Oklahoma leads the way with Wi-Fi 6 network at football stadium

An AmpThink handrail enclosure for Wi-Fi APs at Oklahoma. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

In the long history of college football, the Univeristy of Oklahoma is a name that is always somehow in the discussion when it comes to top teams and Heisman-quality talent. And now you can add stadium Wi-Fi to the list of things Oklahoma does well, after a deployment of a 100 percent Wi-Fi 6 network at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium was in place for most of the recent football season.

Formerly among the most conspicuous Wi-Fi have-nots among big-school stadiums, the Sooners have now moved to the front of the class with a network of approximately 1,350 access points in their 80,126-seat stadium, all new models that support the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard, also known as 802.11ax. With a deployment led by AT&T, using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, and a design and deployment from AmpThink, using mainly handrail-mounted enclosures in the main bowl seating areas, OU fans now have the ability to connect wirelessly at the most advanced levels, with a technology base that will support even better performance as the balance of attendee handsets starts to catch up to the network with
support for Wi-Fi 6.

“We’re very excited” about the new network, said David Payne, senior technology strategist for athletics at the University of Oklahoma’s information technology department. Payne, who has been at Oklahoma since 2003, has spent the last several years shepherding the overall stadium Wi-Fi plan into place, starting first with Wi-Fi coverage for the stadium RV parking lots, then adding initial forays into stadium Wi-Fi deployment when Oklahoma renovated the south part of the stadium three years ago. But this past offseason was the big push to full stadium coverage, a trek that included a switch in equipment vendors that was prompted by Oklahoma’s solid commitment to the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard.

Committed to Wi-Fi 6 for the future

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue are profiles of the new Wi-Fi and DAS networks at Chase Center, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Fiserv Forum and the University of Florida! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

A water-sealed connection for the bottom of a handrail enclosure.

If there was a tricky time to pull the trigger on Wi-Fi 6, it was last summer, when not every vendor in the market could ensure it would have enough gear on hand to fully supply a big stadium like Oklahoma’s. And even though Wi-Fi 6 gear is new and generally more expensive than previous versions, for Payne and Oklahoma the long-term benefits combined with the periodic ability to refresh something as significant as a football stadium network made committing to Wi-Fi 6 somewhat of a no-brainer.

Payne, like many other big-school IT leaders, has spent years helping administrators and others at budget- deciding levels of leadership at his school try to understand the benefits of stadium-wide Wi-Fi connectivity. For many of those years, it just didn’t make sense to try to push through the multi-million-dollar expense of a project “that would only be used six or seven Saturdays a year,” Payne said. “There’s always a difficulty in telling the story of what value you receive in this since it’s different from traditional revenue streams,” Payne said. “There isn’t a direct dollar seen from Wi-Fi users.”

But with the late-2018 approval of a capital expenditure project to revamp the football stadium’s lower-bowl seating with new handrails, wider seats and other ADA-related improvements, Payne and the IT team were able to weave in the extra $3 million (out of a total project cost of $14.9 million) it would cost to bring full Wi-Fi coverage to the entire stadium.

“It’s just taking advantage of the timing to get economies of scale,” said Payne. Because of the already- planned work on the handrails, Oklahoma was able to add the AmpThink-designed handrail Wi-Fi enclosures (which use the handrail pipes to carry cabling) for a fraction of the cost of having to do that work as a separate project, Payne said. The university had also installed new backbone gear and cabling during the south end zone renovation, so that cost was already paid for.

The decision to commit to Wi-Fi 6, Payne said, was based on standard release projections from manufacturers. “We paid close attention to projected order availability and ship dates,” Payne said. “We were felt that if we were able to receive the gear by June, we could complete the project on time.”

Though some manufacturers were not sure of being able to fully deliver Wi-Fi 6 gear, Aruba, Payne said, had “high confidence” in meeting the deadlines, and won the deal. According to Payne, all the Aruba gear was shipped in time to begin construction in June.

A handrail enclosure in the lower bowl

“It’s important for us to get the full life cycle of technology, so that’s why we decided to go 100 percent Wi-Fi 6,” Payne said.

Attention to detail an AmpThink hallmark

On a visit before and during a home game against Texas Tech in late September 2019, Mobile Sports Report was able to test the live network in all parts of the stadium, with strong performance at even the highest seating levels as well as in sometimes overlooked spots like the long ramps that fans walk up to get in and out of the venue.

The Oklahoma deployment was part of a very busy summer for AmpThink, with similar Wi-Fi design and deployments at Oklahoma, Ohio State and Arkansas. Like those two others, Oklahoma’s main bowl AP deployment was in the patented AmpThink handrail enclosures, each stamped with the distinctive “OU” logo.

The handrail deployment system, which typically includes a core drill through the concrete floor to bring wiring into the handrail tubing, is now a standard process for AmpThink, following similar deployments at the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium and at Notre Dame Stadium, among others. At Oklahoma, AmpThink said it used 10 different handrail enclosure designs to fit all the necessary spaces.

AmpThink president Bill Anderson was present during our visit and took great pride in showing off some of the finer points of an AmpThink deployment, including a method of using a metal sleeve and some clever waterproof paint and sealant to ensure that no moisture finds its way into the holes used for cable delivery.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time [during deployments] making sure there isn’t any water leakage under the stands,” Anderson said. “Because you never know what is going to be below. This is a big part of what we do. We don’t just sell an enclosure.”

Concourse APs visible high on concrete posts

The same can be said of AmpThink’s overall network designs, which it monitors and tests and tweaks as fans use the system. On the game day we visited, no fewer than four AmpThink employees were at the stadium in the network control room, checking AP performance and network usage.

“We’re pretty proud of what we can do,” Anderson said about the company’s track record for network design in large venues. “We have proven formulas which we reliably implement.”

Solid speed tests throughout the venue

At 10:20 a.m. local time, just ahead of the early 11 a.m. kickoff, Mobile Sports Report started our testing inside the main-level concourse, where fans were already lining up to purchase cold beer, another first at the stadium this past season. In the midst of the entering crowds we got a speedtest of 55.9 Mbps on the download side and 43.7 Mbps on the upload side, an inkling of the strong tests we were to see everywhere we walked. In the concourses and near concession stands, a mix of overhead and wall-mounted APs provided coverage.

Up in the stands, we took our first test among the railing-mounted enclosures in section 6, row 51, just about at the 50-yard line. We got a mark of 68.2 Mbps / 58.7 Mbps before the stands were completely full. We then hiked up to row 67, which was underneath the press box overhang and served by overhead APs, not railing enclosures. There we got a speedtest of 27.8 Mbps / 49.5 Mbps, a half hour before kickoff.

One more speedtest in the lower bowl (around the 30-yard line, in row 19) netted a mark of 68.9 Mbps / 61.2 Mbps; then as we walked around to the south end zone, we got a mark of 38.7 Mbps / 64.3 Mbps in the south concourse, busy with fans getting food and drink ahead of the imminent kickoff.

The recently renovated south end of the stadium has a series of loge boxes and other premium seating options, and has an overhang which provides additional real estate for Wi-Fi AP mounting options. Ducking into a loge box (covered by overhead APs) for a quick test we got a mark of 36.8 Mbps / 54.2 Mbps just before kickoff. Moving around to the corner of the south stands for the pregame ceremonies we got a mark of 33.7 Mbps / 63.8 Mbps even as all the phones were out to capture the team run-on and school song rendition. After kickoff, we went into the crowded main east concourse and got a mark of 43.2 Mbps / 46.6 Mbps amidst all the late-arrivers.

Good coverage in the stairwells

Wi-Fi antennas in an overhang deployment

If there is one area where stadiums sometimes skimp on wireless coverage it’s in the stairwells and pedestrian ramps, which may not seem like an important place to have connectivity. But at Oklahoma, the multiple switchbacks it takes to climb from ground level to the top seating areas are all well covered with Wi-Fi, as we got a mark of 39.9 Mbps / 29.5 Mbps during a brief rest stop on our hike to the top of the east stands.

At a concession stand on the top-level concourse we got a mark of 61.3 Mbps / 70.5 Mbps, as we admired the neatness of the core drilling we could see that got the cabling to the underside of the seating areas above. In the stands we got a mark of 57.5 Mbps / 69.5 Mbps at one of the highest rows in the stadium, row 24 of section 226, a half hour after the game’s start.

According to Payne our visit coincided with the first live game with the Wi-Fi 6 software fully turned on, part of a sort of rolling start to the network deployment which wasn’t fully live at the first game on Aug. 31.

“It wasn’t without some hiccups and headaches,” said Payne of the overall deployment, which included a small number of temporary black-colored handrail enclosures from AmpThink, which saw its single source of handrail molding material run out of supply late in the summer. According to Payne Oklahoma started the season with 966 radios working on the network, ramping up with more at each home game until reaching full capacity later in the season. AmpThink had also replaced the black enclosures by the time of our visit with the standard silver ones.

Oklahoma also experienced what other venues deploying Wi-Fi 6 may find – that some of the very oldest devices still in use may have issues in connecting to the Wi-Fi 6 equipment. Payne said one such
problem surfaced in the press box (where reporters were using older laptops) but it was solved by creating some virtual APs which were tuned to an older version of the Wi-Fi standard.

Oklahoma fans during pregame ceremonies

OU also didn’t widely promote the network early in the season, but by the Oct. 19 home game with West Virginia not only was the school promoting the network on the stadium’s big video boards, the IT team also added the ability for students to automatically join the stadium network via their regular WiFi@OU SSID used around campus.

With 82,620 in attendance for the West Virginia game the total number of Wi-Fi users took a big jump from the previous high, with 25,079 unique connections, according to numbers provided by Payne. When Iowa State came to Norman on Nov. 9, the network saw its highest usage with 32,673 unique users, who used approximately 4.2 terabytes of data while in the stadium.

What was also interesting to Payne was the number of devices connected using the Wi-Fi 6 standard, which currently is only supported by a small number of phones. Payne noted that the first week OU had the Wi-Fi 6 working in the stadium was the same week Apple started delivery of its new iPhone 11 line, which includes support for the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. After seeing 941 devices connect on Wi-Fi 6 at the Texas Tech game, Payne said Oklahoma saw a steady increase of Wi-Fi 6 devices at each following home game, with 1,471 at the West Virginia game and 2,170 at the Iowa State game.

Is AX coming ‘sooner’… rather than later?

Though most consumer handsets being used today do not support the Wi-Fi 6 standards, Apple’s decision to include Wi-Fi 6 support in its latest iPhone 11 line as well as Wi-Fi 6 support from other new Android phone models suggests that device support for the standard may be coming sooner, rather than later, to the fans in the stands. When that happens and the Wi-Fi 6 network starts utilizing its new capabilities, Oklahoma’s network will be among the first to make use of the new standard’s ability to support more clients at higher connection speeds, critical features for big networks in small places like football stadiums.

The non-insignificant number of AX devices already seen by the stadium network, Payne said, felt like good justification of the school’s decision to commit to Wi-Fi 6. What was also interesting to Payne was some later analysis of the network which showed Wi-Fi 6 clients using nearly 10 times the data per client as older Wi-Fi 5 devices.

Looking ahead to next season, Payne said he will be working with school network officials to see how to more closely tie the stadium network with the overall campus wireless infrastructure, and to see how the school might be able to incorporate a stadium app or web-based sites to increase the ability of the network to improve the fan experience. Currently Oklahoma uses a portal from AmpThink to get email addresses from network guests, which Payne said will be used by marketing and ticketing departments to try to increase engagement.

The good news is, Payne said, is that “we are no longer looking at what it costs to put a network in place” to drive any new digital experience ideas.

For Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione, it was important for the school to deliver an amenity that provided a a consistent fan experience whether a fan was in a suite or in the upper deck, a goal our tests seem to have validated.

“We feel that the Oklahoma tradition is among the strongest in the nation and really want to provide a top-notch fan experience to celebrate that tradition,” Castiglione said. “Wi-Fi is just the beginning of enhancing that experience. We hope to be able to use it to engage our fans through in venue activations and experiences that would not be available without the addition of Wi-Fi.”

The scoreboard touts the new Wi-Fi network (credit this photo: University of Oklahoma)

A panaoramic view of the stadium


Wi-Fi enclosure above a concessions stand

Wi-Fi breathes new life into ‘The Swamp’ at the University of Florida

Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium got a full-venue Wi-Fi network this fall. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Can Wi-Fi help bring new life to an old venue? In a way, that happened this fall when the University of Florida lit up a stadium-wide Wi-Fi network at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the 88,548-seat venue known by most as just “The Swamp.”

Though at Florida, like most SEC stadiums, the fans don’t really need any technology to fire them up, the addition of a NFL-caliber Wi-Fi network from Extreme Networks and Verizon was quickly embraced by fans in Gainesville, with one early contest against Auburn cresting the 11-terabyte mark for total data used. If nothing else, with the network in place a whole world outside of the stadium walls gets to see the arm-chomping craziness that makes Ben Hill Griffin Stadium one of the nation’s premier college football venues, thanks to social media and other apps that let fans share their game-day experience.

But beyond the obvious benefits for fans, the new network also brought new features to the Gators’ back-of-house business operations, including being able to connect a new point-of-sale system for concession stands, while also providing the potential for better digital engagement with the people in the stands. According to Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, the addition of Wi-Fi has given Ben Hill Griffin Stadium somewhat of a new lease on life, with the ability of the new to augment the old.

“We had a lot of the inherent challenges of putting technology into a 90-year-old venue,” said Stricklin, “but it’s also interesting how technology allows you to work around those challenges.”

Under-seat APs in the club section

By partnering with stadium-application developer VenueNext, which has recently expanded its services to include a back-end POS system, Florida can now offer fans at home games a wide menu of digital-powered services, like the ability to order food and drinks ahead of time for pickup at express windows, and the ability to click on a phone to say “Water Me,” to have cold water delivered to the sunny-seat sections of the stadium.

For the business of running the stadium, the new VenueNext POS system allowed Florida to shed its old cash-drawer system to one that can now provide a connected way to manage concession stands.

“The new app and POS technology makes concessions better for everyone, it’s faster for those who order ahead of time, and the lines are shorter,” Stricklin said. “It’s a fascinating idea that technology can extend the useful life of a facility.”

Scenes from a retrofit: drilling and conduits

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue are profiles of the new Wi-Fi deployment at the University of Oklahoma, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Chase Center and Fiserv Forum! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Like many other big-bowl stadiums at the big foot- ball schools, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a work built over time, with different renovations and additions adding layers of concrete and seating in ways that definitely did not have wireless networking in mind. And like many other schools, Florida had a tough time historically making the case for the capital outlay needed to bring Wi-Fi to a venue that might only see six or seven days of use a year.

At his previous job as athletic director for Mississippi State, Stricklin was part of an SEC advisory board that just five years ago didn’t see stadium Wi-Fi as a priority. Fast forward to 2019, and both the world in general and Stricklin have changed their views.

Flashing covers conduit leading to under-seat APs

“At one point, Wi-Fi was seen as a luxury item [for stadiums],” said Stricklin. “Now, connectivity is like running water or electricity. You’ve got to have it.”

An RFP process for a full-stadium Wi-Fi network ended up getting Florida to choose a $6.3 million proposal from Verizon and Extreme, which have paired together for similar big-stadium deployments before, mainly at NFL venues like Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.

“Obviously they’re experienced,” Stricklin said of the Extreme-Verizon pairing. “The success they’ve had before played a big role in increasing our comfort level.”

Like at those stadiums, at Florida Verizon has its own separate SSID for Verizon customers, who can be automatically connected to the Wi-Fi upon entering the stadium. Other guests can sign in for free via a portal screen.

According to Matt Vincent, Florida’s director of infrastructure operations, construction of the network actually started during the 2018 season, with small-section roll-outs of the service. Over this past summer, however, the heavy lifting went in, with Extreme finishing the full-stadium design with 1,478 APs, all Wave2 802.11ac. Of that number, approximately 1,200 are in the main seating bowl, with most of those located in under-seat enclosures.

Unlike some other under-seat deployments where a separate core drill was done for each AP location, at Florida Extreme was able to reduce the number of concrete holes needed with some ingenious use of conduit and metal plating. In many areas of the stands, one hole through the concrete supports a number of APs, with conduit and metal plating covering the connections under and behind the seats and benches.

Gator fans can now share game memories while at the stadium

If you know what you are looking for, when you wander the maze of concourses under the seating sections you can spot a new network of conduit pipes that bring the cabling from the network out to the seats. In concourses, clubs and other areas with overhead mounting places, Extreme also used omni-directional antennas and other typical indoor equipment for coverage.

Getting to 11+ TB with fast, consistent coverage

At Florida’s biggest home game of the year, an Oct. 5 game against Auburn (a 24-13 Florida victory), Gator fans used 11.82 terabytes of data on the Wi-Fi network, one of the top totals ever seen at a college venue. Mobile Sports Report visited the stadium for a Nov. 9 game against Vanderbilt, and found strong performance on the network stadium-wide, including in harder-to-cover areas like concourses and narrow seating areas under overhangs.

Starting our testing in the club-seating lounge area, MSR got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 68.6 Mbps on the download and 65.2 Mbps on the upload, in front of a stuffed alligator with a very toothy grin. Heading down to the main entry gate, we got a mark of 50.2 Mbps / 61.8 Mbps as fans were streaming in just ahead of game time.

In a somewhat enclosed seating area on the lower level behind one end zone, we got a test of 21.9 Mbps / 29.9 Mbps just as the Gator mascots took the field for pregame activity. Moving up into the upper deck of section 43, we got a mark of 47.8 Mbps / 50.9 Mbps just after kickoff. Heading under the upper deck stands to the top concourse we got a mark of 43.6 Mbps / 55.5 Mbps, while drawing puzzled stares from fans wondering why we were taking pictures of the metal tubes running up the back of the seating floor.

An AP underneath a bench seating area

Stopping under the other end zone for a Gatorade break, we sat at some loge-type seats and got a mark of 61.2 Mbps / 64.4 Mbps. Then moving back out into the stands we got our up-close picture of the sign welcoming us to “The Swamp,” where we got a speedtest of 54.0 Mbps / 53.8 Mbps.

An island of connectivity among the crowds

While Florida’s Vincent spends most of his game days working to assure the network keeps running at top performance, he said that stadium staff enjoys the Wi-Fi as well.

“It’s been just a night and day difference for everyone since we added the Wi-Fi,” Vincent said, noting a tweet from a fan during the Auburn game that said “the only place in town his phone could connect was at the stadium.”

While saying the decision to deploy Wi-Fi was still somewhat of a leap of faith, Stricklin gave credit to the Florida staff members who prepared the reports outlining the benefits such a system could bring to the venue, for both the fans as well as for the school.

“It’s a little like Indiana Jones when he steps out [over the cliff] and doesn’t see the floor below him,” Stricklin said. “It’s an intense capital outlay [to build a Wi-Fi network] and I don’t know that we’ll ever see it all returned in terms of numbers. But again, I thank the staff and partners like VenueNext who all had a great vision of what a connected stadium could do. With mobile ticketing, you have the opportunity to learn who’s in your stadium. There are concrete ways we can use connectivity to engage, learn about fans, and keep up with them. It’s a wise investment.”

The white dots are under-seat APs

Wi-Fi coverage was good throughout ‘The Swamp’

Conduit carrying cables to under-seat APs proceeds in an orderly fashion up the underside of the stands

Superdome sees 10+ TB of Wi-Fi data at college playoff championship

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Credit all photos: Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The upgraded Wi-Fi network in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome passed its first big test, with 10.12 terabytes of data used during the College Football Playoff National Championship between LSU and Clemson on Jan. 13.

With 76,885 spectators in attendance to witness LSU’s 42-25 victory in the championship game
(including President Trump, his entourage and accompanying security personnel), the
Superdome’s Wi-Fi performed beautifully. According to figures provided to Mobile Sports
Report by ASM Global (the entity that resulted from the September 2019 merger of Anschutz
Entertainment Group and venue management firm SMG), the Superdome’s wireless network
handled 41,475 unique users, along with 28,534 concurrent users. Fans generated 10.12 TB of
network data during the game, according to ASM Global contractor Dave Stewart. Top
applications creating that motherload of bytes (in order of usage) were iCloud, Facebook,
Snapchat and Instagram.

“The lower bowl and outer plaza area upgrades made a significant impact on patrons’ ability to
onboard to the system and flow into the building seamlessly. We saw a significant improvement
in the reduction of signal noise, resulting in cleaner, faster connectivity for individual devices,”
commented Matt Boyd, IT manager for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the adjacent
SmoothieKing Center and Champions Square facilities. “At the end of a long day, I was pleased
at the experience we were able to give our patrons, media, and the staffs of the various
organizations that make an event of this caliber happen.”

Newly installed APs outside in the plaza entry areas also kept things moving for fans and venue
management. “Paperless ticketing – a QR code on cell phone — accounted for over 85 percent
of the ticketed entry,” Stewart said. “We on-boarded over 40,000 unique devices at our entry
gates, which equates to over 60 percent of users accessing their ticket via Wi-Fi.”

Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s Wi-Fi upgrade ready for college championship game

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of Monday’s college football playoff championship game, has had a recent upgrade to its Wi-Fi network. Credit all photos: Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

You didn’t have to strain to detect the air of renewal in New Orleans this past fall. By the river, in the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods there’s been construction cranes, scaffolding and fresh paint.

Drive by the skyline-dominating Superdome at night, and you’ll see a three-point star projected on its façade. Known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since 2011, it’s more visual evidence of how New Orleans has fought its way back since Katrina tried to drown the city in 2005.

Inside the Superdome, a technology renewal has been in progress this past football season. New Wi-Fi access points have been installed; the venue’s IT managers don’t just want to deliver more bandwidth – they want to manage it intelligently and wring maximum return from their investment. Which helps explain why they’ve embraced under-seat APs throughout most of the Superdome, shedding the previous back-to-front/blast ’em with bandwidth approach that sporting venues once widely embraced.

“We pay attention to what the NFL needs, what the New Orleans Saints require and what the fans expect,” said Dave Stewart, a contractor working with ASM Global, (the entity that resulted from the September 2019 merger of Anschutz Entertainment Group and venue management firm SMG). “That’s why we make incremental improvements and as needs change, we want to be responsive.”

Keeping up with devices and demand

And wireless technology has evolved since the previous system was installed in 2012. While the number of smartphone users coming to the Superdome seven years ago was relatively low, they’re now the norm, Stewart said. “Year over year, take rates have increased, as have expectations and utilization,” he added. With more users and higher bandwidth consumption, the back-to-front deployment model struggled to keep up; Stewart and his colleagues started looking at other AP solutions like handrail encasements, under-seat APs, or some kind of hybrid.

Under-seat AP enclosure

The Superdome now features under-seat APs on its terrace level, with custom enclosures supplied by Airwae and is moving to under-seat APs in its lower bowl. For concerts or spectacles like Wrestlemania that require seating on what might otherwise be the Saints’ 50-yard line, ASM sets up folding chairs on the floor, and zip-ties AP enclosures beneath them. Cable runs between the APs and the network ports are never longer than 50 feet, Stewart explained.

“Covering the floor is always difficult,” he added. “But deploying portable networks designed specifically for an event is something every multi-event venue must do.”

All told, the Superdome is up to 2,027 APs across the complex, which includes 410 newly installed APs in the lower bowl of the Superdome, all under seat. The upgrade is a sizeable increase from the previous 1,400 APs, which translates to approximately $7 million for the upgrade (Stewart wouldn’t divulge the exact amount). But he did say that physical infrastructure, cabling pathways and manpower account for 60 percent of a new install budget; 30 percent is typically hardware and licenses, and 10 percent goes to project management and design configuration.

Unlike most AP enclosures, those in the Superdome don’t rest on the ground; they’re bolted to the riser with about an inch of clearance at the bottom. Though most open-air venues power-wash their stands after an event, standing water doesn’t work inside the Superdome — moisture and its companions, rust and mold, are big issues. So Superdome officials procured an AP enclosure design that could be mopped under.

Keeping fans connected while they roam

Another aspect of the Superdome’s Wi-Fi installation is its focus on roaming, similar to the way cellular users get passed from antenna to antenna as they traverse an area. “We’ve designed Wi-Fi networks that onboard you, and the APs hand you off to the other APs,” Stewart explained. If users had to be re-associated with the Superdome’s Wi-Fi each time they activate their phone or move around the venue, that reduces airtime availability for them and the people around them, he added.

New APs were also added outside the stadium

Regular Wi-Fi tuning is also essential to ensure efficiency and quality; the Superdome uses use Cisco’s adaptive radio management (ARM) to help tune and optimize its Wi-Fi for crowd sizes, event types and different locations around the dome. “We assign different power ranges and different channels or available sets of channels to each access point or group of APs,” Stewart said.

The new APs have already spurred an uptick in connectivity and usage. Take rates are up to 70 percent with the under-seat APs according to Stewart. And about half of those users are actively uploading and downloading data, quadruple what he saw two or three years ago – and those numbers are climbing.

The Superdome is a Cisco shop; Stewart and his crew have been installing the vendor’s 4800 series APs and using the 802.11ac standard, also known as Wi-Fi 5. Next-generation APs, 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6, are on Stewart’s radar and there’s a longer term transition strategy. While he sees Wi-Fi 6 as the future, he also knows the move will require a back-end upgrade, since legacy controllers don’t support an .ax solution.

“Since the pathway is such a high percentage of the cost, those AC enclosures will be re-useable,” Stewart said. The new enclosures are also designed to accommodate a larger cable size if needed.

Stewart likes the efficiencies that Wi-Fi 6’s OFDMA feature can wring out of the radio spectrum, coupled with its multi-user scheduling of the same frequencies, all of which will make a big impact on airtime performance. But Wi-Fi 6 benefits won’t truly be realized until most user devices support the standard. Right now only a small handful of devices (including the Apple iPhone 11 line) support Wi-Fi 6.

But Stewart and his team have a carrot to motivate them toward Wi-Fi 6 APs. A couple carrots, in fact: The NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2022, then Super Bowl 58 in 2024 (the fourth time the dome will host the NFL championship). They’re looking to ensure the best fan experience possible and that means plentiful bandwidth and seamless connectivity.

Stewart said it will take about 18 months to start the Wi-Fi 6 design and procurement process; they expect to start the project in 24 months and have it completed a year later, well in time for the Super Bowl.

“Part of our strategy is to have phased upgrades year by year to stay relevant and improve the customer experience,” Stewart explained. “Digital menus, better DAS, better Wi-Fi – we have to be attentive to what our fans want and deliver it year after year.”

New Report: Oklahoma leads the way with Wi-Fi 6

MOBILE SPORTS REPORT is pleased to announce the Winter 2019-20 issue of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series, the ONLY in-depth publication created specifically for the stadium technology professional and the stadium technology marketplace.

Our latest issue contains an in-person report on the new Wi-Fi 6 network installed at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, and another in-person visit to see and test the new Wi-Fi network at Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka “The Swamp.” This issue also has an in-person look at the wireless networks at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum and at Chase Center, the new San Francisco home of the Golden State Warriors.

You can READ THE REPORT LIVE right now in our new flip-page format, with no registration required! (Great for tablets and big phone reads!) You can also DOWNLOAD THE REPORT in PDF format as well!

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Mobilitie, JMA Wireless, Corning, Boingo, MatSing, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, Oberon, and ExteNet Systems. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our ongoing partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank the SEAT community for your continued interest and support.

As always, we are here to hear what you have to say: Send me an email to kaps@mobilesportsreport.com and let us know what you think of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series.

VenueNext debuts new strategy, products at University of Florida

VenueNext powers a new app at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where it also debuted new products like a POS system and a web-based app. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Created in 2014 to provide stadium apps for sports teams, VenueNext has pivoted toward focusing on mobile commerce services, a strategy that includes building web-based apps for teams, schools and other large public venues as well as for big events.

Though the company hasn’t completely given up on building team and stadium apps, executives at VenueNext pointed toward the company’s partnership with the University of Florida as a good example of its new strategic focus. In addition to providing the school with a stadium app that launched this fall, VenueNext also debuted its back-house point-of-sale transaction system at Florida, as well as a web-based app for stadium services and purchases. According to VenueNext executives, the new offerings are part of a new focus on mobile transactions, one that de-emphasizes the company’s former goal of providing full-service, custom-built apps with a wide range of features, including concessions ordering, instant replay video, venue wayfinding and loyalty programs.

Cailen Wachob, VenueNext’s executive vice president for sales, retention, marketing and operations, said “we’ve been pretty quiet about it” in regards to the company’s new offerings and strategies. Originally launched as the provider of the team and stadium app for the San Francisco 49ers and Levi’s Stadium, VenueNext raised $24 million in venture funding to fuel a push into what looked like a burgeoning market for team and stadium apps as venues became increasingly connected.

After an initial flurry of professional team customer wins, including other NFL teams like the Minnesota Vikings, NBA teams including the Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets and Utah Jazz, and the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, VenueNext did not have any big-name announcements in the past year. In mid-2018, VenueNext founding CEO John Paul was replaced by Orlando Perez, former chief marketing officer for the Orlando Magic, a point at which the company “took a step back to look at what we wanted to do, moving forward,” Wachob said.

An express pickup window for concession orders made on the Florida app.

What that turned into was a new focus more on helping teams, venues and events with mobile commerce activities, rather than a strict direction of just providing a do-everything app with bells and whistles like instant replay video. That combination proved alluring for Florida, which is VenueNext’s first big-college customer.

“We wanted to pick a lane and focus on that, rather than be a custom developer shop,” Wachob said. That means that while VenueNext will still build team apps, it may use third-party functionality as needed.

“We’re more focused on the venue commerce utility,” Wachob said. “We’re not going to be focused on building out things like replay and video.”

Tough market, lots of competition

Since VenueNext’s launch, the stadium and team app has gotten extremely competitive, with multiple players joining the game. Early market leader YinzCam remains the player with the most customers, but it has been joined by a list of providers that includes Venuetize, Hopscotch, Built.io and Rover.io as well as older apps from operations like CBS Interactive and Sidearm Sports. The problem all app providers face, however, is the lukewarm adoption of stadium apps by fans in general. While teams and venues all tout the idea of a stadium app as a way for fans to have a so-called “remote control” for their game-day visits, the reality is that most fans don’t download or use the apps widely, except when forced to for things like digital ticketing.

Screenshot of the web-app ordering system at Florida.

While teams and venues (and the app providers) may claim that fans use stadium apps, the reality is that actual statistics for fan app use are rarely ever provided. In the few instances where teams or venues do provide statistics for things like app usage at games, team and stadium apps fall far behind general-purpose mobile apps like social media apps, email and application updates.

In-venue transactions, however, do offer a way for teams and venues to lure fans to an app or web platform, either by requiring it (in the case of digital ticketing) or by making it an attractive feature, by supporting things like in-seat delivery, raffles and games, order-ahead concessions or in-venue “experience” purchases like seat upgrades or things like on-field tours, or meet-the-players gatherings.

VenueNext famously had an ambitious goal of providing in-seat concessions delivery services for all seating areas at Levi’s Stadium, but that program was shelved in 2017 after limited use and challenges in providing the service to 70,000-plus potential customers.

What has emerged in the market as a more manageable solution are less-ambitious programs like offering delivery to limited seating areas (usually premium club areas) or mobile order-ahead services with express window pickup. The app for Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium offers the latter, with several areas around the venue having pick-up windows set aside for the mobile orders.

POS, kiosk ordering and web-based apps

Wachob said that Florida was also the first live customer for VenueNext’s new POS software system, a product that puts VenueNext into competition with players like Oracle’s Micros and Appetize. The system supports 180 different stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which Wachob said had previously used a cash-drawer system. VenueNext’s website also now includes promotion of kiosk-based self-serve concession systems, a rapidly growing service in sports venues.

VenueNext also rolled out its first live web-based app for Florida, where fans can interact with venue services without having to download an app. Once an unthinkable move for a company devoted to apps, the new service even has its own name and website, ordernext.com, linked to the main VenueNext site. The ordernext platform at Florida provided a way for fans to simply click on a link that said “Water Me” to get cold water delivered to seats in the stadium’s sunny section. Wachob said the site also allowed fans to purchase in-venue experiences, like an on-field pass or a visit with the Gator mascots.

“The new app and POS technology makes concessions better for everyone, it’s faster for those who order ahead of time, and the lines are shorter,” said Scott Stricklin, Florida’s athletic director.

The ordernext platform puts VenueNext into direct competition with providers like Rover.io, which tout the fast performance and greater flexibility of a web approach as opposed to a standalone app. Notably, Rover lists the Vikings and the Hornets as customers, even though those teams also have a VenueNext app. Stadium tech integrator AmpThink helped launch a similar program a year ago at Texas A&M, where the 12thmanlive.com site provided quick links to contests, discounts and other game-day activities.

To VenueNext’s Wachob, not being religious about whether services are offered in an app or on the web is part of the company’s new focus on mobile commerce first.

“Sometimes fans at the venue might not want to download the app,” Wachob said. “The ability to just go to a site [for a transaction] is really powerful. That’s the power of mobile — allowing the fan to determine what’s important to them.”