First Look: Shining start for Notre Dame’s stadium renovations, new Wi-Fi network

Notre Dame logo on Wi-Fi railing enclosure at Notre Dame Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

How do you bring new technology into a building and institution that embraces history as an integral part of its brand? There may be many answers but in the sports stadium world, Notre Dame’s renovation of its hallowed football field and the addition of high-speed Wi-Fi look like a good example for any other venues trying to solve the same issues.

At this past Sunday’s “New and Gold” game, a sort of glorified scrimmage, the public (including Mobile Sports Report) got its first look at the University of Notre Dame’s Campus Crossroads project, a $400-million plus effort to bring premium seating, a large video board and high-density Wi-Fi to a venue that came to life in 1930, according to university history.

While we will have a full report on our visit to Notre Dame Stadium in our upcoming Fall STADIUM TECH REPORT issue, we wanted to give you a “first look” at the new facilities, which basically include three new large buildings built into the sides of the existing structure, to provide support for the video board as well as two expanded premium-seating and press box areas on either side of the field.

Wi-Fi AP overlooks a concession stand

One of the coolest parts we saw were the new rooftop premium seating areas, where you can sit on a couch and see the full field while also peering out over the edge of the stadium to see Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome, and the rest of the world (well, OK, mostly South Bend, Indiana) while enjoying your favorite beverage and speedy Wi-Fi.

The new Wi-Fi network design using Cisco gear was led by AmpThink, and includes custom-designed enclosures for railing-mounted APs that feature a sharp version of the “ND” logo known to any football fan. Though the network hasn’t yet been optimized or tested with a full house of fans, we were still getting solid up/down signals in the 60-70 Mbps range throughout the building, even in low and high bowl seating areas. There is also a new neutral-host DAS in the stadium, built by Crown Castle. According to Notre Dame, Verizon Wireless and AT&T will be live on the cellular network by the start of the season, with T-Mobile to follow soon.

Like we said, look for more details in our upcoming report… but for now enjoy some scenes from Sunday’s game!

A good look across the main east seating section, with Wi-Fi handrail enclosures visible

DAS in the grass: A DAS antenna finds a home in the grassy strip separating seats from the field

The new big screen video board now dominates the south end zone

A good look at how the new structures bookend up to the stadium on its sides

Now that’s a premium suite: Rooftop couch area provides full view of field, plus scenic views over campus and beyond

Additional seating Wi-Fi coverage from small antennas over VOMs

Painted Wi-Fi AP blends in to column in main concourse outside seating area

The view of ‘Touchdown Jesus’ remains unobstructed

Inside look at the swanky, wood-paneled club for premium seatholders in west building

Scoreboard plug for the Wi-Fi

Notre Dame fans already figuring out how to use social media to get on the big screen

Smart fans at Notre Dame — early arrivers went right for the new, padded premium seats

How do you get bandwidth to APs located below grade level? By being clever and using routing down the side of stairways… more details on this trick coming soon!

Ready or not, Unlicensed LTE is here. What should your venue do?

The entry concourse at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

By Chuck Lukaszewski, Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company

There’s much excitement around the coming of “unlicensed LTE” and for good reason. In our anytime, anywhere world the last device many of us use at night, and the first one we pick up in the morning, is a mobile phone, tablet or computer. Although much of the time our devices connect via Wi-Fi, when we’re in transit we depend on cellular.

With consumers quick to express their disappointment when their apps fail to respond – or don’t respond fast enough – on a wireless network, cellular providers are keenly aware they must keep pace with rapidly escalating user experience expectations. Research suggests mobile data traffic will grow by 47 percent annually through 2021. Combine the two and the drivers for expanding network capacity are clear.

While the lure of more bandwidth can be attractive, stadium and venue operators need to carefully evaluate the technological impact and operational overhead unlicensed LTE introduces.

Gigabit cellular coming soon

Editor’s note: This post is part of Mobile Sports Report’s new Voices of the Industry feature, in which industry representatives submit articles, commentary or other information to share with the greater stadium technology marketplace. These are NOT paid advertisements, or infomercials. See our explanation of the feature to understand how it works.

To provide gigabit speeds, the cellular industry has enhanced LTE technology to bond multiple channels together, called “carrier aggregation.” Although originally designed only to combine different licensed frequencies, it has now been extended to aggregate licensed spectrum with 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum (where Wi-Fi operates). Two competing technologies for doing so have emerged, with notable differences when deploying in high-density environments like stadiums in the U.S.

LTE-U (LTE in the Unlicensed Spectrum) is a proprietary technology, developed by the LTE-U Forum, a consortium of several cellular-related companies. It enables simultaneous operation of LTE over both licensed and unlicensed spectrum by aggregating the bands together, resulting in a performance boost. However, the way LTE-U takes control of a channel – while legal in the U.S. – is controversial and may significantly degrade performance of Wi-Fi equipment using the same channel. The Wi-Fi and cellular industries worked together to produce a coexistence test plan, but so far none of the test results for LTE-U equipment authorized by the FCC have been made public.

LAA (Licensed Assisted Access) can be thought of as the standardized version of unlicensed LTE, designed to meet European “listen-before-talk” (LBT) requirements, so it can be deployed anywhere on the planet. It was developed through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) worldwide standards organization, with wide participation including input from the Wi-Fi community.

DAS gear above concession stand at Coors Field

Think of LBT like the telephone party lines of yesteryear, where multiple customers share a communal phone line but only one person can use it at a time for their conversation while others wait. When there is no conversation happening on the party line and two or more people try to speak at once, other customers of the party line graciously “back off” to allow one person to go first. In cellular terms, this makes LAA a more “polite” technology than LTE-U, as it waits to transmit until a channel is clear. The back-off method it uses is compatible with Wi-Fi at least on paper, although 3GPP does not require vendors to perform or publish any kind of test results.

The Road Ahead

Of course what you want to know is how the advent of LTE-U/LAA impacts your stadium and whether to add gigabit cellular to the connectivity mix.

As a robust, stable and mature technology, Wi-Fi’s strength and ability to handle exceptional stadium data traffic loads is well established. To make informed decisions about whether to consider LTE-U/LAA technologies alongside Wi-Fi, here are five essential technical considerations.

Spectrum Availability. The unlicensed radio spectrum is comprised of 24 channels in the U.S., which is analogous to a 24-lane freeway. Until now, only Wi-Fi traffic traveled on that roadway, with many years spent developing technologies to ensure steady traffic flow, particularly in stadiums. Wi-Fi includes its own LBT solution, which helps assure data merges smoothly onto the freeway. It’s been proven at six Super Bowls plus countless other concerts and sporting events.

Most stadium Wi-Fi networks are already spectrum-constrained, meaning they are just managing to carry the existing load – much less new fan technologies like AR/VR. A large body of evidence demonstrates that stadiums and arenas need 20-24 fulltime-equivalent channels to make a 5 GHz system work (regardless of technology). These Wi-Fi networks are carefully optimized to eliminate all unnecessary transmissions.

Adding one or more LTE-U or LAA systems will reduce available capacity for Wi-Fi operations. As of this writing, there are no public technical measurements of deployed systems so the actual impact is unknown. If four separate unlicensed LTE networks are actually deployed, the impact will be even greater.

Number of LTE-U/LAA Networks Required. Visitors to your stadium likely utilize each of the four U.S. cellular operators: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Therefore, to offer gigabit cellular connectivity, you’ll need to permit all four to deploy an LTE-U, or LAA, network. Because the technologies are so new, they lack a “neutral host” methodology, so each operator will require its own separate physical network and spectrum.

DAS gear under seating area at SunTrust Park

Compatibility with Existing DAS. Most stadiums and arenas have either separate antenna systems for each major cellular operator or a converged neutral-host DAS. Although LTE-U and LAA are intended to support “dual connectivity” to a separate macro base station (or “eNodeB”) on paper, the products currently being shipped are intended as co-located small cells that contain two paired LTE radios – one licensed and one unlicensed. Stadium operators should validate whether their DAS systems are compatible with an expansive LTE-U/LAA small cell deployment where the primary cell (or “PCell”) is the DAS and each PCell has dozens of secondary cells (or “SCells”) providing 5 GHz service.

Cost vs. Benefit. Of no small consideration is the added amount of equipment, and the costs, in a hybrid Wi-Fi/cellular situation. If every cellular operator requires a separate LAA/LTE-U overlay, this implies up to four full new sets of equipment must be deployed under seats or on handrails. For a 60,000-seat stadium at typical under-seat densities, it would only require about 850 Wi-Fi access points (APs). In contrast, for LAA/LTE-U stadium operators would need over 3,000 additional small cells– with each one requiring a sturdy waterproof housing, a 30-watt POE connection, Cat-6 cabling, conduit and, of course, a hole drilled in the concrete. Meaning, LTE-U/LAA small cell deployments would require essentially the same physical footprint for each carrier as Wi-Fi which is likely already installed and is inherently a neutral host technolgy.

Risk. It’s also critical to consider the corresponding risks of adding up to four cellular unlicensed LTE networks to your Wi-Fi environment. It took about seven years and three full generations of radio designs for Wi-Fi vendors to perfect high-capacity stadium systems whereas LTE-U/LAA equipment is only beginning to ship. In short, it may be wise to delay comingling Wi-Fi and LTE-U/LAA networks until unlicensed LTE equipment becomes proven in less mission-critical settings than your venue.

Chuck Lukaszewski is Vice President of Wireless Strategy & Standards at Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. For over a decade he has engineered and deployed large-scale 802.11 networks, joining Aruba in 2007.

Chuck has built Wi-Fi systems in stadiums, seaports, rail yards, manufacturing plants and other complex RF environments, including serving as chief engineer for many stadiums ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 seats that provide live video and other online amenities. He is the author of six books and design guides including Very High Density 802.11ac Networks and Outdoor MIMO Wireless Networks.

First Look: Inside the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Big Bird greets all visitors to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

We’ll have much more to report on what we saw at the press day at the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but we thought it was important to share these views as soon as we could — so here is an extended photo essay from the newest NFL venue (which will also be used for soccer). Unfortunately the Wi-Fi and DAS networks were live but not yet optimized, so we weren’t able to do any comprehensive speed testing (but hey, that’s what a regular season game is for!).

Overalll first impressions, technology wise — this is another well thought out venue specifically from a technology standpoint but also mainly just from a visual feel. The halo board is as impressive as advertised, though we would want to see it in action during a game (while sitting in a seat) to fully judge whether or not it fits in with the flow of an event. For advertisers it’s a wonder, as watching all the video screens in the house go to a synchronized ad video was a big wow factor.

Since much of the stadium interior is unfinished concrete, there wasn’t much of an effort to hide networking components — but given all the other piping and cabling, the equipment does kind of fade out of sight in plain view.

MSR welcomes you to the big house

It’s our educated guess that the AT&T Porch — a wide open gathering area in the end zone opposite the windows toward downtown — is going to be a popular hangout, since you can see the field and have multiple big screen TV options behind you. We also liked the “technology loge suites,” smaller four-person private areas just off the main concourse with their own small TV screens and wireless device charging.

On the app side of things, it’s fair to say that features will iterate over time — both the wayfinding and the food-ordering options are not wirelessly connected yet, but according to IBM beacons are a possible future addition to the mix. And while Mercedes-Benz Stadium is going to all-digital ticketing, season ticket holders will most likely use RFID cards on lanyards instead of mobile phone tickets simply because the RFID is a quicker option. The ticket scanners are by SkiData, fiber backbone by Corning, Wi-Fi APs by Aruba, and DAS by Corning and a mix of antenna providers.

Like we said, more soon! But enjoy these photos today, ahead of the first event on Aug. 26.

The view inside the main entry, with halo board visible above

The view from the other side of the field, from the AT&T Porch

Just hard to fit all this in, but you can see here from field to roof

I spy Wi-Fi, APs point down from seat bottoms to main entry concourse

One of the many under-seat APs

A good look at the roof: Eight “petals” that all pull straight out when open, which is supposed to take 7 minutes according to design

Good place for maximum coverage

View from the field

One of “hundreds” of mini-IDFs, termination points that bring fiber almost right to edge devices

The mega-vertical TV screen, just inside the main entry. 101 feet tall!

Something Falcons fans may like the most: Look at the prices!

MORE SOON!

T-Mobile steps up stadium DAS participation, ahead of 5G future

DAS gear at Kauffman Stadium. Credit: ADRF video

T-Mobile has stepped up its participation in stadium DAS deployments recently, ahead of what the wireless carrier sees as an eventual shift to 5G technologies sometime in the near future.

Recent news announcements of T-Mobile being the first carrier to participate in the new forthcoming distributed antenna system (DAS) at Wrigley Field, as well as joining DAS deployments at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field and Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium are proof that T-Mobile is making up for lost ground in the stadium cellular deployment arena.

“It’s a catch-up play, to some degree,” said Dave Mayo, senior vice president of network technology at T-Mobile. While Mayo spent most of a recent phone interview with Mobile Sports Report talking about the promise of future 5G cellular technologies, he did acknowledge that T-Mobile was more aggressively pursuing DAS deals in the moment, to make sure T-Mobile customers could connect when they were at large public venues.

“When they get to the venue, customers expect to be able to post to Instagram and Facebook,” Mayo said. “It’s table stakes.”

In Chicago, the world champion Cubs are looking to 2018 for the arrival of their renovated Wi-Fi and DAS infrastructure. According to DAS deployer DAS Group Professionals, T-Mobile is the first of the cellular carriers to sign on to the neutral-host system.

At the Kansas City Royals’ Kauffman Stadium, the new DAS built by Advanced RF Technologies Inc. (ADRF) and Sprint in 2015 will welcome T-Mobile to the system this month, with AT&T and Verizon Wireless expected to join sometime later this year, according to ADRF. And earlier this year, Texas A&M announced a $3.5 million deal for T-Mobile to join the DAS at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, which previously had AT&T and Verizon as participants.

Looking ahead to 5G

But even as T-Mobile announces its participation in traditional DAS deployment deals — where other carriers or third-party operators may be in charge — Mayo said venues need to rethink their cellular strategies for the coming of 5G, a still loosely-defined set of technologies that will nevertheless be much different than the current standard of 4G LTE.

“5G is going to become available in the next 2 to 3 years, so now is the time to start thinking about this,” Mayo said. With much different transmission frequencies in the millimeter wave zones, the idea is that 5G could theoretically support much higher data rates than current cellular technology. The one drawback of higher-range frequencies, that being shorter distance ranges for signals, may not be a big problem in stadiums since antennas are usually placed closer together than those in other environments.

How the DAS model will or will not translate to a 5G future is a topic already widely talked about in industry circles, and Mayo said current deployment agreements may not work well going forward.

“The whole [deployment] model has to change,” Mayo said. “And the time to start changing that is now.”

Wireless connectivity strong at Colorado Rockies’ ‘old’ Coors Field

The main gate at Coors Field, the third-oldest ballpark in the NL. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

For someone who covered the origin of major league baseball in Denver, it somehow doesn’t seem possible that Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, is the third-oldest stadium in the National League. But after venerable venues Wrigley Field and Dodgers Stadium, there sits Coors as the next-oldest in line.

Opened in 1995, the brick-and-steel venue in Denver’s lower downtown has another oldest-type attribute, in the fact that Coors was one of the first MLB stadiums to get a Wi-Fi network built for it by MLB’s Advanced Media arm, a deployment that went fully live in time for the 2015 season. Like its bricks-and-mortar host, the “old” network is still doing fine, even if it was built without some of the newer technology and techniques that have appeared in stadium networking in the lifetime of the past couple years.

With an opening-day Wi-Fi data total of 2.2 terabytes used, Coors Field’s Wi-Fi network is more than ready and able to handle any increases in activity that may or may not be related to the Rockies’ resurgence on the field, where the purple players have spent most of the season so far in playoff contention.

During an early May visit, Mobile Sports Report found the network performing strong throughout the venue, with many 60+ Mbps readings for Wi-Fi download speeds in all seating areas as well as on heavy-traffic concourses. What follows here is some history of the park and its role in the MLBAM Wi-Fi rollout, as well as our random speedtests from a visit during a doubleheader with the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, whose well-traveled fans add to the capacity in any ballpark where the team happens to be playing.

One of the earliest in ‘downtown parks’ resurgence

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, new Wi-Fi for Westfield’s Century City Mall in Los Angeles, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

The green box at the bottom of the aisle is a Wi-Fi antenna pointing up the rows.

A little personal history for yours truly intersects with the origin of Coors Field — way back in 1991, I was one of the lead baseball writers for the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera, and our main story that spring was the question of whether or not Denver would land one of the two NL expansion franchises soon to be awarded. Like many other cities and regions hopeful for pro sports, Denver and Colorado voted for a tax that would help build a new baseball-only park, which looked great in those artist-concept sketches that are always floated around.

But for me what really hit home was when the team behind Denver’s bid actually went out and chalked out a baseball field in the vacant lots where Coors Field would actually sit, among the old brick warehouses in the city’s lower downtown neighborhood. On the day of the official National League visit, there was even a group of kids playing baseball on that field — whether it was staged or not, the presentation was cool, and it probably stuck in the minds of many others like it did in mine, that a downtown park would be a great thing in Denver.

After being awarded the franchise and playing a couple years in the old Mile High football stadium, the Rockies finally moved into their new home for the 1995 season, in a building inspired by Orioles Park at Camden Yards, the downtown venue built for the Baltimore Orioles a few years earlier. My first impressions at the time were favorable, noting the wider concourses and seats tilted to the action on the field, along with a ballpark brewpub as being good trends for others to imitate.

Fast forward 20 years, and at Coors Field, lots has changed from the fan perspective. With personal digital devices everywhere, and fans wanting to use social media to share experiences, the home of the Rockies is no different from any other large sports or entertainment venue in needing solid connectivity. As perhaps befits the pro sport with the best digital league-wide plan, MLB’s advanced media arm (MLBAM) in 2014 embarked on a program to make Wi-Fi and DAS deployments happen in every stadium that didn’t have them (or had older. underperforming networks). By cutting deals with carriers and equipment suppliers and teams. MLBAM put together $300 million in the kitty for a buildout that reached 23 stadiums by this year’s ASG.

Some orderly DAS wiring coming out of the head end room.

(Some teams, like the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park and the Atlanta Braves at new SunTrust Park, have opted to build their own physical networks, even while working closely with MLBAM on matters like the league-wide Ballpark app.)

Coors Field was among the very first in the MLBAM buildout efforts, with fan-facing Wi-Fi available in time for the 2015 season. Though its buildout predated some of the newer techniques and technologies used for stadium Wi-Fi deployments — like under-seat or handrail-mounted Wi-Fi APs — our tests showed the Coors Field Wi-Fi network, which now has approximately 550 APs, to be as strong as any we’ve tested, with signals in the 60 Mbps download range throughout most of the park. We didn’t test all the DAS carrriers but from all appearances, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are well represented on the AT&T-built cellular network. According to AT&T there are 322 antennas in the newer version of the DAS, also built in 2015, which AT&T said has roughly six times the capacity of the previous network.

As the Rockies enjoy an on-field resurgence (Colorado was in or near first place in its division through most of the spring and remain in the wild-card hunt as of this writing), fans should be happy to know their connectivity is competitive as well, with both team IT types and MLBAM keeping an eye on keeping customers connected.

Deck locations help ‘front to back’ work well at Coors Field

With three main tiers of seating, the 50,398-seat Coors Field has plenty of overhangs to work with as antenna mounts, making the so-called “front to back” design philosophy work well. Michael Bush, senior director of information systems for the Rockies, led us on a tour of the stadium, noting that at the tops of most seating areas there were two antennas, one pointing straight down and a “Gillaroo” panel antenna pointing down the rows of seats.

Good camoflauge on antennas serving the left field bleachers area.

At the bottom of most seating areas, including close to field level, there are Wi-Fi APs mounted either on the playing-field walls, or on the railings in the upper decks, pointing back up the rows of seats. In section 131, right behind home plate, we got readings as high as 63.10 Mbps on download and 48.75 Mbps for upload, almost exactly halfway between field level and the concourse at the top of the lower bowl.

In row 16 of section 138, behind the Rockies’ dugout, we got a speedtest reading of 63.32 / 41.63 Mbps, and in the outfield seats behind the left-field foul pole we saw speeds of 68.29 / 49.66 Mbps. Up in the “Rockpile” seats, way up top in straightaway center, we still got a Wi-Fi mark of 66.69 / 41.44 Mbps, probably from one of the four antennas we saw mounted on the back-side railings.

In the back of the walk-around “Rooftop” club and bar area in the upper deck of right field we got speeds of 61.21 / 28.86 Mbps, and then marks of 61.52 / 40.53 Mbps when we moved around to the front of the Rooftop, where you can lean on a railing while watching the game below. The lowest marks we got were in the upper deck of section 317 along the first-base line, where the speeds were 42.16 / 25.33.

All of these tests came during a break between games during a doubleheader versus the Cubs, when the stadium was cleared between games. The marks also varied between being on the main Rockies fan Wi-Fi SSID, and one reserved for Verizon Wireless customers, which our device kept autoconnecting to. But even as the stadium filled up for the nightcap, our signals stayed strong, including a 67.62 / 29.78 Mbps mark up in section 342, in the upper deck along the third-base line.

On Verizon’s LTE network we got a reading in the left-field bleachers of 14.99 / 15.19 Mbps, and a reading of 11.26 / 7.69 Mbps up in front of “The Tavern,” one of the bars in the Rooftop area. We did not have devices to test cellular signals for AT&T or T-Mobile, both of which like Verizon are also on the stadium DAS. Sprint, according to Bush, serves its Coors Field customers with a macro antenna deployment on a rooftop across the street from the stadium along the first-base side.

Wi-Fi antennas in the back of the ‘Rockpile’ centerfield bleacher area.

In our tour of the venue, Bush led us down to the head end rooms, where the DAS deployment looked military in its precision and organization. He also pointed out the cooling vents, which went from field level through the ceilings to finally pop out above the concession stands on the main concourse level, out of view for anyone who wasn’t trying to look down to see them.

Though Coors Field’s lower level seemed to have more than enough room for head end rooms, Bush did show us the parking lot “shed” that MLBAM built to house its video operations, including the on-field replay system that shuttles signals back to league headquarters. There is also some Wi-Fi coverage outside the building, mainly in the north parking lot which doubles as an area for media tenting for large events like postseason games. But for the most part Bush said Coors Field is careful to limit its Wi-Fi footprint to the facility’s walls, so there isn’t any bleed-over use by the residential and commercial buildings that are just across the street from three sides of the stadium.

Making sure the tech fits the park

As one of the first MLBAM deployments, the Coors Field network might have been excused for being more functional than aesthetic, but as our visit showed the opposite is true. Unless you are explicitly looking for Wi-Fi and other networking gear, it’s hard to see with the naked eye. In our unofficial wanderings we’d put Coors Field among the best in terms of hiding things in plain sight, with exact paint color matches as well as finding locations for mounting where gear doesn’t stick out. Helping out with this task is Coors Field’s overall embrace of brick and exposed steel beams, a sort of benign camoflauge that the network deployment team made good use of.

“A huge part of the fight” was making the antennas and other gear disappear, Bush said, pointing out several deployment spots we otherwise might have missed (including a huge bank of DAS gear right above a concession stand, perfectly painted to blend in with the green structural steel right above).

“The owners wanted to make it look like it [the network] was always there from the start,” said Bush.

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, new Wi-Fi for Westfield’s Century City Mall in Los Angeles, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

DAS gear hidden in plain sight above a concession stand

Cubs fans invaded the Rooftop, among other areas

A good look at the Rooftop area, with its open gathering spaces

A Wi-Fi AP pointing back up toward the seats from the field level wall

The view from center field

Coors Field’s beer stands were playing to the Cubs visitors with this offering

Let’s play two!

The pro pick for your after-Coors Field jazz consumption

Strong showing for Wi-Fi network at SunTrust Park

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

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

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

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

Yes it is, in great force

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

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

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

A good look through the glass doors of the data center

Beer coolers a ‘cool’ idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panoramic view of SunTrust Park

A club space with a view out the right field wall

Wi-Fi AP mounted on outfield concourse

A look at railing AP mounts in the outfield bleacher seating

The IPTV control screen for suites

IPTVs located between premium seats right behind home plate

Tabletop seating with TV just above home plate

The big ball with its 360-degree LED screen

Fans walking through The Battery on their way to the game

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

Main scoreboard promoting the MLB app

Sightlines and decks at SunTrust seem built for selfies

Nice view from the upper deck

Closeup of a Wi-Fi AP install

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

DAS gear mounted on the roof of the centerfield concourse wall

Thunderstorms, the beautiful but unwelcome visitors