fine working order, at least as far as we could tell by a visit during the last Denver Nuggets home game of the just-finished NBA regular season.

With speed tests showing download speeds of almost 70 Mbps in one spot on the concourse and solid, high-teens numbers in upper deck seats, the Avaya-built public Wi-Fi network allowed us to stay connected at all times. We even watched live video of The Masters golf tournament online while watching Oklahoma City beat Denver in a heartbreaking ending for the Nuggets’ home season, when Thunder star Russell Westbrook capped a 50-point performance with a long 3-pointer that won the game and eliminated Denver from playoff contention.

While we got good speed tests last summer when we toured an empty Pepsi Center, we had no idea how the network would perform under live, full-house conditions, but the Nuggets’ home closer gave us some proof points that the Wi-Fi was working fine. One test on the concourse (in full view of some overhead APs) checked in at 69.47 Mbps for download and 60.96 for upload; another concourse test on the upper deck got numbers of 37.18 / 38.30.

A look from our seats into the rafters, where (we think) we see Wi-Fi APs

In our MSR-budget upper-deck seats (we did not request media access to the game but instead bought tickets like any other fan) we still got solid Wi-Fi numbers, with one test at 15.04 Mbps / 21.44 Mbps and another in the same spot at 17.40 / 16.27. We didn’t see any APs under the seats — according to the Pepsi Center IT staff some of the bowl seats are served by APs shooting up through the concrete (see picture for one possible such location). Looking up we did see some APs hanging from the roof rafters, so perhaps it’s a bit of both.

What’s unclear going forward is who will supply the network for any upgrades, since Avaya is in the process of selling its networking business to Extreme Networks, which has its own Wi-Fi gear and a big stadium network business. For now, it seems like attendees at Nuggets, Avalanche and other Pepsi Center events are covered when it comes to connectivity. Better defense against Westbrook, however, will have to wait until next season.

Upper level concourse APs at Pepsi Center; are these shooting up through the concrete?

Even at the 300 seating level, you have a good view of the court.

Taking the RTD express bus from Boulder is a convenient if crowded option (there was also a Rockies game that day at nearby Coors Field, making the bus trips SRO in both directions)

Who knew Pepsi was found inside mountains? (this photo taken last summer)

Final Four final score: 17.6 TB (at least) of wireless data used at University of Phoenix Stadium

We finally have the Wi-Fi numbers from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Final Four weekend at the University of Phoenix Stadium, and they are big — a total of 11.2 terabytes of data used during the two days of competition, according to the stadium network crews running the operations for the NCAA. Combined with AT&T’s reported DAS total of 6.4 TB, that means the total wireless usage so far is at least 17.6 TB — and that’s not including DAS numbers from Verizon Wireless, Sprint or T-Mobile, which if we had them would probably push the total far higher.

Just on the Wi-Fi side of things, the Saturday semifinal games this year produced enough single-day traffic (6.3 TB) to sneak into our unofficial Top 5 list for Wi-Fi events, barely edging Super Bowl XLIX, which saw 6.2 TB of traffic in the same building a couple years earlier. Granted, the Final Four has more fans in attendance and more time with two games compared to one, but it’s still a sign (to us, anyway) that wireless use by fans at big games of all types is continuing to grow. (It’s cool to see the comparison between a Super Bowl and a Final Four in the same venue, as well. Looks like the network operators there keep improving from big game to big game.)

According to the network stats provided to us, the Final Four crowd on Saturday saw 38,520 unique users connected to the Wi-Fi at some point, with a max concurrent user total of 20,675. On Monday night’s championship game, those numbers were 31,458 uniques and 19,861 max concurrent users. Attendance for the two sessions was 77,612 for Saturday’s semifinals and 76,168 for Monday’s championship, which were both second-highest ever numbers, according to a cool NCAA infographic that has some more stats on TV and internet viewership.

See you next year in San Antonio, NCAA… to see if the connectivity pace keeps increasing!

THE NEW TOP 8 FOR WI-FI

1. Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium, Houston, Feb. 5, 2017: Wi-Fi: 11.8 TB
2. Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 7, 2016: Wi-Fi: 10.1 TB
3. Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys, Divisional Playoffs, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, Jan. 15, 2017: Wi-Fi: 7.25 TB
4. WrestleMania 32, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, April 3, 2016: Wi-Fi: 6.77 TB
5. NCAA Men’s Final Four, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., April 1, 2017: Wi-Fi: 6.3 TB
6. Super Bowl 49, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 1, 2015: Wi-Fi: 6.23 TB
7. Alabama vs. Texas A&M, Kyle Field, College Station, Texas, Oct. 17, 2015: Wi-Fi: 5.7 TB
8. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots, AFC Championship Game, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Jan. 22, 2017: Wi-Fi: 5.11 TB