What’s Next: The uncertain path forward in the ‘Return to Venues’

When will venues like Ohio State’s ‘Horseshoe’ be full of fans again? Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, STR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As the world endures the summer of the global coronavirus pandemic, there is only one thing certain in the world of large public venues and mass-attendance events: Nobody, anywhere, has any complete idea what is going on right now, or exactly what the future holds for live audiences at sporting events or concerts.

To be sure, sports of all kinds are starting to test the waters on how they might return to action after the initial coronavirus shutdowns, and eventually how they might start welcoming fans back into their venues. But without any coherent top-down direction from the federal government, and what looks like an even bigger surge of new virus infections, the current state of how fans will return to venues in the U.S. is an uncoordinated chaos, with teams, leagues, schools, governments and fans all trying to find a way forward on their own that balances the need for safety with the desire to see live events in person.

After conducting a wide-ranging series of interviews with subject matter experts, industry thought leaders and representatives from teams, schools, leagues and venues earlier this year, Stadium Tech Report has come to some early conclusions about what the remainder of 2020 and beyond might look like for the world of professional and big-school sports. While all of these are still only best guesses as to what might happen, there are some trends that seem to be the way most operations will proceed as the search for a vaccine or some other type of coronavirus cure or treatment goes on.

1. Get ready for more events without any fans, maybe until next year.

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is a look at a new Wi-Fi 6 network for Dodger Stadium, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

In our research partnership with AmpThink (see Bill Anderson column) Stadium Tech Report agrees that the AmpThink-developed theory of a “stages of return” process is what we think most venues will need to go through in order to safely start allowing fans to attend events again. The first two parts of that process, getting government approval to open the doors to crowds and satisfying liability issues surrounding the safety of people in any building, are a combination that we see likely to push many venues into hosting events without fans – or in some cases, with severely restricted numbers of fans – since having only competitors and necessary staff, and perhaps a small number of fans inside the venues is likely an order of magnitude easier (and cheaper) to accomplish.

Granted, there are many sports and concert operations that may not have any incentive to hold events without fans, since their revenue models may lean heavily on game-day spending for food and beverage. However, the bigger sports with big TV deals would at least be able to earn some percentage of their incomes by holding empty-stadium events that would still be broadcast. Some sports, like NASCAR, bull riding and some independent minor-league baseball teams, have had limited-attendance events already. The PGA had proposed letting some fans in to the Memorial Tournament this week, but those plans were scrubbed in the face of the recent virus surges.

Right now the NBA and the MLS are in motion with plans to finish their seasons in a “bubble” type atmosphere in Orlando, where teams would be sequestered and would play at close-by facilities. The NHL and Major League Baseball are also in motion with plans for similar shortened seasons, with NHL teams playing in two cities in Canada (Edmonton and Toronto) while MLB teams will play 60 regular-season games in regional circuits.

College sports, with larger rosters and no ability to enact a pro league-type “bubble,” may not see any sports this fall. Already, the Ivy League has canceled sports for the rest of the year while two Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, have eliminated non-conference games in order to provide more flexibility in scheduling. Even then, representatives in those conferences admit that the end result may be fully canceled seasons.

And in the NFL, teams are already publicly planning for reduced-capacity seating if games take place at all, and if so if they are allowed to have fans in the stands.

The key thing similar to all the ideas? Even with contract agreements in place, some of those plans still face huge hurdles when it comes to testing, quarantines and overall health concerns for both participants and guests, factors that may eventually end any or all of the experiments before seasons can be finished. There is also a new growing social concern over pro leagues having instant access to Covid-19 testing while the rest of the nation is starting to struggle again with getting tests and results.

A crowded concourse at Ohio Stadium in 2019. Venues will be challenged to keep fans apart during the pandemic.

Since President Trump’s administration has made no effort to provide any type of national guidance for Covid-19 responses — especially for the re-opening of businesses — the result in sports is an ever-changing overlap of directions, with some governors proclaiming that their states are ready to host big events with fans in stands, while other state and international leaders are saying that they won’t allow big public events like sports and concerts to have fans in attendance until perhaps 2021.

No matter what the state or local governments decide, satisfying the combination of the second stage of the “return to venues” model – addressing the legal liability of the venues – and the third stage, which is gaining confidence of the fans – will likely push many venues to hold fan-free events first, while they work on plans and technology deployments to help get them to a place where they can earn government approval to open, to feel legally confident that they can keep fans safe, and then convince fans of that feeling.

While there will always likely be some fans willing to attend events no matter what the risk is, with national polls showing that a majority of people in the country are still in favor of restricting business activity to keep everyone safe from the virus, it might not make business sense for venues to try to open widely if big crowds don’t want to show up just yet. And events with less than full-house attendance may also not be economically feasible for many venues, given the large costs associated with just opening the doors of a stadium-sized facility; if you can’t make enough money to cover costs with a smaller audience, does it make sense to hold the event at all?

So just from a baseline measure of costs, safety and operational complexity, the feedback we’ve received from our interviews leads us to guess that most “big” events for the rest of the year will have no fans or strictly limited, small amounts of fans in attendance, if the events happen at all.

2. When fans do return to venues, new technologies and processes will be required, especially for venue entry and for concessions.

When it comes to social distancing to keep the virus from spreading, at large public venues it’s all about the lines.

With the prospect of an all-clear vaccine a year away at best, after some time the economic pressures of the current closures may become untenable if teams and venues want to survive as businesses. So, opening venues to some number of fans before a vaccine is available seems extremely likely; and in all discussions we’ve had so far, it’s apparent that venues believe they will need to enforce social distancing among guests, much like we are all doing in various phases of public activity today.

In seating areas, social distancing will be an easier task, given that venues can more easily keep seats unsold or erect barriers to keep unrelated groups apart from each other. The real problem with social distancing in stadiums comes from lines, a historical commonplace occurrence at entryways, on concourses and at places like concession stands and restrooms. To eliminate lines and to keep guests from inadvertently getting too close to one another, venues are likely going to need to deploy some kind of combination of technology and procedures to streamline the logjams we all used to just tolerate as part of the game-day experience.

Venues may require cashless transactions during the pandemic, like this stand at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium did in 2018.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, entry to almost all stadiums in the U.S. has become a more lengthy procedure than it was before thanks to the use of metal detectors. Physical checks of handbags or large coats have further slowed entry procedures in general, as have newer forms of identification for digital ticketing that required a live network connection at the point of ticket scanning.

Even in the face of all those barriers, many fans at big events still waited until near start time at tailgate parties or other outside-the-venue events, leading to large traffic jams of fans at the entry doors near the starting times. To allow fans to attend large events during a pandemic, however, fans may be asked to arrive even earlier to go through more thorough security checks that may include new procedures for temperature scans and perhaps even blood oxygen-level scanning; some venues may even choose to implement on-the-spot testing for Covid-19, new procedures that will likely force many venues to expand the geographic area needed to support all the new entry procedures.

New technologies, some of which have already been put in use in limited deployments, may offer some help in entryway procedures. The use of near-field communications (NFC) systems to allow personal devices to be scanned for valid tickets without having to present the devices could theoretically significantly speed up entry lines, with the caveat being that fans would have to adopt such payment or ticketing systems before arriving. Other venues are also looking at newer forms of threat-detection devices like metal detectors that can scan groups of people at a single pass instead of the airport-style one-person gate that is currently the de facto standard.

A no-tech additional solution being considered by other venues is the idea of reserved or staggered entry times, which could streamline the process if fans are able to or forced to comply. Similar methods have already been proposed for departure, with fans being instructed by section or row by row when it’s safe to leave.

The idea of entering at any gate and being able to wander around the entire stadium may also be something eliminated during a social-distancing audience phase. Some venues are considering highly regulated “zones” inside venues to keep fans apart. What is true of all plans, technology-aided or not, is that any new measures will require huge amounts of communication outreach to fans, a large amount of training and even new staffing for stadium workforces, and a new level of compliance, regulation and policing, all extra-cost measures during a time of significantly reduced revenues.

The contact-free concessions experience

Over the past year or so, many large public venues have already tested or had small deployments of so- called “contact-free” concessions technologies, where fans could order and pay for concessions via their mobile device, then either picking up orders at a specified window or having orders delivered to their seats. Other stadiums have already experimented with various forms of “grab and go” concessions stands, where pre-made items are offered for fans to take, with some deployments also featuring self-scan payment options.

The general idea of having fewer or no human interactions at all for concessions transactions will likely be the most widespread technology and process change for venues opening up during the pandemic. For most of the venue representatives we spoke to, plans that were already in place for some move to contact-free concessions operations will likely just be accelerated since such deployments will probably remain popular even after concerns about virus transmissions subside.

Grab-and-go concession stands, like this one at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High in 2019, may be more prevalent in the near future.

Another trend that had already started in some venues and will likely only accelerate due to pandemic concerns is the move to “cash free” operations, where only digital payment methods are allowed. Though some states have laws prohibiting the complete elimination of cash payments inside venues, it will be interesting to see whether security and health concerns about the virus-spreading possibility of exchanging cash will force changes to those regulations. Some stadiums that have started cash-free operations have provided reverse-ATM type machines where cash can be deposited and stored on a machine-produced debit card for use in that venue. But those machines are costly to operate, and may not be necessary if opposition to cash-free operations declines.

One area of food service where there isn’t much consensus yet on what is to come is the area of club and other premium spaces, which in the past few years have mainly trended toward buffet-style offerings, sometimes as part of an all-inclusive cost system. While safety concerns have some observers predicting an early demise for the large-venue buffet, others see possibilities of having more closely staffed buffet operations, like the cafeterias of the past where a server (most likely behind a glass shield) can prepare individual plates. Premium suite services are also seen as an area heading for massive changes, with more prepackaged food and beverage options likely instead of the traditional steam-tray or open-serve catered offerings previously found in most venues.

3. Critical networks will be needed to support everything new and old

If there ever really was a question about whether or not wireless networks were needed inside venues, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has removed all doubt. According to several sources we’ve talked to, some networking deployments or upgrade plans that had been “on the fence” prior to the outbreak have now been quickly green-lighted, as venues everywhere realize that critical networks will be even more important going forward, as new technologies and new procedures demand increased levels of connectivity.

On the technology side, it is clear that if venues are looking to add new layers of devices like sensors and threat detectors, there is going to be a need for greater wireless connectivity, sometimes in new areas of the venue that may not have previously had a priority for bandwidth. Entry areas in particular, and perhaps also spaces just outside venues, will likely need more carrier-class connectivity going forward, as venues seek to automate more transactions like ticket-taking and parking payments.

Installation of more mobile concessions technology, like kiosks and even vending machines, will also increase the need for overall connectivity, as will a shift to more fans using mobile devices for concessions ordering and payments as described previously. Venues are also likely going to want to increase the amount of digital displays in their buildings, to assist with crowd control, wayfinding and social-distancing policing – again leading to more demand for both wired and wireless connectivity.

Layer in more increases in communication demands just from a fan-education standpoint as well as any growth in demand for public safety and other operational needs and it’s clear that providing or upgrading existing networks to a much more robust state is probably the first to-do item on many venues’ work lists as they seek to support the return to venues. The good news is, from a technology and market perspective, there may not be a better time to be seeking new horsepower and capacity on a wireless-networking front.

On the Wi-Fi side, the advent of Wi-Fi 6 networking gear – now available from most top vendors – should provide a large boost in performance and capacity for venue networks, at costs only slightly higher than the past generation of equipment.

On the cellular side, 4G DAS networks remain a key tool in bringing a multi-carrier solution to providing basic access to most devices, while the arrival of nascent 5G services will enable carriers and venues to bring new kinds of services to guests, including applications with low-latency needs like virtual reality and other high- bandwidth broadcasts. Also, the emergence of networks using the CBRS bandwidth for potential “private” LTE networks may provide venues with an additional method of adding secure, standards-based communications for things like back-of-house operations, in-venue gaming, and Wi-Fi like services or Wi-Fi backhaul to areas where Wi-Fi signals can’t reach.

While budgetary concerns, venue aesthetics and demand for levels of services will still likely make overall networking choices a very local decision, the idea of trying to move forward in a pandemic age without a high level of basic wireless connectivity seems to be a non-starter.

A situation that changes day to day

As we said at the start — right now, the only thing everyone knows for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure. From our interviews, however, it is very apparent that for almost all the people we have talked to, few see standing still as a viable alternative. There are almost assuredly going to be some missteps, some money and time spent on technologies or procedures that don’t pan out, some anger and frustration on all sides, as we all adjust to new ways of doing things we’d long taken for granted. There will also be successful moves, victories small and big, which we hope to share to help accelerate the “Return to Venues” as much as possible.

Here at Stadium Tech Report, nothing has changed in our core directive — trying to help bring the best information possible to our readers so that they can be successful in operating their venues.

Friday links: More Wi-Fi spectrum, Apple SE has Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS

Apple’s new $399 iPhone SE supports both Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS. Credit: Apple

If you need some pointers on things to catch up on this weekend here are some links to recent news that will likely have future impact on the stadium technology world, including new Wi-Fi spectrum, Apple’s support for Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS in its new phone, and Apple and Google working together on contact tracing.

FCC ready to clear 6 GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi

This surfaced a couple weeks ago but it’s worth revisiting as venues plan their Wi-Fi networks of the future. In a vote expected to take place next week, the FCC looks ready to approve pretty much the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, a big win for the Wi-Fi industry. Monica Alleven over at FierceWireless has a good recap, we will of course follow up as this moves along to see how venues and equipment providers plan to take advantage of the roughly 1,200 MHz of new spectrum. Can you say bigger channel sizes? Yes you can. The new spectrum will be extremely powerful when combined with the technical advances of Wi-Fi 6 — which you can read about in the report we put out last year in partnership with AmpThink.

Apple supports Wi-Fi 6, CBRS in new iPhone SE

Keeping pace with the wireless support it placed in the iPhone 11 line that came out last fall, Apple’s new iPhone SE will have support for both Wi-Fi 6 and for CBRS (LTE band 48), which should mean that our opinion that Apple may hasten acceptance of Wi-Fi 6 gets a turbo boost. At just $399, the new smaller form-factor phone is already being praised as a good value. Since venues regularly still report iOS devices as the majority of in-stadium network users, it’s a good bet the lower-priced iPhone will show up in big numbers in the near future. That also means that venues planning on Wi-Fi 6 networks or CBRS deployments will have more clients sooner rather than later.

Apple, Google partner on COVID-19 contact tracing technology

It’s still very early days for venues trying to figure out which technologies they might need to adopt to help them re-open, but one development that bears close watching is the partnership between Apple and Google to work together on COVID-19 contact tracing technology. Again, no real plans yet on how venues might use this technology, but it’s a smart guess that some kind of tracking application will be needed to ensure people coming into stadiums can feel safe about being part of a crowd. The Markup has a good take on some of the pros and cons of the technology; we’ll be following this closely going forward as well.

How will touch screens work when people are wary of touching things?

As we pay more attention to concessions technology one question we’ve been wondering about is: What happens to touch-screen concessions technology in the era of COVID-19? Our pal Dave Haynes over at 16:9 has a virtual roundtable scheduled for next week Tuesday that will focus on that topic. Registration is free.

Corning’s Jess Koch and Art King talk CBRS for venues on the Mobile Sports Report Podcast!

We’re excited to continue our renewed series of podcast conversations with this meeting of the minds from Corning, where Jess Koch and Art King join Mobile Sports Report to talk about CBRS, and how the new spectrum might be used to support private networks and other new applications for stadiums and other large public venues.

In our conversation, we start with a brief recap of what CBRS (Citizens Broadcast Radio Service) actually is, and then quickly delve into how the new spectrum might be used in stadium and public-venue situations. As a vendor in the space on multiple levels (including solutions from SpiderCloud, which Corning acquired in 2017), Corning has some good ideas on where the CBRS market might be headed, so please listen in!

For more information from Corning about CBRS and venues, please visit this site. Thanks for listening!

Jess Koch

Jessica Koch is the Business Development Director of Sports & Entertainment at Corning Optical Communications. Jessica focuses on expanding the adoption of future-ready infrastructure in Sports, Entertainment and other large public venue environments. After spending 15 years in various telecommunications and technology consulting and sales positions, her passion for connecting people and their devices led her to Corning, where she accelerated next-generation connectivity efforts in the Western U.S. Her current role is a vertically focused, national role in Market Development working with stadiums, arenas, convention centers and large multi-use developments. She also sits on the Advisory Board for The Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Commission (LASEC), a non-profit organization officially designated by Los Angeles Tourism to attract, secure and support high-profile sports and entertainment events in Los Angeles. Jessica holds a BA in Organizational Leadership from Chapman University.

Art King

As part of the IBN Technologies team, Mr. King leads the development of enterprise services definitions and business case propositions for customers and partners. Mr. King is Vice Chair of the Services Working Group in the Small Cell Forum. He came to Corning via the SpiderCloud Wireless acquisition and was formerly a lead in IT architecture and operations for Nike Inc. where he held various global roles over 10 years. Prior to Nike, he led the build out of two multinational engineering and consulting organizations for an IP services network vendor in the service provider industry.

Verizon sees 21.5 TB of cellular data used at Super Bowl LIV in Miami

Verizon, which led the DAS effort at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, said it saw 21.5 terabytes of data used on its network “in and around the stadium” during Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV.

While we are still circling back with Verizon to see if we can get more granular details, we are guessing that this number comes from the network inside and immediately adjacent to the venue, and not the “2-mile radius” that other carriers are also reporting. We will update as we get more info. With AT&T’s report of 10.2 TB inside/around the stadium and 14.5 TB in the two-mile radius, we are somewhere above 25 TB total of cellular traffic for the big game, even before we have any stats from other carriers.

We are also asking Verizon to provide a total number of users on the 5G network the carrier deployed inside the stadium, but don’t hold your breath since total number of users is not a statistic carriers like to provide (as opposed to Wi-Fi stats, which almost always report the unique connections).

On an interesting note, Verizon said in an email to MSR that it saw 20.5 TB of data traffic on its networks around the stadium at Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta last year — as far as we know this is the first official number from Verizon about last year’s Super Bowl, when Verizon declined to provide MSR with any post-game numbers directly after the event. According to the Falcons IT staff there was only 12 TB total of DAS traffic on the in-stadium network during last year’s Super Bowl so the 20.5 TB of Verizon traffic must have included a lot of “around the stadium” traffic to get to that number.

Verizon: 5G, CBRS part of wireless network mix at Super Bowl LIV

Hard Rock Stadium, home of Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV, will have 5G and CBRS networks in addition to the regular 4G LTE and Wi-Fi. Credit: Hard Rock Stadium

In addition to stadium-wide Wi-Fi and 4G LTE cellular coverage, Super Bowl LIV in Miami will also include 5G millimeter-wave networks as well as a small trial of live CBRS deployments inside Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, according to Verizon.

The mix of wireless coverage is all designed to answer the annual ever-increasing demand for bandwidth at what has historically been the sporting world’s heaviest single day for wireless traffic, a trend Verizon expects to continue once again this year. In a phone interview from Miami, Andrea Caldini, Verizon vice president of network engineering, said the company’s two-year effort to bolster wireless coverage inside and outside the Super Bowl venue was all about increasing capacity in every way possible.

“It’s exciting that this will be the first 5G millimeter-wave Super Bowl,” said Caldini, who said Verizon used the stadium’s relatively new overhang roof to mount the 5G antennas. For the 4G LTE DAS, Verizon as neutral host followed the same playbook the company has used at other recent Super Bowl venues by installing under-seat DAS enclosures in most bowl-seating areas. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are all also on the DAS, according to Verizon. Out of the 1,500-plus cellular antennas in the bowl seating area, approximately 1,100 of those are in under-seat enclosures, according to Verizon.

Under-seat wireless enclosures at Hard Rock Stadium. Credit: Verizon Wireless

Verizon also said that most of the bowl seating Wi-Fi coverage also comes from under seat enclosures, using gear from Extreme Networks. According to Extreme, the Wi-Fi network in Hard Rock Stadium has approximately 2,000 APs. Like in other NFL and college stadiums where it has a hand in both the cellular and Wi-Fi networks, Verizon customers at Hard Rock Stadium will have a separate Wi-Fi SSID that can autoconnect devices.

But to give you some idea of the breadth of the network, Caldini did say there are 258 sectors in the stadium DAS, and another 58 sectors in the DAS covering the extensive parking lot areas surrounding the venue. Verizon also has deployed a small cell network with 4G LTE, 5G and Wi-Fi for the parking lot and tailgate areas, Caldini said. And just to make sure the field areas are covered (for postgame ceremonies and for media use), Verizon also installed two MatSing ball antennas.

CBRS gets a test deployment

While its footprint will be much smaller, Verizon did say there will be some live networks at the game using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum, in nine stadium suites. Just recently approved by the FCC for full commercial use, the CBRS spectrum is of great interest to carriers and to venues due to its support of the LTE standard. According to Caldini, visitors in the suites where CBRS service is available will be able to directly connect to the network if their device supports the CBRS spectrum. Apple iPhone 11 devices, along with several other Android phones, currently have radio chips that support CBRS.

Caldini is excited about the possibilities the 150 MHz of CBRS spectrum could bring to venue deployments, and said Verizon will have an expanded CBRS deployment at Super Bowl LV in Tampa in 2021.

“You’ll see CBRS being a much bigger play next year,” Caldini said.

While the new-ish overhang roof that was installed during the latest renovation of Hard Rock Stadium did give Verizon a good place for equipment mounting, Caldini said there were some other construction-type hurdles that had to be overcome during the wireless network deployments.

The lack of any handrails, she said, led to the prominence of the under-seat antenna deployments; and because the light poles at Hard Rock Stadium are designed to be lowered when extreme weather (like hurricanes) hits the area, Verizon had to mount equipment lower down on the poles.

When it comes to potential emergency situations, Caldini noted that Verizon has installed its own power system for its networks, with batteries and generators back in the head end — recalling the situation at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans during Super Bowl 47, when a power outage delayed the game.

“If the power goes out [in Miami], the network will stay on,” Caldini said.

And while the limited number of consumer devices supporting 5G communications will probably keep 5G usage at Super Bowl LIV somewhat low, Caldini noted that by next year’s big game, it will likely be a different story.

Recalling earlier cellular generation changes, when initial devices were usually standalone “pucks” or laptop cards, Caldini was excited to see quick support for 5G emerging.

“It’s amazing how many devices are going to support 5G,” said Caldini, who predicts there will be more than 20 5G-enabled handsets out later this year. “It’s going to be very interesting to see what we can do [with applications] next year on 5G.”

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.