Wireless outlook for 2020: Will the iPhone 11 drive faster Wi-Fi 6 adoption?

You may not immediately think of Apple as a huge driver in the Wi-Fi business, but some initial data points surfacing at early Wi-Fi 6 network deployments may be showing that Apple’s decision to include Wi-Fi 6 support in its new iPhone 11 line could end up driving faster adoption of the latest version of Wi-Fi technology.

As always with any such predictions we suggest you order a side grain of salt to go with our year-end crystal-ball outlook for what lies ahead in 2020. But from an active fall season where we traveled a bunch and talked to a lot of smart people, here are some other observations we have for what lies immediately ahead for the wireless technology marketplace for stadiums, arenas and other large public venues.

1. Wi-Fi 6 adoption may happen faster, thanks to Apple

Editor’s note: This column is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue are profiles of new Wi-Fi deployments at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Florida, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Chase Center and Fiserv Forum! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

If you were building a new stadium or doing a full Wi-Fi refresh over the past summer, the big budget decision most likely on your plate was whether to go with Wi-Fi 6 gear or to wait and use Wi-Fi 5 equipment for now. While those who went the Wi-Fi 6 route may have paid a higer up-front cost and gone through some of the normal struggles with first-generation products, some of the data we are seeing from stadiums with operational Wi-Fi 6 networks is that Wi-Fi 6 client devices are already showing up, in not-so-small numbers.

And you can largely thank Apple for that.

One unofficial but largely true statement we feel comfortable in making is that at most stadiums, iPhones are still the vast majority of devices in use. We haven’t asked for any formal numbers but everywhere we go we keep hearing that stadium network users are typically a majority of Apple devices, sometimes as high as 70 percent of the active devices. (If this sounds like a good topic for future in-depth research, you think the same way we do.)

Oklahoma is already seeing Wi-Fi 6 traffic on its new stadium network. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

When the iPhone 11 line came out in September with support for the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard, it caught many in the industry a little by surprise, since historically Apple has been conservative when it comes to putting new technology into iPhones. Those of us who have been around a bit remember that happening during the shift to 4G, when iPhones were pretty much a year behind the leading Android platforms in supporting LTE.

If you also believe (as I do) that sports fans represent both ends of the device-adoption curve — meaning that a certain percentage of fans will have the latest phones, while others may still have flip phones — it is those forward-leaning fans who most likely got iPhone 11 devices as soon as they were available. According to the Golden State Warriors, they are already seeing iPhone 11 traffic on the Wi-Fi 6 network they have in the bowl seating at Chase Center. And at the University of Oklahoma, the all-Wi-Fi 6 network put in at the football stadium this year saw a growing number of Wi-Fi 6 connections as the season went on, hitting 2,000+ at one game later in the year.

So it’s just a drip of data, but enough to be noticed. Certainly something for you (and us) to watch as the year progresses and more Wi-Fi 6 networks come on line.

2. CBRS deployments will take time to arrive

And even though Apple also included support for Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum in the iPhone 11 line, we don’t expect to see CBRS deployments in venues accelerate anytime soon. Though there was a lot of CBRS talk ahead of the FCC approval for initial commercial deployments (and a lot of whispers about numerous trials at venues), so far there have been only two public announcements of live CBRS networks inside sports stadiums, and both those involve trial networks with no real deployment goal, and most significantly, no signed contracts.

While we remain big believers in the utility that the new bandwidth and LTE support may eventually bring, it’s easy to see why CBRS faces a slow adoption rate in sports venues. The main reason may just be historical inertia, the same conservative approach that has (still!) kept many venues from deploying even basic connectivity on the Wi-Fi or cellular fronts. Second may be the combination of a lack of budget and expertise; because there is no have-to problem that CBRS solves, teams and venues don’t need to rush into deployments.

And while we do believe that CBRS will eventually do great things for applications that need more mobility and security, the lack of turnkey-type approaches (like, “here is your CBRS package for parking-lot connectivity”) makes it a naturally longer sales cycle.

Throw in the fact that many venues may also be currently facing a Wi-Fi overhaul decision or what to do next on the cellular front as 5G arrives, and you have even more reasons for putting CBRS-type discussions on a back burner. The good news is, by the time CBRS starts getting more real, devices will probably have the dual-SIM issue solved in a more user-friendly fashion. When that happens the ability to use CBRS networks as a sort of Super-DAS should accelerate adoption — but that’s not a 2020 thing, at least as far as we can tell.

3. 5G is coming, whether anyone wants it or not

You can’t escape the press releases, headlines and other paid-for proclamations that 5G cellular services are now live in many sports stadiums. But given the fact that devices that support 5G are still at a minimum, only a lucky few fans will likely take advantage of the fast, low-latency bandwidth, at least for the time being.

Fuzzy shot of a Verizon 5G antenna at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver this fall. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Going back to Apple — which did NOT include support for 5G spectrum in the iPhone 11 — you can guess why stadiums that have 5G services are reluctant to talk about exactly how many users are on the 5G networks. Here’s a hint: It’s not a lot. The good news for venues is, however, that since the 5G wars are basically a huge marketing battle between the largest cellular carriers, that means that those carriers will basically pay to put those networks into venues, so all you really need to do is provide some space in the rafters and a fiber connection.

At Mobile World Congress in Los Angeles, we did hear from Ericsson and Verizon that early 5G deployments in stadiums are showing some welcome surprises, like “better than expected” ability for signals to roam — meaning that you can actually (maybe) leave your seat or twist your phone and not lose the signal.

So while the great hyped-about promises of 5G applications in venues — virtual reality! fan-provided video! — remain just an idea, more good news is that with little user pressure, network engineers, equipment vendors and service providers all have some time to learn what works and what doesn’t in a live environment. But for 2020, 5G in stadiums is more about carrier TV commercials than real commercial uses.

4. 4G LTE and DAS are still needed

One of the more-pertinent questions (and the subject of an upcoming MSR Research report) is what happens to the 4G LTE and DAS world inside venues, as carriers want to focus on 5G? The answer here is not as clear, but what’s undeniable is that 4G LTE services are still going to be the balance of cellular traffic for at least the next 2 years, if not more. That means that venues of all sizes still need to have a DAS or small-cell strategy, which gets tougher as carriers squeeze the margins traditionally charged by neutral third-party hosts.

If you’re a big or high-profile venue, you may not have as much to worry about, as for places like that (think Super Bowl, NBA/concerts, or any MLB stadium) it will likely be business as usual with carriers participating in DAS deployments. The biggest wild card on the DAS business side going into 2020 is the still-unresolved question of whether or not T-Mobile and Sprint will actually become one company. In places like Chase Center, that means negotiations over how T-Mobile and/or Sprint will come on to the DAS are on hold. Unfortunately, it’s the customers who will suffer the most as DAS participation from T-Mobile and Sprint gets delayed.

Another thing we’ll be looking at in the upcoming DAS and 4G report is what deployment methods will take the lead going forward — will the traditional top-down DAS antenna deployment method still work, or will under-seat deployments (like the one at Chase Center, see report in the latest issue) proliferate? Another trend to keep watching is the use of MatSing ball antennas, which are gaining more acceptance every time we talk to stadium IT teams. Amalie Arena went big with an all-MatSing DAS (using 52 of the big ball antennas) and Fiserv Forum recently put in 10 MatSings. We are also hearing of MatSing deployments happening in football stadiums, so watch for more MSR info on that front this year.

Carolina Panthers and Beam Wireless testing CBRS at Bank of America Stadium

Beam Wireless engineers testing CBRS signals in the Bank of America Stadium press box. Credit all photos: Beam Wireless/Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers and Beam Wireless are currently testing a live CBRS network at Bank of America Stadium, as a sort of experience-gathering exercise that the team hopes will help them roll out services and applications on the new bandwidth sometime soon.

“It’s a trial right now but we see this definitely becoming something permanent,” said James Hammond, director of IT for the Panthers, in a phone interview this week. According to Hammond and Beam, the team and the integrator have set up several live Ruckus APs in the stadium, running a small network on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) airwaves, a swath of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range. This test follows some other public trials of the CBRS service that have launched following the September approval by regulators for initial commercial deployments.

Kevin Schmonsees, chief technology officer for Beam Wireless, said the Bank of America setup was testing CBRS connectivity between the Ruckus APs and some client-side devices, including USB sticks and Cradlepoint modems. The team and Beam representatives were running the CBRS network live during last Saturday’s ACC Championship Game at the stadium, mainly to see if there were any conflicts between the CBRS setup and the stadium’s existing DAS and Wi-Fi networks.

“Part of the test was to see how all three networks play together,” Schmonsees said.

According to the team and Beam, there was no interference between the different networks, with everything on CBRS performing as expected. Though Hammond admitted the Panthers still don’t have any concrete plans for what applications they might run on a CBRS network, the promise of more spectrum that doesn’t have to be shared is attractive just on its own right.

“It’s extremely useful to have [a network] the fans can’t impact,” Schmonsees noted.

Michelle Rhodes, CEO and president of the Greenville, S.C.-based Beam, said the pilot network also gives the Panthers a place to test new devices that are entering the CBRS ecosystem, like the iPhone 11 line recently introduced by Apple.

“Having the live network gives the stadium a good understanding of anything they might want to deploy,” Rhodes said.

A Ruckus CBRS-enabled AP in a concourse at Bank of America Stadium

Another Ruckus CBRS AP in the stadium

CBRS demos, 5G talk highlight venue news at Mobile World Congress

A legendary telecom building in downtown Los Angeles, the city that was the home of last week’s Mobile World Congress Americas show. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Some live demonstrations of wireless devices using spectrum in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) topped the venue-specific news at last week’s Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in Los Angeles.

At Angel Stadium in nearby Anaheim, a group of companies led by Connectivity Wireless and JMA teamed up to do some live demonstrations of use cases for the CBRS spectrum, a swath of 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz range that uses the cellular LTE standard for device communications. One demo we heard about reportedly used a Motorola push-to-talk (PTT) handset to carry on a conversation from a suite behind home plate to centerfield, a “home run” distance of at least 400 feet.

Mobile Sports Report, which doesn’t often attend trade shows, found lots for venue technology professionals to be interested in at the show, including the live demonstrations of CBRS-connected devices in the JMA booth that included handsets, headsets and standalone digital displays using CBRS for back-end connectivity. MSR also sat down with Heidi Hemmer, Verizon’s vice president of technology, to talk about 5G for stadiums and why the push for the new cellular standard doesn’t mean the end of Wi-Fi. Read on for highlights of our visit to LA, which also included an interview with Boingo’s new CEO Mike Finley and with Paul Challoner, a CBRS expert at Ericsson.

Look at me, I can hear… centerfield

MSR wasn’t able to make it to the press event held at Angel Stadium, but we heard from multiple sources that the trial CBRS network installed there for a short stint in October by Connectivity Wireless and JMA performed as advertised, especially with the aforementioned full-field PTT talk between two devices, with one of those more than 400 feet away from the CBRS radio.

The worth of the ability for a device to communicate to a access-point radio at such a distance should be clearly apparent to venue wireless professionals, who may want to tap into CBRS networks to increase connectivity inside their venues. With more powerful radios than Wi-Fi and connectivity that utilizes the mobility and security of the LTE standard, teams and venues may look to CBRS for back-of-house communications that would benefit from being separated from the shared Wi-Fi infrastructures. While we are still waiting for the first publicly announced contract win for CBRS in venues — even the Angels are still weighing the decision to go forward with a CBRS deal — being able to show networks working live is a big step forward in the “is it real” phase.

Connecting digital displays, and more PTT

If there was a true “hot spot” for CBRS activity on the MWC show floor, it was at the JMA booth, where the wireless infrastructure company was running a live CBRS network with all kinds of devices running off it. JMA, which was showing its own CBRS radio cell (a kind of access point-on-steroids radio that will provide connectivity to client devices in a CBRS network) as well as a version of its XRAN virtual network core software, had a working prototype of one of the first commercially announced CBRS networks, a wireless deployment of digital displays for the parking lots at the American Dream shopping mall in New Jersey.

A prototype of the CBRS-connected displays JMA is installing at the American Dream mall. (Don’t miss the Jimmy Hoffa joke at the bottom)

According to JMA director of markets and solutions Kurt Jacobs, the 600-acre parking lot at the huge new mall near the Meadowlands (it will have an amusement park and an indoor skiing slope, among other attractions and stores) was a perfect place to harness the ability of CBRS networks. The displays, large LED signs that can change dynamically to assist with parking instructions and directions, needed wireless connectivity to provide the back-end information.

But after considering a traditional deployment with fiber backhaul and Wi-Fi — which Jacobs said would have cost the mall at least $3 million to deploy with construction taking 6 months or more — the mall turned to JMA and a CBRS network deployment, which Jacobs said will use nine radios and 13 antennas to cover the signs, which will be spread out at key traffic junctions. Total cost? About a half-million dollars. Total deployment time? About eight weeks, according to Jacobs. Jacobs said the system will also eventually be able to support mobile CBRS radios inside security vehicles for real time updates from the lots.

Verizon to cover all NFL stadiums with 5G… and lots of Wi-Fi

Heidi Hemmer, Verizon

Heidi Hemmer, Verizon

MSR was fortunate enough to get on the appointment schedule of Heidi Hemmer, Verizon’s vice president of technology. A few days after Verizon had publicly announced a spate of 5G deployments in NBA arenas, Hemmer doubled down on the carrier’s 5G commitment to NFL stadiums, saying the current list of 13 stadiums with some kind of Verizon 5G coverage would soon expand to the entire league.

While hype is heavy around 5G — if you’re a football fan you’ve no doubt seen the Verizon TV commercial where Verizon’s technology development director Eric Nagy walks around various stadiums touting the service — Hemmer was clear that 5G is just part of a full-spectrum stadium wireless solution, one that will likely include 4G LTE as well as Wi-Fi well into the future.

While Verizon is clearly proud of its cutting-edge 5G deployments, the company is also probably the biggest provider of Wi-Fi networks in large stadiums, with many NFL and even some large colleges having Verizon-specific SSIDs for Verizon customers, usually as part of a sponsorship deal from Verizon. Verizon is also a big bankroller of distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments inside stadiums, sometimes acting as the neutral host and other times participating as a tenant on the in-venue cellular networks.

A fuzzy shot of a 5G antenna in the wild at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver

According to Hemmer, having as much connectivity as possible allows Verizon to provide the best possible experience for its customers. The eventual end goal, she said, would be a world where fans’ phones “dynamically” connect to whatever network is best suited for their needs, from Wi-Fi to 4G to 5G. Currently, many of the Verizon Wi-Fi deployments will automatically connect Verizon customers to Wi-Fi in a venue where they have previously logged on to the network.

And while the millimeter-wave 5G deployments inside stadiums right now don’t come close to covering the full space of any venue (at the Denver Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High, for instance, there are only 16 5G antennas in the building), they do provide a different level of connectivity, with much faster download speeds and less latency. Hemmer said those characteristics could spawn an entirely new class of services for fans like better instant-replay video or advanced statistics. While MSR hasn’t personally tested any 5G networks, the early word is that in some situations download speeds can be in the gigabit-per-second range.

“Speeds are important to our customers and 5G can really push up the fan experience,” Hemmer said.

New Boingo CEO bullish on venues business

Mobile World Congress was also MSR’s first chance to meet Mike Finley, who became Boingo’s CEO back in February. A former Qualcomm executive, Finley said that Boingo’s history of being a neutral-host provider for venues should continue to drive more business in that realm, especially as newer complex possibilities like CBRS and Wi-Fi 6 networks emerge.

“We are satisfying a need” that venues have for connectivity expertise, Finley said, especially when it comes to relationships with wireless carriers.

At MWC, Boingo was part of the CBRS Alliance’s multi-partner booth space promoting the OnGo brand for CBRS gear and services. In its space Boingo was showing its new converged virtualized core offering (which was using JMA’s XRAN product) with a live combined CBRS and Wi-Fi 6 network running side by side. A booth representative with an iPhone 11 device was able to quickly switch between the two networks, offering a glimpse at the potential future networking choices venues may be able to offer.

Ericsson Dots target stadiums, CBRS

In its large MWC booth, connectivity gear provider Ericsson had a special display for venue equipment, including a weather-hardened version of its Radio Dot System that Ericsson booth reps said should be appearing soon in some U.S. sporting venues. Ericsson was also showing some Dots that it said would support CBRS, a service Ericsson sees great promise for in venues.

Paul Challoner, Ericsson’s vice president for network product solutions, said it will be interesting to see whether or not venues will need to pursue licenses for CBRS spectrum when those are auctioned off next year, or whether venues will choose to use the unlicensed parts of the CBRS spectrum. Like others at the show, Challoner was excited about Apple’s decision to include support for CBRS bands in the iPhone 11 line — “it’s a fantastic boost for the CBRS ecosystem,” he said.

More MWC photos below!

Some of the Ericsson Dot radios designed for inside venue use

A prototype digital display kiosk from JMA, Intel and LG MRI, with space up top for CBRS gear

Another wireless-enabled display kiosk, this one in the Ericsson booth. Looks like wireless and digital displays are the next hot product.

Los Angeles Angels testing CBRS network from Connectivity Wireless, JMA

The iconic sign outside the “Big A,” aka Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Credit Terry Sweeney, MSR

There’s no baseball being played there now, but wireless traffic in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum is currently flying around Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., part of a test being conducted by Connectivity Wireless and JMA for the Los Angeles Angels.

The trial network, which started operating on Oct. 14 and will run live through Oct. 25, is a proof-of-concept sort of demonstration by system integrator Connectivity Wireless and wireless gear supplier JMA, who have both targeted sports stadiums as one potential market for CBRS goods and services. CBRS is the acronym shorthand for a 150 MHz-wide swath of wireless spectrum at the 3.5 GHz range that can support communications using the LTE standard. With recent approval from the FCC for initial commercial deployments in CBRS, the Angels trial joins several other projects announced in mid-September.

As outlined in the diagram below provided to MSR by Connectivity Wireless, the CBRS trial will test several different use cases for the new bandwidth, including support for ticketing and concessions operations, connecting remote security cameras, powering digital displays, supporting push-to-talk voice communications, and also for general-purpose connectivity, in this case for back of house operations. As of yet, the Angels have not committed to buying a working CBRS network, but Connectivity Wireless has a history with the ballpark, as the company previously known as 5 Bars, later acquired by Connectivity Wireless, set up the Wi-Fi and DAS networks inside the venue.

The promise of CBRS airwaves is that they bring new, unshared chunks of spectrum into play — according to JMA and Connectivity Wireless, the JMA gear being used in the trial will allow for a number of dedicated 10 MHz lanes of traffic, each capable of 75 Mbps speeds. By supporting the cellular LTE standard for connectivity, CBRS also allows for fairly easy connectivity to a wide range of existing devices. Though some CBRS-specific dongles will be used to connect existing gear in the trial, a number of new devices — inlcuding Apple’s new iPhone 11 line — have added support for CBRS with new radios, a sign that CBRS already has significant backing even before any public commercial networks have been launched.

Though some parts of the CBRS equation still need to be completed, the clearance for initial commercial deployments and the fact that large real estate owners like sports venues can basically use the unlicensed parts of CBRS without paying licensing fees makes the spectrum attractive as a complement to existing Wi-Fi and cellular deployments. Though many sports venues, teams and leagues have shown interest in CBRS, the trial at Angels Stadium is the first public confirmation of any such tire-kicking.

The CBRS solution uses JMA’s XRAN software baseband and cell hub radio system, and according to Connectivity Wireless, other device partners were tapped to flesh out the CBRS trial, including Federated Wireless acting as Spectrum Access System (SAS) controller, along with Athonet’s Cloud Enhanced Packet Core (EPC) and Edge Node.

MSR will track the trial and see if we can get any results or reactions, so stay tuned! The CBRS season is just beginning.

(Click on the diagram for a larger image. Diagram courtesy of Connectivity Wireless)

Federated Wireless completes ESC network for CBRS

One of the coastal sensors deployed in Federated Wireless’ ESC network. Credit: Federated Wireless

Federated Wireless announced Monday the completion of its environmental sensing capability (ESC) network, in what may be one of the final stepping stones toward commercial deployments of networks in the CBRS band.

Under the unique shared-spectrum licensing structure of the CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band, a swath of 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz range, an ESC network must be in place to sense when U.S. Navy ships are using the band. What Federated is announcing Monday is that its ESC network is ready to go, one of the final things needed before commercial customers of Federated’s products and services would be able to formally start operating their networks.

Though the Federated ESC network is still pending final FCC approval, Federated president and CEO Iyad Tarazi said in a phone interview that the company “expects to get the green light [from the FCC] in June,” with the commercial customer launches following soon behind. Federated, a pure-CBRS startup with $75 million in funding, also offers Spectrum Access Services (SAS), another part of the CBRS puzzle to help ensure that any network operators who want to play in the shared-space sandbox that is CBRS are only using spectrum chunks that are free of any higher-priority traffic.

According to Tarazi Federated already has 25 customers testing its gear and services in getting ready to launch CBRS networks, a yet-unnamed group of entities that Tarazi said includes wireless carriers, enterprise companies looking to launch private networks, and even some large public venues.

Private networks first for venues?

The early thinking on CBRS use cases for sports stadiums includes the possibility of using private LTE networks for sensitive internal operations like ticketing and concessions, or even for closed-system video streaming and push-to-talk voice support. In the longer-term future, CBRS has been touted as a potential way to provide a neutral-host network that could support fan-facing carrier offload much like a current distributed antenna system (DAS), but to get to that place will still likely require some more-advanced SIM technology to be developed and deployed in client devices like cellphones.

But the potential of a new, huge chunk of spectrum — and the possibility of teams, leagues and venues being able to own and operate their own networks — has created a wide range of interest in CBRS among sports operations. While many of those same entities already operate stadium Wi-Fi networks, CBRS’s support for the cellular LTE standard theoretically could support faster, more secure networks. However, the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard may close the performance gaps between cellular and Wi-Fi in the near future; many networking observers now seem to agree that most venues will likely see a continued mix of Wi-Fi and cellular systems in the near future, possibly including CBRS.

Already, the PGA and NASCAR have live tests of CBRS networks underway, and the NFL and Verizon have kicked the ball around with CBRS tests, reportedly for possible sideline headset network use.

While CBRS will potentially get more interesting when the commercial deployments become public, if you’re a network geek you will be able to appreciate some of the work done by Federated to get its ESC network operational, starting with the deployments of sensors on coastal structures as varied as “biker bars and luxe beach resorts,” according to a Federated blog post.

Tarazi, who was most recently vice president of network development at Sprint, said the Federated ESC network is “triple redundant,” since losing just one sensor could render a big chunk of spectrum unusable.

“If you lose a sensor, you lose hundreds of square miles of [available] network,” Tarazi said. “That’s a big deal.”

And ensuring network availability is in part what Federated’s clients will be paying the company for, part of the puzzle that when put together will theoretically open up wireless spectrum at a much lower cost compared to purchasing licensed spectrum at auction. As one of the pick-and-shovel providers in the CBRS gold rush, Tarazi and Federated may be the only ESC game in town for a while, as the joint effort between CommScope and Google to build another ESC is not expected to be completed until later this year at the earliest.

“I feel like we’re at an inflection point now,” Tarazi said. “It feels good to be leading this wave.”