T-Mobile steps up stadium DAS participation, ahead of 5G future

DAS gear at Kauffman Stadium. Credit: ADRF video

T-Mobile has stepped up its participation in stadium DAS deployments recently, ahead of what the wireless carrier sees as an eventual shift to 5G technologies sometime in the near future.

Recent news announcements of T-Mobile being the first carrier to participate in the new forthcoming distributed antenna system (DAS) at Wrigley Field, as well as joining DAS deployments at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field and Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium are proof that T-Mobile is making up for lost ground in the stadium cellular deployment arena.

“It’s a catch-up play, to some degree,” said Dave Mayo, senior vice president of network technology at T-Mobile. While Mayo spent most of a recent phone interview with Mobile Sports Report talking about the promise of future 5G cellular technologies, he did acknowledge that T-Mobile was more aggressively pursuing DAS deals in the moment, to make sure T-Mobile customers could connect when they were at large public venues.

“When they get to the venue, customers expect to be able to post to Instagram and Facebook,” Mayo said. “It’s table stakes.”

In Chicago, the world champion Cubs are looking to 2018 for the arrival of their renovated Wi-Fi and DAS infrastructure. According to DAS deployer DAS Group Professionals, T-Mobile is the first of the cellular carriers to sign on to the neutral-host system.

At the Kansas City Royals’ Kauffman Stadium, the new DAS built by Advanced RF Technologies Inc. (ADRF) and Sprint in 2015 will welcome T-Mobile to the system this month, with AT&T and Verizon Wireless expected to join sometime later this year, according to ADRF. And earlier this year, Texas A&M announced a $3.5 million deal for T-Mobile to join the DAS at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, which previously had AT&T and Verizon as participants.

Looking ahead to 5G

But even as T-Mobile announces its participation in traditional DAS deployment deals — where other carriers or third-party operators may be in charge — Mayo said venues need to rethink their cellular strategies for the coming of 5G, a still loosely-defined set of technologies that will nevertheless be much different than the current standard of 4G LTE.

“5G is going to become available in the next 2 to 3 years, so now is the time to start thinking about this,” Mayo said. With much different transmission frequencies in the millimeter wave zones, the idea is that 5G could theoretically support much higher data rates than current cellular technology. The one drawback of higher-range frequencies, that being shorter distance ranges for signals, may not be a big problem in stadiums since antennas are usually placed closer together than those in other environments.

How the DAS model will or will not translate to a 5G future is a topic already widely talked about in industry circles, and Mayo said current deployment agreements may not work well going forward.

“The whole [deployment] model has to change,” Mayo said. “And the time to start changing that is now.”

Texas A&M’s Kyle Field: A network built for speed

Full house at Kyle Field. All Photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Full house at Kyle Field. All Photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Is there a combined stadium Wi-Fi and DAS deployment that is as fast as the one found at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field? If so, we haven’t seen or heard of it.

In fact, after reviewing loads of live network-performance data of Kyle Field’s new Wi-Fi and DAS in action, and after maxing out the top levels on our speed tests time after time during an informal walk-around on a game day, we’ve come to the conclusion that Kyle Field has itself a Spinal Tap of a wireless deployment. Meaning, that if other stadium networks stop at 10, this one goes to 11.

Movie references aside, quite simply, by the numbers Kyle Field’s wireless network performance is unequaled by any other large public venue’s we’ve tested in terms of raw speed and the ability to deliver bandwidth. With DAS and Wi-Fi speed measurements ranging between 40 Mbps and 60+ Mbps pretty much everywhere we roamed inside the 102,512-seat venue, it’s a safe bet to say that the school’s desire to “build the best network” in a stadium hit its goal as best as it could.

Editor’s note: This story is part of our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the COLLEGE FOOTBALL ISSUE. The 40+ page report, which includes profiles of stadium deployments at Texas A&M, Kansas State, Ole Miss and Oklahoma, is available for FREE DOWNLOAD from our site. Get your copy today!

On one hand, the network’s top-line performance is not that much of a surprise, since as part of an overall Kyle Field renovation that has already cost an estimated $485 million, the optical-based Wi-Fi, DAS and IPTV deployment inside the Aggies’ football palace is probably among the most expensive and expansive in-venue networks ever built. According to Phillip Ray, Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs at The Texas A&M University System, the total cost of the optical-based Wi-Fi, DAS and IPTV network was “somewhere north of $20 million.”

Remote optical cabinet and Wi-Fi AP at Kyle Field.

Remote optical cabinet and Wi-Fi AP at Kyle Field.

And even though the nation’s biggest cellular carriers, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, paid nearly half the network’s cost – $10 million, according to Ray – with the dedication and work crews brought to the table by main suppliers IBM and Corning, and Wi-Fi gear vendor Aruba, you have components, expertise and budgetary freedom that perhaps only a small group of venue owners could hope to match.

But just throwing money and technology at a stadium doesn’t necessarily produce a great network. In a venue the size of the new Kyle Field there needs to be great care and innovative thinking behind antenna placement and tuning, and in that arena Texas A&M also had the guiding hand of AmpThink, a small firm with oversized smarts in Wi-Fi deployment, as evidenced by its impressive track record of helping wireless deployments at the biggest events including several recent Super Bowls.

The core decision to go with optical for the network’s guts, and a tactical decision to put a huge chunk of the Wi-Fi APs in under-seat deployments are just part of the strategy that produced a network that – in A&M fan parlance – can “BTHO” (Beat The Hell Out) of most challengers.

Since it’s almost impossible to directly compare stadiums and venue network performances due to all the possible variables, you’ll never hear us at Mobile Sports Report declare a “champion” when it comes to click-bait themes like “the most connected stadium ever.” Given its remote location some three hours south of Dallas in College Station, Texas, Kyle Field will almost certainly never face the ultimate “big game” pressures of a Super Bowl or a College Football Playoff championship, so the network may never know the stress such large, bucket-list gatherings can produce. And so far, there aren’t many ambitious fan-facing applications that use the network, like in-seat food delivery or wayfinding apps found in other stadiums.

But as part of the football-crazy SEC, and as the altar of pigskin worship for some of the most dedicated fans seen anywhere, Kyle Field is sure to see its share of sellout contests against SEC rivals that will push wireless usage to new heights, especially as more fans learn about and use the still-new system. Though total Wi-Fi usage at the Nov. 7 game we attended versus Auburn (a 26-10 Texas A&M loss) was “only” 2.94 terabytes – a total hampered by cold, windy and rainy conditions – an Oct. 17 game earlier in the season against Alabama saw 5.7 TB of Wi-Fi usage on the Kyle Field network, a number surpassed only by last year’s Super Bowl (with 6.2 TB of Wi-Fi use) in terms of total tonnage.

At the very least, the raw numbers of total attendees and the obvious strength of the still-new network is sure to guarantee that Kyle Field’s wireless deployment will be one of the most analyzed stadium networks for the foreseeable future.

Texas A&M student recording the halftime show.

Texas A&M student recording the halftime show.

What follows are some on-the-spot observations from our visit, which was aided by the guidance and hospitality of Corning project manager Sean Heffner, who played “tour guide” for part of the day, giving us behind-the-scenes access and views of the deployment that are unavailable to the general fan audience.

An off-campus DAS head end

This story starts not inside Kyle Field, but in a section of town just over three miles away from the stadium, on a muddy road that curves behind a funky nursery growing strange-looking plants. A gray metal box, like a big warehouse, is our destination, and the only clue as to what’s inside is the big antenna located right next to it. This structure is the Kyle Field DAS head end, where cellular carrier equipment connects to the fiber network that will bring signals to and from fans inside the stadium.

Why is the head end so far away? According to Corning’s Heffner there was no room for this huge space inside the stadium. But thanks to the use of optical fiber, the location is not a problem since signals traveling at the speed of light makes 3.3 miles an insignificant span.

It might be helpful to back up a bit if you haven’t heard the full story of the Kyle Field deployment, which we told last year when the job was halfway completed. Though the rebuilding of the stadium was started with copper-based networks as the original plan, a last-minute audible championed by Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp sent the school on a decidedly untraditional path, by building a stadium network with a single optical-based core for Wi-Fi, DAS and IPTV networks. The kicker? Not only would this network have huge capacity and be future-proof against growth, it would actually cost less than a comparable copper-based deployment. If it got built on time, that is.

Though the pitch for better performance, far more capacity, use of less space, and cheaper costs might sound a bit too good to believe, most of it is just the combination of the simple physics advantages of using fiber over copper, which are well known in the core telecom and large-enterprise networking worlds, applied to a stadium situation.

One of the many maxed-out speed tests we took at Texas A&M's Kyle Field.

One of the many maxed-out speed tests we took at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field.

Without going too deeply into the physics or technology, a simple explanation of the benefits stem from the fact that optical fiber can carry far more bandwidth than copper, at farther distances, using less power. Those advantages are why fiber is used extensively in core backbone networks, and has been creeping slowly closer to the user’s destination, through deployments like Verizon’s FiOS.

And that’s also the reason why Texas A&M could put its DAS head end out in a field where it’s easier to add to (no space constraints), because the speed of fiber makes distance somewhat irrelevant. Corning’s Heffner also said that the DAS can be managed remotely, so that staff doesn’t need to be physically present to monitor the equipment.

Of course, there was the small matter of digging trenches for optical fibers to get from the head end to the stadium, but again, for this project it is apparent that getting things done was more important than strictly worrying about costs. Beyond the cash that the carriers all put in, other vendors and construction partners all put in some extra efforts or resources – in part, probably because the value of positive publicity for being part of such an ambitious undertaking makes any extra costs easy to justify.

Keeping the best fans connected and happy

From the head end, the fiber winds its way past apartment buildings and a golf course to get to Kyle Field, the center of the local universe on football game days. Deep inside the bowels of the venue is where the fiber meets networking gear, in a room chilled to the temperature of firm ice cream. Here is where the human element that helps keep the network running spends its game days, wearing fleece and ski jackets no matter what the temperature is outside.

See the white dots? Those are under-seat Wi-Fi APs

See the white dots? Those are under-seat Wi-Fi APs

In addition to Corning, IBM and AmpThink employees, this room during our visit also had a representative from YinzCam in attendance, a rarity for a company that prides itself on being able to have its stadium and team apps run without local supervision. But with YinzCam recently named as a partner to IBM’s nascent stadium technology practice, it’s apparent that the Kyle Field network is more than just a great service for the fans in the seats – it’s also a proof of concept network that is being closely watched by all the entities that helped bring it together, who for many reasons want to be able to catch any issues before they become problems.

How big and how ambitious is the Kyle Field network? From the outset, Corning and IBM said the Wi-Fi network part was designed to support 100,000 connections at a speed of 2 Mbps, so that if everyone in the stadium decided to log on, they’d all have decent bandwidth. But so far, that upper level hasn’t been tested yet.

What happened through the first season was a “take rate” averaging in the 35,000-37,000 range, meaning that during a game day, roughly one-third of the fans in attendance used the Wi-Fi at some point. The average concurrent user peaks – the highest numbers of fans using the network at the same time – generally averaged in the mid-20,000 range, according to figures provided by Corning and AmpThink; so instead of 100,000 fans connecting at 2 Mbps, this season there was about a quarter of that number connecting at much higher data rates, if our ad hoc speed tests are any proof.

Our first test that Saturday [Nov. 7, 2015], just inside a lower-level service entryway, hit 41.35 Mbps for download and 18.67 on the upload, on a Verizon iPhone 6 Plus over the stadium’s DAS. And yes, that download speed was the slowest we’d record all day, either on the DAS or the Wi-Fi.

Inside the control room we spent some time with AmpThink CEO Bill Anderson, who could probably use up an entire football game talking about Wi-Fi network deployment strategies if he didn’t have a big network to watch. On this Saturday the top things we learned about Kyle Field is that Anderson and AmpThink are solid believers in under-seat AP placements for performance reasons; according to Anderson at Kyle Field, fully 669 of the stadium’s 1,300 APs can be found underneath seats. Anderson also is a stickler for “real” Wi-Fi usage measurements, like trying to weed out devices that may have autoconnected to the Wi-Fi network but not used it from the “unique user” totals – and to take bandwidth measurements at the network firewall, to truly see how much “live” bandwidth is coming and going.

On the road to College Station, Aggie pride is everywhere. Whoop!

On the road to College Station, Aggie pride is everywhere. Whoop!

AmpThink’s attention to detail includes deploying and configuring APs differently depending on which section they are located in – student sections, for example, are more densely packed with people than other sections so the APs need different tuning. Corning’s Heffner also said that the oDAS – the DAS just outside the stadium – got special attention due to the large numbers of tailgating fans, both before and during the games. At the Alabama game, Heffner said there were some 30,000 fans who remained outside the stadium during the contest, never coming inside but still wanting to participate in the scene.

AmpThink, Corning, IBM and others involved at Kyle Field all seem keen on finding out just how much bandwidth stadium fans will use if you give them unlimited access. The guess? According to Corning’s Heffner, the mantra of stadium networks these days seems to be: “If you provide more capacity, it gets consumed.”

The ‘real’ 12th man

After walking through a tunnel with a nearly full cable tray overhead (“It’d be even more loaded if we were using copper,” Heffner said) we went out into the stadium itself, which was just starting to fill. Though the overcast day and intermittment rain squalls might have kept other teams’ fans from showing up for a 5:30 p.m. local start time, that simply wasn’t the case at an A&M home game.

Some of the Wi-FI and DAS download measurements we took at Kyle Field.

Some of the Wi-FI and DAS download measurements we took at Kyle Field.

As someone who’s attended a countless number of football games, small and large – including a Super Bowl and last year’s inaugural College Football Playoff championship game – I can honestly say that the level of fan participation at Texas A&M is like nothing I’d seen before. The student section alone spans two decks on the stadium’s east side and takes up 40,000 seats, according to stadium officials – simply dwarfing anything I’d ever witnessed. (Out of an enrollment of 57,000+, having 40,000 students attend games is incredible.) And outside of small high school crowds I’d never seen an entire full stadium participate in all the school songs, the “yells” (do NOT call them “cheers” here) and the locked-arms back-and-forth “sawing” dance without any need for scoreboard instruction.

Part of the stadium renovation that closed the structure into a bowl was, according to school officials, designed to make Kyle Field even more intimidating than it already was, by increasing the sound levels possible. Unfortunately the night of our visit some early Auburn scores took some of the steam out of the crowd, and a driving, chilling rain that appeared just before halftime sent a good part of the crowd either home or into the concourses looking for warmth and shelter. (The next day, several columnists in the local paper admonished the fans who left early for their transgressions; how dare they depart a game whose outcome was still in doubt?)

But I’ll never forget the power of the synchronized “yells” of tens of thousands of fans during pregame, and the roar that surfaced when former Aggie QB Johnny Manziel made a surprise appearance on the field before kickoff. Seattle Seahawks fans may stake the pro claim to fan support, but if you want to determine the “real” 12th man experience you need to stop by Kyle Field and give your ears a taste of loud.

Controlling the TV with the app

If the students and alumni and other fans outside provide the vocal power, the money power that helped get the stadium rebuilt can be found in the new Kyle Field suites and premium seating areas, some of which are found on the venue’s west side, which was blown up last December and rebuilt in time for this past season.

Conduit reaching to an under-seat AP

Conduit reaching to an under-seat AP

Inside the All American Club – a behind-the-walls gathering area with catered food and bars that would not seem out of place in Levi’s Stadium or AT&T Stadium – we tested the Wi-Fi and got speeds of 63 Mbps down, 69 Mbps up; Verizon’s 4G LTE service on the DAS hit 48 Mbps/14.78 Mbps, while AT&T’s 4G LTE DAS checked in at 40 Mbps/22 Mbps.

In an actual suite where we were allowed to check out the IPTV displays, the speed tests got 67/67 for Wi-Fi and 57/12 for Verizon 4G LTE. So the well-heeled backers of A&M football shouldn’t have any problems when it comes to connectivity.

As for the IPTV controls, the new system from YinzCam solves one of the problems that’s plagued stadium suites since there’s been suites: What do you do with the TV remote? What YinzCam did for Texas A&M was link the TV controls to a Texas A&M “TV Remote” app; by simply punching in a numerical code that appears on the bottom of the screen in front of you, anyone with access to a suite or club area with TVs can change the channel to a long list of selections, including multiple live game-day views (stadium screen, broadcast view) as well as to other channels, like other games on the ESPN SEC network.

By having a static code number for each TV and another set of numbers that randomly scrambles over time, the system smartly builds security into the channel changing system, and prevents someone who had been in a suite previously from being able to change the channels after they leave. The whole remote-control process took less than a minute to learn, and we had fun wandering through the club-level areas our pass gave us access to, changing screens as we saw fit.

Our favorite places to watch the game at Kyle Field were the loge-level lounges, where you could first purchase food and beverages, including alcoholic ones, at an inside bar and then sit at an outside seat with a small-screen TV in front of you for information overload. The Wi-Fi in the southwest corner loge lounge checked in at 67.03/62.93, so it was no problem being connected via mobile device, either.

What comes next for the Kyle Field network?

Even though the rain had started coming down harder, we left the comfort and warmth of the club levels to wander around the stadium’s upper decks, including the student section, where we watched numerous fans taking pictures or videos of the band’s halftime performance. Clearly most everyone in Kyle Field had gotten the message and wasn’t afraid that they won’t connect if they use their mobile device at the game, even among 102,000 of their closest friends.

Antennas on flag poles atop seating

Antennas on flag poles atop seating

The question now for Kyle Field is what does it do next with its network? The most obvious place for innovation or new features is with a stadium-centric app, one that could provide services like a wayfinding map. Maybe it was our round-the-stadium wandering that produced confusion finding our way around, but any building that seats 102,000 plus could use an interactive map. It might also be interesting to tie a map to concessions – the night we visited, there were long lines at the few hot chocolate stands due to the cold weather; in such situations you could conceivably use the network to find out where hot chocolate stands were running low, maybe open new ones and alert fans through the app.

We’re guessing parking and ticketing functions might also be tied to the app in the future, but for now we’ll have to wait and see what happens. One thing in Kyle Field’s favor for the future: thanks to the capacity of the optical network buildout, the stadium already has thousands of spare fiber connections that aren’t currently being used. That means when it’s time to upgrade or add more DAS antennas, Wi-Fi APs or whatever comes next, Kyle Field is already wired to handle it.

For the Nov. 7 game at Kyle Field, the final numbers included 37,121 unique users of the Wi-Fi network, and a peak concurrent user number of 23,101 taken near the end of the 3rd quarter. The total traffic used on the Wi-Fi network that night was 2.94 TB, perhaps low or average for Kyle Field these days but it’s helpful to remember that just three years ago that was right around the total Wi-Fi data used at a Super Bowl.

Until the next IBM/Corning network gets built in Atlanta (at the Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, slated to open in 2017), the Kyle Field network will no doubt be the center of much stadium-technology market attention, especially if they ever do manage to get 100,000 fans to use the Wi-Fi all at once. While A&M’s on-the-field fortunes in the competitive SEC are a yearly question, the performance of the network in the Aggies’ stadium isn’t; right now it would certainly be one of the top four seeds, if not No. 1, if there was such a thing as a college stadium network playoff.

What we’re looking forward to is more data and more reports from a stadium with a network that can provide “that extra push over the edge” when fans want to turn their connectivity dial past 10. Remember, this one goes to 11. It’s one more.

(More photos below! And don’t forget to download your copy of the STADIUM TECH REPORT for more!)

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Panoramic view of Kyle Field before the 102,000 fans fill the seats.

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Some things at Kyle Field operate at ‘traditional’ speeds.

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Outside the south gate before the game begins.

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Overhang antenna in the middle section of the stadium.

Report excerpt: New Wi-Fi at Ole Miss

Game day at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. All photos: Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics (click on any photo for a larger image)

Game day at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. All photos: Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics (click on any photo for a larger image)

If you know anything about college football in general, and the SEC in particular, you know football in the south often means big crowds and fun game-day traditions. At the University of Mississippi — aka Ole Miss — you have the “Hotty Toddy” cheer and the renowned tailgating atmosphere in “the Grove.”

And now, you can add fan-facing Wi-Fi in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to the mix.

While some might fret that bringing high-speed wireless communications to football stadiums takes away from the live experience, the reality of life in today’s connected society is that people expect their mobile devices to work wherever they roam, even if it’s to a place where 60,580 of their closest friends also congregate, like they do at Vaught-Hemingway on Saturdays in the fall.

Add in the desire these days for football fans to share their live experiences with friends and others over social network sites, and you can see why the demand for mobile bandwidth is now as much a part of college football as marching bands and tailgating parties.

Through a partnership with wireless service provider C Spire, and using Wi-Fi gear from Xirrus, Ole Miss brought fan-facing Wi-Fi to Vaught-Hemingway stadium in 2014, and just finished up its second season of service. According to Michael Thompson, senior associate athletic director for communications and marketing at Ole Miss, the need for better stadium connectivity surfaced after the school started conducting fan experience research about 5 years ago.

“Connectivity was just one component” of the research, said Thompson, alongside questions about many different elements of the game-day experience including parking, ticket-taker friendliness, concession prices and time spent waiting in lines. And then there were questions about using mobile devices for emails or voice calls.

Walk of champions outside the stadium.

Walk of champions outside the stadium.

“We saw [from the surveys] that we had some issues in meeting fan needs, especially in those two areas [voice calls and email],” Thompson said. And while Vaught-Hemingway did have a neutral-host Crown Castle DAS installed several years ago, Thompson said the carrier investment in the deployment was uneven.

Bringing in ‘state of the art’ Wi-Fi

Editor’s note: This story is part of our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the COLLEGE FOOTBALL ISSUE. The 40+ page report, which includes profiles of stadium deployments at Texas A&M, Kansas State, Ole Miss and Oklahoma, is available for FREE DOWNLOAD from our site. Get your copy today!

To bolster connectivity in a method free of the constraints of a DAS, Thompson said the school put out an RFP for stadium Wi-Fi, and found “an incredible partner” in C Spire, a leading connectivity provider in the region around the Oxford, Mississippi campus.

Among the challenges in bringing Wi-Fi to Vaught-Hemingway — a stadium whose initial version was built in 1915 — was a lack of overhangs to place Wi-Fi access points, and old construction methods that wouldn’t allow for under-the-seat APs. But using Xirrus gear, C Spire and Ole Miss found a deployment method that worked — putting a lot of APs underneath the stands, shooting upwards through the concrete.

With 820 Wi-Fi APs inside the stadium, Thompson said the “Rebel Wi-Fi” network is “absolutely a state of the art system,” supporting “tens of thousands” of fans concurrently on the network during football games. Using analytics, Thompson said “it’s interesting to watch [online] behaviors, and to see what people are doing when there are big spikes [in traffic].” Not surprisingly, Thompson said that one recurring spike happens right after each opening kickoff, “when a lot of photos get shared.”

A small fee for non-C Spire customers

Promotion of the Wi-Fi network, Thompson said, starts with C Spire itself, since the carrier is the service provider “for a fairly large percentage of our fans.” C Spire customers can use the Wi-Fi network for free, Thompson said, and can have their devices autoconnect whenever they come to a game.

The panoramic view

The panoramic view

Non-C Spire customers, however, must pay a small fee for use of the Wi-Fi, which can either be added to the cost of a season ticket (the charge is $25 for a full-season Wi-Fi pass) or can buy a “day pass” for a $4.99 fee per game. Thompson said the network has no restrictions or blocking, and has seen fans “watching another game live” while at Vaught-Hemingway.

While it might take time to become a hallowed tradition, it’s a good bet that over time the Ole Miss fans will become as used to taking and sharing videos, photos and texts as they do rooting together and congregating along the “walk of champions” before games. It might not date back to 1915, but it’s an amenity that many mobile-device owners will cherish once they find out it’s there.

“There’s still a lot of people who just accept that it’s going to be hard to connect [at a stadium] because they were trained to think that for so long,” Thompson said. “Connectivity just dropped off their radar.”

New Report: Is Texas A&M’s $20 million, all-optical DAS and Wi-Fi the fastest stadium network out there?

One of the many maxed-out speed tests we took at Texas A&M's Kyle Field. All photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

One of the many maxed-out speed tests we took at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field. All photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Is there a combined stadium Wi-Fi and DAS deployment that is as fast as the one found at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field? If so we haven’t seen or heard of it.

In fact, after reviewing loads of live network-performance data of Kyle Field’s new Wi-Fi and DAS in action, and after maxing out the top levels on our speed tests time after time during an informal walk-around on a game day, we’ve come to the conclusion that Kyle Field has itself a Spinal Tap of a wireless deployment. Meaning, that if other stadium networks stop at 10, this one goes to 11.

Movie references aside, quite simply, by the numbers Kyle Field’s wireless network performance is unequaled by any other large public venue’s we’ve tested in terms of raw speed and the ability to deliver bandwidth. With DAS and Wi-Fi speed measurements ranging between 40 Mbps and 60+ Mbps pretty much everywhere we roamed inside the 102,512-seat venue, it’s a safe bet to say that the school’s desire to “build the best network” in a stadium hit its goal as best as it could. And since the school spent “north of $20 million” on the network, perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s the fastest anywhere.

Our full profile of our in-depth visit to College Station to see this network in action can be found in our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our COLLEGE FOOTBALL ISSUE for 2015. You can download the report for free, right now! In addition to the Texas A&M profile you will find in-depth looks at wireless deployments at Kansas State, Ole Miss, Oklahoma and the venerable Rose Bowl — so download your copy today!

See the white dots? Those are under-seat Wi-Fi APs

See the white dots? Those are under-seat Wi-Fi APs

Audible to optical made the difference

Inside our latest 40+ page report you will get a full breakdown on how the Texas A&M network came to be — in an exclusive interview with Phillip Ray, Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs at The Texas A&M University System, you hear for the first time how much the Kyle Field network cost — “north of $20 million” — as well as how much the top two wireless carriers paid to be a part of it. Want to know? Then download the report!

And while the Kyle Field story is our lead article, that’s not all you’ll find in our latest in-depth exploration of stadium technology deployments. Reporter Terry Sweeney checks out the new DAS deployment blanketing Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, perhaps one of the toughest old-style stadium construction challenges to try to bring in wireless coverage. We also have profiles of Wi-Fi deployments at Kansas State and at Ole Miss, and a feature about covering RV parking lots with Wi-Fi at the University of Oklahoma. To top it all off we have some Wi-Fi cost/benefit analysis from yours truly, and a bonus photo feature by photographer Phil Harvey, who accompanied MSR for a recent visit to AT&T Stadium.

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Mobilitie, Crown Castle, SOLiD, CommScope, Aruba (a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company), JMA Wireless, Corning, 5 Bars, Extreme Networks, 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 thank you for your interest and continued support. Thanks for reading and enjoy the COLLEGE FOOTBALL ISSUE!

Kyle Field at kickoff.

Kyle Field at kickoff.

IBM formally launches sports consulting practice to bring tech to stadiums

Texas A&M student at recent Aggies football game. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Texas A&M student at recent Aggies football game. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

IBM formally cemented its entrance to the sports-stadium tech deployment market with the announcement of a sports and fan experience consulting practice, and a “global consortium” of tech and service suppliers who may help IBM in its future stadium and entertainment venue deployments.

For industry watchers, the Nov. 19 debut of the IBM “Sports, Entertainment and Fan Experience” consulting practice was not a surprise, since its leader, Jim Rushton, had already appeared at tech conferences this past summer, talking about IBM’s plans to deploy a fiber-based Wi-Fi and DAS network at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium being built for the Atlanta Falcons. IBM was also publicly behind a similar network build over the last two years at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field. For both networks, IBM is using Corning optical gear.

Still, the formal creation of the IBM practice (you can read all about it at the new IBM sports website) means that the 800-pound gorilla is now firmly inside the competitive ring of the stadium-tech marketplace, a landscape that currently has multiple players, many of which have multiple stadium deployments under their belts. However, IBM’s vast experience in big-time sports technology deployments — Big Blue is behind such endeavors as the truly wonderful online experience of The Masters, as well as technical underpinnings of three of tennis’ Grand Slam events (Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open) — as well as its considerable tech and monetary resources probably makes it a No. 1 contender for all of the biggest projects as well as possibly smaller ones as well.

Artist's rendering of planned overhead view of new Atlanta NFL stadium

Artist’s rendering of planned overhead view of new Atlanta NFL stadium

Rushton, who spoke with Mobile Sports Report earlier this year in one of his first public appearances as an IBMer, said in a phone interview this week that IBM’s fiber-to-the-fan network model isn’t just for large-scale deployments like the one at 105,000-seat Kyle Field or the Falcons’ new $1.4 billion nest, which will seat 71,000 for football and up to 83,000 for other events after it opens in 2017.

“That type of system [the optical network] is scalable,” Rushton said, and even in smaller venues he said it could potentially save customers 30 percent or more compared to the cost of a traditional copper-based cabled network. The flip side to that equation is that purchasers have fewer gear suppliers to choose from on the fiber-based side of things, and according to several industry sources it’s still sometimes a problem to find enough technical staffers with optical-equipment expertise.

How much of the market is left?

The other question facing IBM’s new consulting practice is the size of the market left for stadium tech deployments, an answer we try to parse each year in our State of the Stadium survey. While this year’s survey and our subsequent quarterly reports found a high number of U.S. professional stadiums with Wi-Fi and DAS networks already deployed, there are still large numbers of college venues as well as international stadiums and other large public venues like concert halls, race tracks and other areas that are still without basic connectivity.

Full house at Kyle Field. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Full house at Kyle Field. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

With its new “global consortium” of companies that supply different parts and services of the connected-stadium experience, IBM could be an attractive choice to a customer that doesn’t have its own technical expertise, providing a soup-to-nuts package that could conceivably handle tasks like in-stadium IPTV, DAS and Wi-Fi, construction and stadium design, and backbone bandwidth solutions.

However, IBM will be going up against vendors who have led deployments on their own, and league-led “consortium” type arrangements like MLBAM’s project that brought Wi-Fi to almost all the Major League Baseball stadiums, and the NFL’s list of preferred suppliers like Extreme Networks for Wi-Fi and YinzCam for apps. Also in the mix are third-party integrators like CDW, Mobilitie, 5 Bars, Boingo Wireless and others who are already active in the stadium-technology deployment space. And don’t forget HP, which bought Wi-Fi gear supplier Aruba Networks earlier this year.

Certainly, we expect to hear more from IBM soon, and perhaps right now it’s best to close by repeating what we heard from Jared Miller, chief technology officer for Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s namesake AMB Sports and Entertainment (AMBSE) group, when we asked earlier this year why the Falcons picked IBM to build the technology in the new Atlanta stadium:

Remote optical cabinet and Wi-Fi AP at Kyle Field. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Remote optical cabinet and Wi-Fi AP at Kyle Field. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“IBM is unique with its span of technology footprint,” Miller said. He also cited IBM’s ability to not just deploy technology but to also help determine what the technology could be used for, with analytics and application design.

“They’ve looked at the [stadium] opportunity in a different manner, thinking about what we could do with the network once it’s built,” Miller said.

From the IBM press release, here is the IBM list of companies in its new “global consortium,” which IBM said is not binding, meaning that none of the companies listed is guaranteed any business yet, and others not on the list may end up in IBM deployments, like Kyle Field, which uses Aruba gear for the Wi-Fi:

Founding members of the consortium, include:

· Construction and Design: AECOM, HOK, Whiting Turner

· Infrastructure Technology/Carriers: Alcatel/Lucent, Anixter, Commscope, Corning, Juniper Networks, Ruckus Wireless, Schneider Electric, Smarter Risk, Tellabs, Ucopia, Zebra Technologies, YinzCam (IPTV), Zayo, Zhone

· Communications Solutions Providers: Level 3, Verizon Enterprise Solutions, AT&T

· Fan Experience Consulting & Data Management Integration: IBM

Texas A&M’s fiber-backed Wi-Fi at Kyle Field records 5.7 TB of data during Alabama game

Scoreboard, Kyle Field. Photos: Texas A&M

Scoreboard, Kyle Field. Photos: Texas A&M

We’ve been hearing rumors about how much data was flowing at the new fiber-based Wi-Fi network at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field this fall, and now we finally have some verified numbers that are sure to pop some eyeballs: According to the networking crew at Corning, fans at Kyle Field used 5.7 terabytes of Wi-Fi data during the Oct. 17 game against Alabama, which the Aggies lost 41-23.

In case you are keeping score the 5.7 TB mark is the second-largest single-game Wi-Fi usage number we’ve seen, trailing only the 6.2 TB recorded at Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., earlier this year. Before you pin it all on the network, however, be aware that the newly refurbished Kyle Field can hold a whole lotta fans — the announced attendance for the ‘Bama game was 105,733, which is 35,000+ more fans than the 70,288 who attended the Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1. Still, building a network to support basically another baseball stadium’s worth of fans is pretty cool, too.

Other related numbers from the Wi-Fi network are in Super Bowl territory as well, including the 37,823 unique clients recorded during pre-game and game time, as well as the 26,318 peak concurrent user count. We’re not sure why only 10 people tweeted about the Wi-Fi (8 good, 2 bad) but the 3.2 Gbps throughput should also turn some heads.

Corning ONE DAS headend equipment at Texas A&M's Kyle Field deployment

Corning ONE DAS headend equipment at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field deployment

The question this all raises for us is, has the availability of a fiber backbone allowed fans to simply use more traffic? And is the demand for mobile data at big events perhaps even higher than we thought? With a regular-season game at Nebraska hitting 4.2 TB earlier this season, it’s pretty clear that data demands are showing no signs of hitting a plateau. Or maybe we can deduce that the better the network, the more traffic it will carry?

It’s also worthwhile to note that stats this season from AT&T have shown several 1+ TB data totals for games at Kyle Field on the AT&T DAS network, which uses the same fiber backbone as the Wi-Fi. This “fiber to the fan” infrastructure, built by IBM and Corning, will also be at the core of the network being built at the new home of the NFL’s Falcons, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, scheduled to open in 2017.

We’ll have more soon from Kyle Field, as Mobile Sports Report is scheduled to make a visit there for the Nov. 7 game against Auburn. If you plan to be in College Station that weekend give us a holler. Or a yell, right? We are looking forward to seeing the stadium and the network firsthand, to do some speedtests to see how well all areas are covered. With 5.7 TB of Wi-Fi, it’s a good guess the coverage is pretty good.

(Statistics provided by Corning for the Oct. 17 game are below.)

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