Orlando City Stadium adds high-density Wi-Fi for soccer fans

Orlando City Stadium, home of the MLS’s Orlando City SC. Credit all photos: Jenna Cornell (click on any picture for a larger image)

Resilient. Connected. Reliable. Even before its new stadium opened in March of this year, Orlando City SC, the Major League Soccer franchise in central Florida, knew exactly what it wanted from fan-facing Wi-Fi.

Leading that list was networking infrastructure to support the stadium’s 25,500 capacity. The team needed to be able to deliver live streaming video to fans through the team’s LionNation app. And they wanted a way to begin collecting user info and building relationships with fans, according to Renato Reis, CIO for the club.

And with so many professional sports teams having already installed wireless infrastructure, Reis knew there was no reason to reinvent the Wi-Fi wheel. “I had the privilege to travel and interview other organizations,” he said, including the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami where the NFL’s Dolphins and the University of Miami both play football, as well as MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., shared by the NFL’s Jets and Giants. Reis said Orlando City SC’s technology drew heavily on the experience and deployment of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. “I used what I learned,” he laughed.

Paying their own way

Orlando City is barely 3 years old and played its first two seasons in the nearby Citrus Bowl, now called Camping World Stadium.

Under-seat Wi-Fi deployment at Orlando City Stadium.

After some confusion with the City of Orlando, Orange County and the state of Florida over money and budget for a new stadium, Orlando City SC’s ownership abandoned a public-private partnership to go its own way. Orlando City Stadium was built with private funds and opened in time for this year’s opener. Orlando City SC shares the venue with the Orlando Pride, the women’s professional soccer team.

“We had a brand-new stadium and no installed Wi-Fi, two factors that really benefited us,” Reis told Mobile Sports Report. “We planned the position of our antennas and leveraged lessons from other organizations to design something from scratch and build for the future.”

Orlando City SC had some help there. The MLS franchise partnered with managed service provider Spectrum Communications; Spectrum in turn has a longstanding partnership with Orlando City’s equipment vendor, Cisco. Together, they installed networking gear, lots of new fiber-optic cable, and the wireless infrastructure that rides atop the stadium’s 10-Gbps backbone network.

The fan-facing Wi-Fi consists of more than 550 wireless access points around the stadium, or about one AP for every 45 users. The APs are installed under seats, in handrails and on posts. “It was more of a challenge to find the right places, design-wise, for APs to keep them out of people’s line of vision,” Reis said.

Orlando City CIO Renato Reis, posing in front of some cool graffiti and below a Cisco AP.

Supporting streaming video

AP density and processing power were important considerations for Orlando City SC. With such dense coverage, each AP delivers 50-80 Mbps per user, Reis said. That ensures that users of the team’s LionNation app enjoy high performance when using its streaming video capability; users posting to social media or checking email also get faster throughput, he added.

That sort of performance is essential, especially for users of the premium version ($8.99) of the LionNation app. In addition to live-streaming video, premium members get access to behind-the-scenes content, as well as 10 percent discounts off food, drink and merchandise purchases (and points for every dollar spent). They also get priority access to post-season tickets and single-game tickets.

ISP powerhouse and Cisco partner Spectrum Communications helped with the stadium’s engineering and remains active in day-to-day management, said Reis. Spectrum performed three rounds of Wi-Fi tuning and collecting data to see where usage was greatest. No surprise: Entry gates and concession areas, according to Reis. They then made adjustments, repointing APs where needed, thus ensuring bandwidth is available where it’s needed most.

Orlando City SC has also been testing wireless food ordering in one stadium section with 1,500 users since the beginning of the year. “The challenge there isn’t technology but rather logistics,” Reis explained.

Screenshot of the Orlando City app

The team is planning to extend the capability more broadly, but needs more experience to help decide how to proceed. “We’ll probably run the test for the rest of the season and make changes next year,” he said.

Reis’s biggest challenge for the moment is encouraging Wi-Fi usage – and also persuading users to register if they’re not on the app. Even with Orlando City Stadium’s Wi-Fi coverage, most users will stick to cellular (the stadium’s DAS network is serviced by AT&T, Verizon T-Mobile and Sprint), he said.

“The problem I’m trying to solve is who is at the stadium,” Reis explained, adding that the only information he has is that a fan bought four tickets, for example, and when they get scanned at the gates. So how to learn more? “Most landing pages are boring,” he laughed; still, he’s considering offering different incentives for Wi-Fi users to check in.

“Can I loyal-ize you so I can learn what you like, what offers are more appealing, what you enjoy and don’t?” Reis asked. That’s a primary challenge for most sports teams, entertainment companies and ecommerce entities. Luckily for Reis and the Orlando City SC, he’s got the bandwidth, backbone and people resources to learn more about fans and build those relationships going forward.

Niners: No more in-seat merchandise sales or express pickup at Levi’s Stadium

We finally have an official statement from the San Francisco 49ers talking about the team’s decision this season to eliminate in-seat food delivery for the entire stadium and instead offer the service only to those holding club-level seats, news reported first by Mobile Sports Report.

A statement provided to us from Al Guido, president of the Niners, says:

Levi’s Stadium was the first stadium of its size to offer in-seat food and beverage delivery throughout the building, a service no other venue has attempted to date. After conducting a comprehensive offseason review, including analysis of the sections where people took the greatest advantage of the offering and surveys on what matters most to fans sitting in different areas of the venue, we are focusing our in-seat food and beverage ordering service exclusively to non-inclusive Club seating sections for the current season. This change is being done to improve the overall concession service in the venue while allowing us to continue to enhance how this feature can best benefit our fans.

According to the Niners, “non-inclusive” means all club seats where fans don’t have access to the everything-paid-for clubs like the BNY Mellon Clubs on either side of the lower 50-yard-line seats. So to have access to the app-based ordering and delivery, you need to be in a club seat somewhere in the 100 or 200 levels of the stadiums, without a paid-for food and drink plan. The Niners did not provide any numbers about how many or what percentage of Levi’s Stadium fans would continue to have the ability to order concession deliveries.

Also discontinued is the Levi’s Stadium express pickup option, a service the team said was actually stopped last season. The express pickup option allowed fans to order and pay for food and drink ahead of time, and then pick it up at a nearby stand. The Niners also said they are discontinuing the ability for fans to order merchandise and have it delivered to their seats, an option that debuted back in 2014.

Delivery of food and beverage to all seats off the menu at Levi’s Stadium

Screen shot from Levi’s Stadium app from 2015 showing active in-seat delivery option.

The ability for every fan in the house to order food delivery to their seat — one of the signature services of Levi’s Stadium since its opening — is now off the menu.

At Thursday night’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams, in-seat delivery of mobile-app orders of food and drink was only available to club seat sections at the Niners’ home stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., according to several sources close to the team and the stadium.

Though there is no official statement yet from the team, it’s believed that the in-seat ordering and delivery service — which worked well except for one major early glitch — was mostly popular in premium seating areas at Levi’s, but not widely used otherwise.

While the Niners provided delivery-order statistics for the first year of operation of Levi’s Stadium, since then they’ve only reported orders in vague terms, last claiming average order totals of between 2,000 and 2,500 per game during the 2015 season. It’s also not clear if those numbers included both delivery orders as well as mobile-device orders for express pickup, where fans use the app to place and pay for an order, and then go pick it up at an express window.

The most likely reason for cutting off the service to the full stadium is that fans simply didn’t use it, and at some point it made no sense to keep staffing a service that wasn’t producing any income. What’s still unclear is whether the move is permanent, or whether it could be replaced in time, given that since Levi’s Stadium has opened, the Niners have routinely made changes to how the stadium app works and what services it offers. What was also unclear was how many club seats are still able to order deliveries, and whether or not the express pickup option is also still available.

For Super Bowl 50, the NFL nixed the food part of the delivery service at Levi’s, limiting it to just drinks. However, Super Bowl fans did give the drink delivery and the ability to order food and beverages for express pickup a good workout, with 3,284 total orders, 67 percent higher than the top order mark for a Niners’ regular-season game.

An ambitious experiment

Early on, there was much enthusiasm from the Niners for the in-seat delivery service, and their ambitious goal to make it work for every potential fan in the 68,500-seat venue. While almost every major professional and large collegiate sports venue has some kind of delivery service for premium seats or expanded sections, there is no other football-size venue that has attempted what the Niners have offered at Levi’s Stadium the past three seasons.

Why the full-stadium delivery option never caught on at Levi’s Stadium is most likely due to many reasons, beginning with the fact that it’s still not something most fans expect, unless they are in premium seating areas. There is also the question of how many fans actually download and use the stadium app while at the game, another statistic not regularly reported by teams.

While the service has always been available at Niners’ home games, other events at Levi’s Stadium, like Wrestlemania 31, have declined to have the service available while others, like the Grateful Dead, chose to keep the service in place. According to the Niners, the choice of having delivery available was always made by the event and not by the team.

It’s interesting to note that VenueNext, the app development company started in part by the 49ers, does not have another customer among its growing list of pro team clients that offers full-stadium delivery of app-ordered concessions. Mobile Sports Report has learned that one VenueNext team may start offering drink delivery to fans, but it’s not clear if that will be a full-stadium option.

Another stadium app startup with food-delivery services, TapIn2, has systems to deliver concessions ordered via app to the lower bowl at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena, and for club-seat sections at the Cincinnati Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium.

Wi-Fi, app ready to go for Falcons’ preseason opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The shiny new stadium gets ready to host its first big event this weekend. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

It might have taken some recent all-nighters, but the crew behind the technology at Mercedes-Benz Stadium said that the Wi-Fi and DAS networks, as well as the new app, will be ready to go when the Atlanta Falcons hold their first big event at their new home this Saturday.

“We’ve spent the last week really tuning the Wi-Fi, and it’s awesome to see the speeds we’re getting as I walk around,” said Jared Miller, chief digital officer for the Falcons, in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m anxious to see how it will do with a full house.”

The first potential for a packed stadium comes Saturday night, when the Falcons host the Arizona Cardinals in an NFL preseason game. With roughly 1,800 Aruba Wi-Fi APs installed inside (1,000 in the seating bowl and the rest in concourses and other areas), Mercedes-Benz Stadium should have excellent Wi-Fi coverage, even if it takes several events to figure out the things you can only figure out once you have live people in the seats.

“We’ll need a few events until we get to a spot where we’re dialed in [with network performance],” said Miller. Though Miller said the Falcons were able to get some network feedback during a recent season-ticket holder open house, real performance stats won’t come until fans are filling the venue for an NFL game.

“You just have to go through a series of events to see actual performance,” Miller said.

Home page of the new Falcons app from IBM

Curiously, Miller would not comment directly when asked if any carriers other than sponsor AT&T had officially signed on to be on the Falcons’ neutral-host DAS. However, he did say that “all the fans who [are at the game] should be able to have cellular connections.” (Any attendees who want to send us speedtests of Wi-Fi or DAS, you know where to find us.)

New app gets its debut

One area that might cause some delays getting into the arena is the Falcons’ decision to go to all-digital ticketing — fans must either have an RFID card (for season tickets) or must download the new team app so they can have digital tickets on their phones. Both the RFID cards and phones can be scanned at the SkiData turnstyle machines.

“We’re encouraging fans to download the app before they get to the game,” Miller said.

The new version of the team app, which was only made live in the last couple days, was built by main IT contractor IBM.

App view of a wayfinding map

The IBM app will do things a little bit differently than other stadium apps; the wayfinding maps are not “blue dot” or interactive like Google Maps or other stadium apps like those at Levi’s Stadium or Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. Instead, fans must enter both their location and their desired destination to see a path on a stored map.

Food ordering via the app is also handled differently than apps that support in-seat delivery or express window pickup. With the Falcons app fans will select from a list of concession stands, then enter credit card information and their order, which will be scanned at the stand, according to IBM. While such new services always take some time for fans to discover and use, Miller is keen to see if the new systems work as promised.

“We want to see not just quantitative numbers but qualitative data too,” Miller said. “Did it really benefit fans? Were they able to bust the queue? Would they do it again?”

The app also has a Falcons-esque chat bot, called “Ask Arthur” for owner Arthur Blank; while the bot can quickly answer FAQ-type questions about the stadium and its operations, more open-ended queries will require perhaps some time with IBM’s Watson technology (see examples in photos below).

And on a final low-tech note, Miller said the Falcons had been in constant touch with several local groups, including the Georgia Department of Transportation, the city of Atlanta and the MARTA light rail system to get all the pertinent maps and signs updated. On Mobile Sports Report’s visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Atlanta last week, we noticed that there were very few signs up with Mercedes-Benz Stadium on them.

One big map on the wall inside the nearby CNN Center (where there is a large public food court) didn’t even have Mercedes-Benz Stadium on an area map, and a sign over the MARTA station just outside the new stadium’s doors had no mention of Mercedes-Benz Stadium but still did mention the Georgia Dome, the next-door neighbor slated for demolition. The MARTA online map still lists “Dome” but not “Mercedes-Benz Stadium” for the stop outside the venue’s doors.

“We’ve scoured the city looking for anything that still says Georgia Dome,” Miller said. Getting all the new signs up, he said, is “in the process of getting done.”

The ‘Ask Arthur’ bot can answer simple questions about Mercedes-Benz Stadium but…

… don’t ask the app for Super Bowl odds

We’re hoping this map, seen here on a wall inside the nearby CNN Center, has been updated

One of the many under-seat Wi-Fi APs that will be getting their first test this weekend

Chief digital officer Jared Miller answers questions at the recent media day

On Aug. 15, this sign over the nearby MARTA station still didn’t mention Mercedes-Benz Stadium

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.

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