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, ASM New Orleans’ manager of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (ASM is the entity that resulted from the September 2019 merger of Anschutz Entertainment Group and engineering 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.”

NFL exec: U.S. Bank Stadium Wi-Fi network ‘in a strong place’ ahead of Super Bowl LII

A Wi-Fi handrail enclosure at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Like many football fans, I was jaw-dropping excited while watching the Minnesota Vikings’ dramatic walk-off touchdown win in last Sunday’s playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. Unlike many football fans but probably more like our readership, my next thought while watching the celebrations was: I hope the Wi-Fi holds up!

According to a top NFL IT executive who was at the game, the Wi-Fi network at U.S. Bank Stadium was more than up to the load applied to it by the Vikings’ exciting win and victory celebration, a good stress test ahead of the stadium’s hosting of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4. “There were an amazing amount of [Wi-Fi] connections” after the game’s end, said Aaron Amendolia, vice president of IT in the NFL’s office of the CIO, in a phone interview Thursday.

The “massive spike” in connectivity after the game’s exciting conclusion produced numerous social media posts from fans present, mainly on Facebook and Snapchat, Amendolia said. Though he didn’t have full networking statistics from the game, Amendolia did share one interesting number, the fact that there were approximately 37,000 unique connections to the Wi-Fi network during the game — a total greater than that at last year’s Super Bowl LI in Houston, where 35,430 fans out of 71,795 in attendance at NRG Stadium used the Wi-Fi at some point. Attendance at Sunday’s playoff game in Minneapolis was 66,612.

“I feel we’re in a strong place now” with the Wi-Fi network at U.S. Bank Stadium, Amendolia said. “We’re hoping to set some new records.”

Still no sign of bandwidth demand decline

Amendolia, part of the NFL’s networking team that ensures good connectivity at the league’s championship event, said testing work on the AmpThink-designed network (which uses Cisco Wi-Fi gear) started last year, and then ramped up through the current season.

Seen in the main concourse at U.S. Bank Stadium: Two IPTV screens, one Wi-Fi AP and a DAS antenna. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“Starting with the presason [games] we had staff sitting in seats, doing Facebook, visiting websites,” said Amendolia. “The unique architecture in each stadium makes Wi-Fi [performance] unique. We had people sitting in odd corners, and next to big concrete structures.”

Ever since Wi-Fi has been a part of Super Bowls, the total data used and numbers of fans connecting have steadily increased each year, always setting current records for single-day use of a large venue network. At Super Bowl 49 in 2015, fans used 6.23 terabytes of data on the Wi-Fi network at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.; the next year, it was 10.1 TB of Wi-Fi at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.; and last year at NRG Stadium in Houston there was 11.8 TB of Wi-Fi data used. (Cellular data use on stadium DAS networks has also increased apace, from almost 16 TB at Super Bowl 50 to more than 25.8 TB last year.)

What’s interesting is that networking usage totals for games the following NFL season usually increase as well, not to Super Bowl levels but surpassing marks from years before. For this season’s opening game at the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, the Wi-Fi network there saw 8.08 TB of data used, a mark that trails only the last two Super Bowls.

“Super Bowls set the benchmark for the next season,” said Amendolia, who agrees that there may never be an end to the growth.

“Even if [current] usage levels off, there’s new technology like augmented reality and wearable glasses,” Amendolia said. “How does that change the future?”

NFL Stadium Tech Reviews — NFC South

Editor’s note: The following team-by-team capsule reports of NFL stadium technology deployments are an excerpt from our most recent Stadium Tech Report, THE PRO FOOTBALL ISSUE. To get all the capsules in one place as well as our featured reports, interviews and analysis, download your free copy of the full report today.

NFC SOUTH

Reporting by Paul Kapustka

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 4.57.13 PMNew Orleans Saints
Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Seating Capacity: 76,468
Wi-Fi – Yes
DAS – Yes

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Superdome remains a signal of the region’s recovery. Inside the dome, the Wi-Fi installed before the most recent Super Bowl there is still going strong.

Atlanta Falcons
Georgia Dome
Seating Capacity: 71,280
Wi-Fi – Yes
DAS – Yes

Even as they wait for the technological wonder that is the coming next year at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (with fiber-based Wi-Fi from IBM and Corning), Falcons fans still have way better than average connectivity inside the Georgia Dome, where a Cisco-powered network provides access to mobile treats like instant replays from multiple camera angles.

Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium
Seating Capacity: 74,455
Wi-Fi – Yes
DAS – Yes

Bank of America Stadium completely replaced its DAS solution during the offseason with a new Commscope ION-U system. The new DAS is owned by the Panthers directly and includes Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint as participants. Look for the stadium to completely replace its Wi-Fi system this coming offseason, with a new 1,200-AP network for the 2016 season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Raymond James Stadium
Seating Capacity: 65,890
Wi-Fi – Yes
DAS – Yes

Raymond James Stadium got free fan-facing Wi-Fi for the 2012 season, but since then we haven’t heard anything about upgrades to the system. With the college playoff championship game coming in 2017, however, you can probably expect to see connectivity improvements coming soon.

Wireless Whispers: Montreal Canadiens get Avaya Wi-Fi; Chargers, Clemson lead latest AT&T DAS totals

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 11.07.33 AMThe Montreal Canadiens will have Wi-Fi for fans in the 21,000-seat Bell Centre this season, thanks to a deployment from Avaya.

We haven’t yet had a chance to speak with the Canadiens’ IT folks, but according to a press release from Avaya the deployment has nearly 500 Wi-Fi access points, “ensuring that visitors get Wi-Fi no matter where they are in the facility.” Any visitors to games this year, please let us know if that connectivity is so!

Looking over the Avaya press materials, it appears that the Bell Centre (CentreBell?) has been a customer of Avaya technology for some time now, as the company said the stadium also uses Avaya’s Fabric Connect at the network core, as well as “an Avaya telephony platform on Avaya Aura Contact Centre.” (Is it only called “contact centre” in Canada?) We’ll keep an eye on the Bell Centre/CentreBell to see if the Avaya team is able to power any new fan engagement features thanks to the new wireless network.

As far as we know, this is the first public confirmation of an Avaya Wi-Fi network in an NHL arena. And while it’s not yet been publicly announced, we know from sources close to the company that Avaya is also behind a new Wi-Fi network at the Pepsi Center in Denver, home of the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets; more on that deployment coming soon! Of course, Avaya built the Wi-Fi network at the new San Jose Earthquakes’ soccer pitch, Avaya Stadium.

Chargers, Clemson top AT&T DAS stats for Oct. 3-4 weekend

Exciting football games seem to go hand in hand with lots of DAS network usage — at least that seems to be the case after viewing another week of statistics from the folks at AT&T’s stadium DAS department. According to AT&T, fans at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium used the most DAS traffic at NFL games the weekend of Oct. 3-4, with 1.130 terabytes of DAS traffic consumed during the Bolts’ 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns. Remember, these stats are ONLY for AT&T network traffic ONLY at the stadiums where AT&T has a DAS deployment. So there may be other stadiums that have higher DAS stats, but ONLY AT&T sends us DAS data, so… you see the scores we get. New Orleans’ Superdome was second that weekend with 965 GB, followed by Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., where fans at the Niners-Packers game used 835 GB of DAS data (in addition to the 2.12 TB of Wi-Fi data).

On the college side, the orange britches of the Clemson Tigers were successful once again, as Clemson defeated then-No. 6 Notre Dame 24-22 in a nail-biter. Fans at the 81,500-seat Memorial Stadium used a whopping 1.475 TB of wireless data, according to AT&T. In second on the college stats that weekend was Texas A&M’s Kyle Field with another big number, 1.116 TB of data used.

Stadium Tech Report — NFL stadium technology reports — NFC South

Editor’s note: The following team-by-team capsule reports of NFL stadium technology deployments are an excerpt from our most recent Stadium Tech Report, THE FOOTBALL ISSUE. To get all the capsules in one place as well as our featured reports, interviews and analysis, download your free copy of the full report today.

NFC SOUTH

Reporting by Chris Gallo

Atlanta Falcons
Georgia Dome
Seating Capacity: 71,280
Wi-Fi – Yes, approximately 500 access points
DAS-Yes
Beaconing – No

Last year’s 4-12 record came as a surprise to Falcons fans after three straight playoff seasons. With lots of talent on the field, the fans are looking forward to a rebound year. And they’ll get to follow the team with ease as the multi-venue Georgia Dome features 500 Wi-Fi access points from Cisco.

Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium
Seating Capacity: 74,455
Wi-Fi – Yes, 645 access points
DAS-Yes
Beaconing – No

Bank of America Stadium receives a Wi-Fi boost from AT&T in 2014. Now with 645-plus Wi-Fi access points, Panthers fans should find it a little easier to share that photo of Cam Newton’s touchdown celebration. Will they be able to do so for another home playoff game?

New Orleans Saints
Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Seating Capacity: 76,468
Wi-Fi – Yes, 600+ access points
DAS-Yes
Beaconing – No

Remember the blackout from Super Bowl XLVII? How could you forget? The Superdome doesn’t. Good thing the versatile venue was prepared to keep fans connected with a robust DAS and more than 600 Cisco Wi-Fi access points. Saints fans will have plenty to share on game days with a high-powered offense back in 2014.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Raymond James Stadium
Seating Capacity: 65,890
Wi-Fi-Yes
DAS-Yes
Beaconing – No

After installing Wi-Fi in 2012 and releasing an updated team mobile app in 2013, Tampa Bay delayed plans to enhance the stadium’s video boards in the offseason. The reason? The organization wants to supersize the upgrades with larger screen sizes and video replay capability. Owned by the Tampa Bay Sports Authority, Raymond James Stadium has secured the 2017 College Football National Championship game. This means Bucs fans can expect the game day experience to continue to improve in the coming years.

Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi update: Usage down from record, but still strong — 2.4 TB for Eagles game

Fans take pictures of opening-day kickoff from southwest concourse. Credit, all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Fans take pictures of opening-day kickoff from southwest concourse. Credit, all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

With three NFL games and now one collegiate contest under its belt, the Wi-Fi network at Levi’s Stadium is still handling big loads of data traffic, though not quite at the Super Bowl-beating level of 3.3 Terabytes recorded at the Niners’ home opener.

According to statistics provided by Niners vice president for technology Dan Williams, the Levi’s Wi-Fi network carried 2.4 TB of data during the Sept. 28 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and another 2 TB during the Oct. 5 contest with the Kansas City Chiefs, both sellouts with reported attendance of 70,799 fans. And at an Oct. 24 college game between Cal and Oregon with 55,575 fans in attendance, the network carried 1.5 TB of traffic.

As you might be able to guess from the bandwidth numbers, the Sept. 28 game also had more users on the network, with 22,942 unique users, compared to 21,133 at the Oct. 5 game. For Cal-Oregon the unique user count was 13,508. At the Niners’ regular-season home opener on Sept. 14, there were more than 30,000 fans using the Wi-Fi network, with a peak of 19,000 simultaneous connections. The peak numbers for the later dates were 15,500 for the Sept. 28 game, 14,500 for the Oct. 5 game, and 8,400 for the college game.

In-seat and express food orders stay strong

Screen grab from Levi's Stadium app showing in-seat food delivery option. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report.

Screen grab from Levi’s Stadium app showing in-seat food delivery option.

Food and beverage orders via the Levi’s Stadium app appear to be holding between the 1,500-2,000 order level for both the express pickup option as well as the in-seat delivery, with both features available to every seat in the house. According to Williams, for the Eagles game there were 1,144 express pick-up orders and 1,652 in-seat deliveries, while at the Kansas City game there were 1,162 express and 1,712 in-seat orders. At the Cal-Oregon game, where many fans were probably not as aware of the Levi’s app functionality, there were 551 express orders and 308 in-seat deliveries.

The video-replay feature of the Levi’s app also continues to attract solid interest, with 1,297 unique users watching 5,089 replays at the Eagles game and 1,111 unique users watching 4,986 replays at the Kansas City game. At the college game 234 fans used the replay feature, watching 1,059 replays.

One more interesting stat provided by Williams — the Apple iPhone is the overwhelming favorite device for connecting to the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi, with 62 percent share for the Sept. 28 game, and 60 percent share for both the Oct. 5 and Oct. 24 games. Android devices represented 24 percent (Sept. 28), 26 percent (Oct. 5) and 25 percent of all devices, while Apple iPads accounted for 2 percent, 3 percent and 1 percent of devices for the respective Sept. 28, Oct. 5 and Oct. 24 games.

DAS usage also remains strong, but not tops in NFL

On the DAS side of the Levi’s Stadium network we have some stats from AT&T to share (but none from any other carriers). According to AT&T, for the Oct. 5 game AT&T customers used 549 GB of data, which was only the fourth-highest AT&T DAS total for that weekend. Dallas (827 GB), San Diego (716 GB) and New Orleans (598 GB) all had higher AT&T DAS traffic totals for that weekend’s games. (Remember, these are results for stadiums with AT&T DAS networks only, not for all stadiums.) For the Sept. 14 game, the Levi’s Stadium AT&T DAS recorded 673 GB of traffic, according to AT&T.