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

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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.

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium nears the finish line

Sorry, this venue is not open yet! Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

If there’s a huge tease to the audience at this year’s SEAT Conference in Atlanta it’s that there is no official visit planned to the nearby stadium that is on everyone’s mind, the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Built right next door to the Georgia Dome, the new venue looks all finished from the outside, but there are still construction chain-link fences around it keeping anyone from getting too close to the building. A quick visit by yours truly Sunday afternoon got the pictures seen here, including the angular, glassy construction, the big metal falcon (caged for now) but no live look at the halo video board (though we thought we could see the curves inside).

Jared Miller, chief technology officer for AMB Sports & Entertainment, told us on the phone last week that Mercedes-Benz Stadium “is definitely in the final throes” of development, which is scheduled to end on Aug. 26 when the Falcons host their first NFL preseason game. There also may be an earlier public-unveiling event but the NFL date is the first scheduled full-scale opening of the Falcons’ new roost.

Miller spelled out a few previously unconfirmed facets of the technology deployment going on inside the stadium — the Wi-Fi gear is from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company; and lead contractor IBM will also be supplying the stadium’s mobile apps, with separate versions for the Falcons, the Atlanta United FC of the MLS, and one for the stadium itself (to be used for concerts, college football games and other non-NFL or non-MLS events).

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in all its glory

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will also have a neutral host DAS run by the Falcons using Corning ONE gear.

No in-seat delivery for concessions

Another interesting twist is that Miller said the while the Falcons’ apps will have the ability to allow fans to order food and drink, it will be for pickup at express windows only, and NOT for delivery to seats, a service seen at other venues like the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. Miller said the AMB team has taken a different approach and expects fans to roam about more inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which has many different “experiential” zones where fans can watch the action from someplace other than their seat.

But even with all the different technology and lower food prices, Miller is betting that the one thing that visitors will keep talking about is the halo video board, the main “big screen” that wraps around the inside of the roof in a full circle.

“When fans enter they’re going to look up and go, ‘Wow!’ and do it the first time, and the 10th time they visit,” Miller said. Miller said he was walking back to the stadium recently and saw the halo board in action, and stopped in awe. “I look up and am just blown away by it,” he said. Falcons fans and other interested visitors are looking forward to feeling that feeling soon. More photos below!

Anyone see a halo board in there?

Yes, it’s very close to the Georgia Dome.

Mr. Blank, uncage this bird!

Seen on the MARTA train in from the airport: Still time to get a gig at the stadium!

A better look at the big bird

TapIn2, Float Hybrid and Bud Light team up on food/drink delivery for minor-league ballpark

PNC Field, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Credit: RailRiders Instagram

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders have introduced a mobile-device food and beverage order and delivery system for fans at PNC Field, the 10,000-seat home venue for the 2016 Triple-A national champions.

Behind the new system is a partnership of TapIn2, a delivery-app startup that provides a similar service for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cincinnati Bengals; Float Hybrid, an “interactive experience” design agency; and Bud Light, a title sponsor for event delivery services like the new food/beverage service for the RailRiders. The RailRiders are a New York Yankees affiliate.

Screenshot of PNC Field ordering app

According to a press release about the deployment, PNC Field integrated TapIn2’s SmartVenue delivery software system with the existing point of sale system to provide the support for mobile-device ordering and delivery. Available to fans in reserved-seat sections of the park only (not in general admission bleachers or lawn spaces), the delivery system supports a wide range of options for both food and drink ordering and delivery.

In an email reply, Keith Bendes, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships for the San Francisco-based Float Hybrid, said the system saw an average order total of $18.85 on the opening day of the service, and about $16.08 per order ongoing. Average delivery times so far are about 6-7 minutes per order, Bendes said.

Though PNC Field doesn’t have in-stadium Wi-Fi or an enhanced cellular DAS system, Bendes said the macro networks in the stadium’s town of Moosic, Pa., appear to be strong enough to keep fans able to connect on their mobile devices.

It will be interesting to follow the deployment of delivery services in smaller venues like minor league parks, which may be an easier operation than the system that supports in-seat delivery to venues like the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium.

New Report: State of the art Wi-Fi network at Braves’ new SunTrust Park

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— Westfield Century City Mall profile: A close look at a new Wi-Fi network and other digital services emerging at an extensive renovation of this historic Los Angeles shopping center;
— Additional profiles of a new DAS deployment at Sonoma Raceway and new Wi-Fi for Red Bull Arena!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Built.io formally announces sports-app business

Screenshots from Built.io’s under-development mobile app for the NBA’s Miami Heat. Credit: Miami Heat

Built.io, the startup behind the Sacramento Kings’ new team and stadium app, formally announced its “fan experience platform” today, putting the company more directly in competition with market leaders YinzCam and VenueNext.

A San Francisco-based company, Built.io did not have a standalone sports-app business when it was selected by the Kings to be the base app technology for both the Kings’ team app as well as the app for the Kings’ new home, the Golden 1 Center. Since that arena’s launch last year, Built.io has also signed the Miami Heat as a customer, ahead of today’s formal launch of the sports-app platform.

In the larger sports world, YinzCam is by far and away the company with the most apps developed for teams and stadiums, with many of its content-focused developments used by numerous pro league teams as well as many large colleges. VenueNext, which entered the world as the app developer for the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium a few years ago, has since signed up multiple pro teams like the NHL’s San Jose Sharks as well as entertainment entities like Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

Of the two market leaders, Built.io’s platform-based approach to app building — where third-party components for features like wayfinding and parking can be added via an API structure — is more like VenueNext’s, though YinzCam also has the ability to add third-party components as needed. The challenge for all stadium- and team-app builders, as well as for venue owners and teams, is to get fans to download and use the apps, so that teams can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digitally connected customers.

Screenshot of part of the Built.io app for the Kings.

While there is plenty of promise and perceived opportunity in team and stadium apps, the current reality sees fans at stadiums using public social-media apps like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, or other tools like email and search, far more often than team- or stadium-specific apps. However, by driving fans to use apps for digital ticketing and other necessary service transactions, team and stadium apps are likely to be more used over time, following the adoption curves for other businesses like coffee shops and airline tickets.

Though still small, Built.io has been around for a bit, as it was founded in 2007. The company has previous experience connecting larger enterprise businesses, experience founder Neha Sampat told us will work well as stadiums and teams become more connected in all their businesses.

“What the Kings are trying to do is a large-scale enterprise use case,” said Sampat in an interview last year. “There are a lot of big-data analytics and so much personalization that is dependent on data.”

Sampat said Built.io’s model of a “back end as a service” and its ability to quickly connect other programs’ APIs should be a good fit for the Kings, as well as for other teams looking to blend more services and functions into team and stadium apps.