Closer Look: MatSing ball antenna deployment at Amalie Arena

Amalie Arena, home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Taking advantage of a cross-Florida drive, Mobile Sports Report finally got a live look at the MatSing ball antenna deployment at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Amalie Arena, part of a new neutral-host DAS being built by AT&T. Some early returns on the MatSing ball network performance have gained a lot of attention, with rumors floating around this summer of multiple MatSing deployments either in the offing or already underway.

Since our visit was in the hockey offseason we didn’t get to test the DAS in action, but thanks to the hospitality of new Tampa IT director Andrew McIntyre (who recently left a similar position with the Chicago Cubs) we got to look around the arena at the MatSing deployment, which by AT&T’s count uses 52 of the distinctive round-ball antennas mounted in various places in the rafters.

We hope to return sometime this fall or winter to witness the network in action, but for now take a look at some of the peculiarities of the deployment, including the very specific angles for pointing the antennas toward very specific parts of the seating area.

What’s the buzz behind MatSings? Here is a bit of explanation from an earlier MSR story:

Why use MatSing antennas? What sets MatSing ball antennas (also called “Luneberg Lens” antennas) apart from other wireless gear is the MatSing ball’s ability to provide a signal that can stretch across greater distances while also being highly concentrated or focused. According to MatSing its antennas can reach client devices up to 240 feet away; for music festivals, that means a MatSing antenna could be placed at the rear or sides of large crowd areas to reach customer devices where it’s unpractical to locate permanent or other portable gear. By being able to focus its communications beams tightly, a MatSing ball antenna can concentrate its energy on serving a very precise swath of real estate, as opposed to regular antennas which typically offer much less precise ways of concentrating or focusing where antenna signals go.

What should bear watching in Tampa is the progression of the Water Street Tampa project, which includes Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik and Microsoft’s Bill Gates as investors. Water Street, right outside the arena’s doors, is going to be yet another near-the-stadium downtown development area, though this one seems more ambitious than some of the stadium-centric plans around other new arena builds. We will of course keep track on how the wireless coverage goes from arena to outdoors. For now, enjoy some more close-ups of the MatSings:

Espo, or Phil Esposito, stands guard over the arena’s plaza

A look up from ice level. See how many MatSings you can count!
A little fuzzy, but you can see the different tilt angles here
MatSings and regular DAS antennas side by side
A look just outside the arena, where the Water Street Tampa development is underway

Small company delivers big Wi-Fi for Minnesota United at Allianz Field

The standing section at Allianz Field for the opening game this spring. Credit: Minnesota United (click on any picture for a larger image)

Fans at the new Allianz Field in St. Paul are the beneficiaries of a big project done by a small company to bring solid fan-facing Wi-Fi to the new 19,400-seat home arena for the Minnesota United FC MLS team.

The striking new $250 million facility, opened in April just off the highway that connects Minneapolis to St. Paul, is a looker from first sight, especially at night if the multi-colored lights in its cursive outside shell are lit. Inside, the clean sight lines and close-to-the-pitch seating that seems a hallmark of every new soccer-specific facility are accompanied by something that’s not as easy to detect: A solid fan-facing Wi-Fi network with approximately 480 Cisco access points, in a professional deployment that wouldn’t seem out of place at any larger facility, like an NFL stadium.

Actually, the Wi-Fi network inside Allianz Field is somewhat more conspicuous than many other deployments, mainly because instead of hiding or camouflaging the APs, most have very visible branding, letting visitors know that the Wi-Fi is “powered by” Atomic Data.

Who is Atomic Data? Though perhaps better known for their data center and enterprise business managed-services prowess, the 215-person Minneapolis-based firm also has a developing track record in stadium technology deployments, including a role as part of the IT support team for the launch of U.S. Bank Stadium two years ago. In what is undeniably a unique arrangement, Atomic Data paid for and owns the network infrastructure at Allianz Field, providing fan-facing Wi-Fi as well as back-of-house connectivity as a managed service to the team as well as to internal venue vendors like concessionaires.

LOCAL PARTNER EARNS TEAM’S TRUST

Editor’s note: This report is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the new Wi-Fi network at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, and an in-depth research report on the new Wi-Fi 6 standard! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

While most new stadium builds often look for network and technology firms with a bigger name or longer history, Atomic Data was well known to the Minnesota team, having been a sponsor even before the club moved up to MLS.

One of the Cisco Wi-Fi APs installed by Atomic Data inside the new Allianz Field in Minneapolis. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Chris Wright, CEO of the MNUFC, credited a longtime relationship with Atomic CEO Jim Wolford, a company Wright had known from his days with the NBA Timberwolves and WNBA’s Lynx.

“They [Atomic Data] are a very strong local company and we knew of their work, including at U.S. Bank Stadium,” Wright said. “Jim has also been a huge advocate of the [soccer] club, even before they moved to MLS. Their history is solid, and they [Atomic Data] have an incredible reputation.”

As the team prepared to move into its under-construction home, Wright said that originally having a high-definition wireless network wasn’t in the cards.

“The original plan was not to have a robust Wi-Fi network,” Wright said, citing overall budget concerns as part of the issue. But when he was brought in as CEO he was looking for a way to change the direction and have a more digital-focused fan experience – and he said by increasing Atomic Data’s partnership, the company and the team found a way to make it happen.

As described by both Wright and Atomic Data, the deal includes having Atomic Data pay for and own the Wi-Fi network components, and also to act as the complete IT outsourcer for the team, providing wired and wireless connectivity as a managed service.

“When you look at the demographic of our fans, they’re mostly millenials and we wanted to have robust connectivity to connect with them,” Wright said. “Over time we were able to negotiate a deal [with Atomic Data] to build what I think is the most capable Wi-Fi network ever for a soccer-specific venue. I think we’ve turned some heads.”

UNDER SEAT AND OUTSIDE THE DOORS

Just before the stadium hosted its first league game, Mobile Sports Report got a tour of the facility from Yagya Mahadevan, enterprise project manager for Atomic Data and sort of the live-in maestro for the network at Allianz Field. Mahadevan, who worked on the U.S. Bank Stadium network deployment before joining Atomic Data full-time, was clearly proud of the company’s deployment work, which fit in well with the sleek designs of the new facility.

An under-seat AP deployment at Allianz Field. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

For the 250 APs in the main seating bowl, Atomic Data used a good amount of under-seat AP deployments, since many of the seats have no overhang. A mix of overhead APs covers the seating areas that do have structures overhead, and more APs – which are clearly noticable, including some APs painted white to pop out against black walls and vice versa – are mounted along concourse walkways as well as on the outside of the main entry gates. Since MNUFC is a paperless ticketing facility, Mahadevan said Atomic Data paid special attention to entry gates to make sure fans could connect to Wi-Fi to access their digital tickets.

Wright, who called Atomic Data’s devotion to service “second to none,” noted that before the first three games at the new stadium, Atomic Data had staff positioned in a ring around the outside of the field, making sure fans knew how to access their tickets via the team app and the Wi-Fi network.

“The lines to get in were really minimized, and that level of desire to deliver a high-end experience is just the way they think,” Wright said of Atomic Data.

According to Atomic Data the network is backed by two redundant 10-Gbps backbone pipes (from CenturyLink and Consolidated Communications) and is set up to also provide secure Wi-Fi connectivity to the wide number of independent retail and concession partners. Mahadevan also said that the network has a number of redundant cable drops already built in, in case more APs need to be added in the future. The stadium also has a cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) built by Mobilitie, but as of early this spring none of the carriers had yet been able to deploy gear.

Even the chilly temperatures at the team’s April 13 home opener didn’t keep fans from trying out the new network, as Atomic Data said it saw 85 gigabytes of Wi-Fi data used that day, with 6,968 unique Wi-Fi device connections, a 35 percent take rate from the sellout 19,796 fans on hand. According to the Atomic Data figures, the stadium’s Wi-Fi network saw peak Wi-Fi bandwidth usage of 1.9 Gbps on that opening day; of the 85 GB Wi-Fi data total, download traffic was 38.7 GB and upload traffic was 46.3 GB.

According to Wright, the stadium has already had several visits from representatives from other clubs, who are all interested in the networking technology. Wright’s advice to other clubs who are in the process of thinking about or building new stadiums: You should get on the horn with Atomic Data.

“I tell them if you’re from Austin or New England, you should be talking to Atomic,” Wright said. “They should try to replicate the relationship we have with them.”

Top-down approach brings Wi-Fi to OKC Thunder’s Chesapeake Energy Arena

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the NBA’s Thunder. Credit all photos: Oklahoma City Thunder

If there’s one sure thing about stadium Wi-Fi deployments, it’s that pretty much no two networks are ever exactly the same. So even as there is a growing large-venue trend for putting Wi-Fi access points under seats or in handrails, sometimes the traditional top-down method is still the one that works best.

Such was the case for the first full fan-facing Wi-Fi network at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, home of the NBA’s Thunder. With a large amount of retractable seating in the 18,000-seat venue, an under-seat approach to Wi-Fi would prove too costly and disruptive, leading the team to look for connectivity from above.

While a solid in-building cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) had done a good job of keeping fans connected the last few years, the team’s desire to have more mobile insight to fan activity as well as a switch to a Wi-Fi-centric point of sale system led Oklahoma City to finally install fan-facing Wi-Fi throughout the venue.

Chris Nelson, manager of information technology for venue manager SMG, and Tyler Lane, director of technology for the Thunder, spoke with Mobile Sports Report about the recent Wi-Fi deployment at Chesapeake Energy Arena, which went live during the most recent NBA season.

An AP placement in the rafters

Though the venue looked at all options, Nelson said that going under-seat with APs would have been “very costly” to do, given the large number of retractable seats in the arena.

“We wanted to hang them [APs] from the top if we could,” Nelson said.

After testing the top equipment brands available, the Thunder settled on Ruckus gear, for what they said was a simple reason, one involving the 96 feet in air space from the catwalk to the arena floor.

“Ruckus was the only one whose gear could reach down all the way,” Nelson said.

Adding to the fan experience

Editor’s note: This report is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the new Wi-Fi network at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minn., and an in-depth research report on the new Wi-Fi 6 standard! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

According to the team the deployment saw 410 total APs used, with 350 in the arena proper and another 60 deployed across the street at the Cox Convention Center. According to the Thunder’s Lane, the team rolled out the service slowly at first, with some targeted testing and feedback from season ticket holders.

Close-up of an AP placement

“We got some good feedback and then when we went to a full rollout we had signage in the concourses, communications via ticketing services and announcements over the PA and on the scoreboard,” to tell fans about the system, said Lane.

According to statistics provided by the team, the Wi-Fi was getting good traction as the season went on, with a March 16 game vs. the Golden State Warriors seeing 589.3 gigabytes of traffic, from 2,738 clients that connected to the network. Lane said the team employed Jeremy Roach and his Rectitude 369 firm to assist with the network design; Roach in the past helped design networks at Levi’s Stadium and Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center.

Now that the Wi-Fi network is in place, Lane said the Thunder is starting to increase the ways it can add to the fan experience via digital means, including app-based features like showing press conferences live and by having an artificial intelligence chatbot to help provide fans with arena information.

“It’s really all about enhancing the fan experience,” Lane said, with an emphasis on driving digital ticketing use in the YinzCam-developed team app. Lane said that the system also drives a lot of mobile concessions traffic, and added that “Ruckus did a fantastic job of asking all the right questions for our food and beverage partners.”

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.”

AT&T sees 2.5 TB of DAS traffic at men’s Final Four championship game

The concourses at U.S. Bank Stadium were well covered by DAS and Wi-Fi antennas for the recent Final Four. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

In addition to the big Wi-Fi numbers seen at the NCAA men’s 2019 basketball championship game, AT&T said it saw 2.5 terabytes of data used by its customers on its DAS network at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for the final game of the men’s Final Four weekend.

The neutral-host DAS in U.S. Bank Stadium, which is operated by Verizon, tested strong during MSR’s visit to the Final Four — we saw a mark of 37.5 Mbps on the download and 45.0 Mbps on the upload during the championship game, on a Verizon phone. Verizon, however, declined to provide any data totals from the Final Four.

In addition to its championship game numbers, AT&T said it saw 44.6 TB of data used on its networks in and around U.S. Bank Stadium for the entire men’s Final Four weekend.

Women’s Final Four sees 1.1 TB of DAS

At the NCAA women’s Final Four weekend in Tampa, Fla., AT&T said it saw a total of 1.1 TB of traffic used by its customers on the new MatSing Ball-powered DAS at Amalie Arena. That number includes traffic from both semifinal games as well as the championship game on April 7.

Colorado brings Wi-Fi and DAS to Folsom Field

Folsom Field at night. Credit: University of Colorado (click on any picture for a larger image)

There will be a change in the air at Folsom Field this fall, and not just from the team that new head coach Mel Tucker will lead onto the gridiron. For the first time, the mile-high atmosphere inside the University of Colorado’s historic venue will be filled with fan-facing Wi-Fi and cellular signals, thanks to new networks being installed this offseason by third-party host Neutral Connect Networks (NCN).

In a deal that will also bring Wi-Fi and a cellular DAS to the school’s basketball arena, NCN will use Cisco gear for the Wi-Fi network and JMA Wireless gear for the cellular networks. A centrally located head-end will serve both venues via fiber connections, some run through existing tunnels from the campus’ old steam-heating infrastructure.

Due to be live before the 2019 football season begins on Sept. 7 when CU hosts Nebraska, the Wi-Fi network will use 550 APs in a mostly under-seat deployment at Folsom Field, where there are no overhangs over any of the seating areas. DAS deployment in Colorado’s historic football stadium — which first hosted games in 1924 — will use antennas pointing down from the stadium’s top edges, with some new flagpoles scheduled to help provide antenna-mounting locations.

While its incredibly picturesque location at the edge of the Rocky Mountains has historically made Folsom Field a fan-favorite place to visit (at least for photos), the lack of any comprehensive wireless coverage of any sort has produced some grumbling from Buffs fans in recent years. According to Matt Biggers, CU’s chief marketing officer and associate athletic director for external affairs, wireless coverage inside the sports venues has been a topic of internal research for more than 6 years.

“It was all about finding a partner and a financial model that works for us,” said Biggers. “It finally got to a point where it made sense to pull the trigger.”

Neutral host model appealing to schools

Editor’s note: This report is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the Wi-Fi records set at Super Bowl 53, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

The CU Events Center, home of Colorado hoops teams. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The model brought to CU is a classic neutral-host operation, where a provider like NCN (which bought the former sports-stadium practice from 5 Bars) will build a school’s Wi-Fi and DAS networks under a revenue-sharing deal with the school where the carriers help some with upfront payments and then provide payments over a long-term lease to operate on the DAS.

The neutral-host option is one good way for schools or teams with smaller budgets or lightly used facilities to bring connectivity to arenas. CU’s Folsom Field, for example, doesn’t see much use other than the six home games per football season. This year, the stadium will see big crowds beyond football only at a few events, including the Memorial Day Bolder Boulder 10K footrace (which ends inside the stadium), a Fourth of July fireworks celebration, and a couple of July concerts featuring the Dead & Company tour.

According to James Smith, vice president of carrier services for NCN, AT&T will be the anchor tenant on the DAS, and will be first to be operational. Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, Smith said, are still negotiating long-term agreements but are expected to be on the DAS by 2020.

NCN [then under its old name of 5 Bars] negotiated a similar neutral-host deal with CU’s neighbor to the north, Colorado State University, for CSU’s new football stadium which opened in 2017. Now known as Canvas Stadium, the 41,000-seat venue had 419 total Wi-Fi access points when it opened, with approximately 250 of those used in the bowl seating area. Like CSU’s deployment, the Wi-Fi network at Folsom Field will use primarily under-seat AP deployments, mainly because the stadium’s horseshoe layout has no overhangs.

DAS gear already installed in the CU Events Center

According to NCN’s Smith, the current plan sees a deployment of 550 APs in Folsom Field, with another 70 APs in the basketball arena, the CU Events Center. Both venues’ networks will be served by a central head-end room located in an old telephone PBX space near the center of campus. Fiber links will run from there to both Folsom Field and the Events Center.

At Folsom, the NCN team will have a long list of deployment challenges, mainly having to navigate the construction particulars of a stadium that has been gradually expanded and added onto over the years.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s behind a brick,” said NCN director of program management Bryan Courtney, speaking of existing infrastructure that has been around for decades. Smith said the Folsom Field DAS will make use of overhead antennas, including some that will require new flagpole-type structures that will need to match Folsom Field’s architectural heritage.

Basketball arena is all top-down

At the 11,064-seat CU Events Center, formerly known as the Coors Events Center, deployment of both Wi-Fi and DAS will be somewhat easier, as all the gear servicing the seating area will be suspended from the catwalks. With the main concourse at stadium entry level and all the seats in a single rectangular bowl flowing down from there, the ceiling is close enough for good top-down coverage for both Wi-Fi and celluar, NCN’s Smith said.

The Golden Buffalo Marching Band on a CU game day. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Though deployment of both networks in the Events Center is currently underway, neither will be active until after the current college basketball season is completed. However, the Events Center stays somewhat more busy than the football stadium, with events like local high school graduations and other special events (like a Republican Party debate in 2015) making use of the space. Both networks should be fully up and running by the next basketball season, according to NCN.

Unlike some other universities that are aggressively pursuing digital fan-connection strategies, CU’s Biggers said the school will start slowly with its fan-facing networks, making sure the experience is a solid one before trying too hard.

“We’re pretty conservative, and this is a complicated project and we want to make sure we get it right,” said Biggers. Though Biggers said CU fans haven’t been extremely vocal about connectivity issues inside the sports venues, he does admit to hearing about “some frustration” about signals in some areas of the stadium (which until now has only been served by a couple of dedicated macro antennas from the outside).

“There’s definitely a hunger [for wireless service],” Biggers said.

On the business side, Biggers said CU will also be taking more time to evaluate any additions to its game-day digital operations. Though CU recently introduced a mobile-only “buzzer beater” basketball ticket package that offered discounted passes that would deliver an assigned seat to a device 24 hours before game time, Biggers said that for football, a longtime paper-ticket tradition for season ticket holders would likely stay in place.

Colorado will also “re-evaluate” its game-day mobile application strategy, Biggers said, with the new networks in mind. “But the real game-changer for us is data collection,” he said. “We’re most excited about having data to better serve the fans.”