Ready or not, Unlicensed LTE is here. What should your venue do?

The entry concourse at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

By Chuck Lukaszewski, Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company

There’s much excitement around the coming of “unlicensed LTE” and for good reason. In our anytime, anywhere world the last device many of us use at night, and the first one we pick up in the morning, is a mobile phone, tablet or computer. Although much of the time our devices connect via Wi-Fi, when we’re in transit we depend on cellular.

With consumers quick to express their disappointment when their apps fail to respond – or don’t respond fast enough – on a wireless network, cellular providers are keenly aware they must keep pace with rapidly escalating user experience expectations. Research suggests mobile data traffic will grow by 47 percent annually through 2021. Combine the two and the drivers for expanding network capacity are clear.

While the lure of more bandwidth can be attractive, stadium and venue operators need to carefully evaluate the technological impact and operational overhead unlicensed LTE introduces.

Gigabit cellular coming soon

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To provide gigabit speeds, the cellular industry has enhanced LTE technology to bond multiple channels together, called “carrier aggregation.” Although originally designed only to combine different licensed frequencies, it has now been extended to aggregate licensed spectrum with 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum (where Wi-Fi operates). Two competing technologies for doing so have emerged, with notable differences when deploying in high-density environments like stadiums in the U.S.

LTE-U (LTE in the Unlicensed Spectrum) is a proprietary technology, developed by the LTE-U Forum, a consortium of several cellular-related companies. It enables simultaneous operation of LTE over both licensed and unlicensed spectrum by aggregating the bands together, resulting in a performance boost. However, the way LTE-U takes control of a channel – while legal in the U.S. – is controversial and may significantly degrade performance of Wi-Fi equipment using the same channel. The Wi-Fi and cellular industries worked together to produce a coexistence test plan, but so far none of the test results for LTE-U equipment authorized by the FCC have been made public.

LAA (Licensed Assisted Access) can be thought of as the standardized version of unlicensed LTE, designed to meet European “listen-before-talk” (LBT) requirements, so it can be deployed anywhere on the planet. It was developed through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) worldwide standards organization, with wide participation including input from the Wi-Fi community.

DAS gear above concession stand at Coors Field

Think of LBT like the telephone party lines of yesteryear, where multiple customers share a communal phone line but only one person can use it at a time for their conversation while others wait. When there is no conversation happening on the party line and two or more people try to speak at once, other customers of the party line graciously “back off” to allow one person to go first. In cellular terms, this makes LAA a more “polite” technology than LTE-U, as it waits to transmit until a channel is clear. The back-off method it uses is compatible with Wi-Fi at least on paper, although 3GPP does not require vendors to perform or publish any kind of test results.

The Road Ahead

Of course what you want to know is how the advent of LTE-U/LAA impacts your stadium and whether to add gigabit cellular to the connectivity mix.

As a robust, stable and mature technology, Wi-Fi’s strength and ability to handle exceptional stadium data traffic loads is well established. To make informed decisions about whether to consider LTE-U/LAA technologies alongside Wi-Fi, here are five essential technical considerations.

Spectrum Availability. The unlicensed radio spectrum is comprised of 24 channels in the U.S., which is analogous to a 24-lane freeway. Until now, only Wi-Fi traffic traveled on that roadway, with many years spent developing technologies to ensure steady traffic flow, particularly in stadiums. Wi-Fi includes its own LBT solution, which helps assure data merges smoothly onto the freeway. It’s been proven at six Super Bowls plus countless other concerts and sporting events.

Most stadium Wi-Fi networks are already spectrum-constrained, meaning they are just managing to carry the existing load – much less new fan technologies like AR/VR. A large body of evidence demonstrates that stadiums and arenas need 20-24 fulltime-equivalent channels to make a 5 GHz system work (regardless of technology). These Wi-Fi networks are carefully optimized to eliminate all unnecessary transmissions.

Adding one or more LTE-U or LAA systems will reduce available capacity for Wi-Fi operations. As of this writing, there are no public technical measurements of deployed systems so the actual impact is unknown. If four separate unlicensed LTE networks are actually deployed, the impact will be even greater.

Number of LTE-U/LAA Networks Required. Visitors to your stadium likely utilize each of the four U.S. cellular operators: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Therefore, to offer gigabit cellular connectivity, you’ll need to permit all four to deploy an LTE-U, or LAA, network. Because the technologies are so new, they lack a “neutral host” methodology, so each operator will require its own separate physical network and spectrum.

DAS gear under seating area at SunTrust Park

Compatibility with Existing DAS. Most stadiums and arenas have either separate antenna systems for each major cellular operator or a converged neutral-host DAS. Although LTE-U and LAA are intended to support “dual connectivity” to a separate macro base station (or “eNodeB”) on paper, the products currently being shipped are intended as co-located small cells that contain two paired LTE radios – one licensed and one unlicensed. Stadium operators should validate whether their DAS systems are compatible with an expansive LTE-U/LAA small cell deployment where the primary cell (or “PCell”) is the DAS and each PCell has dozens of secondary cells (or “SCells”) providing 5 GHz service.

Cost vs. Benefit. Of no small consideration is the added amount of equipment, and the costs, in a hybrid Wi-Fi/cellular situation. If every cellular operator requires a separate LAA/LTE-U overlay, this implies up to four full new sets of equipment must be deployed under seats or on handrails. For a 60,000-seat stadium at typical under-seat densities, it would only require about 850 Wi-Fi access points (APs). In contrast, for LAA/LTE-U stadium operators would need over 3,000 additional small cells– with each one requiring a sturdy waterproof housing, a 30-watt POE connection, Cat-6 cabling, conduit and, of course, a hole drilled in the concrete. Meaning, LTE-U/LAA small cell deployments would require essentially the same physical footprint for each carrier as Wi-Fi which is likely already installed and is inherently a neutral host technolgy.

Risk. It’s also critical to consider the corresponding risks of adding up to four cellular unlicensed LTE networks to your Wi-Fi environment. It took about seven years and three full generations of radio designs for Wi-Fi vendors to perfect high-capacity stadium systems whereas LTE-U/LAA equipment is only beginning to ship. In short, it may be wise to delay comingling Wi-Fi and LTE-U/LAA networks until unlicensed LTE equipment becomes proven in less mission-critical settings than your venue.

Chuck Lukaszewski is Vice President of Wireless Strategy & Standards at Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. For over a decade he has engineered and deployed large-scale 802.11 networks, joining Aruba in 2007.

Chuck has built Wi-Fi systems in stadiums, seaports, rail yards, manufacturing plants and other complex RF environments, including serving as chief engineer for many stadiums ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 seats that provide live video and other online amenities. He is the author of six books and design guides including Very High Density 802.11ac Networks and Outdoor MIMO Wireless Networks.

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.”

Wireless connectivity strong at Colorado Rockies’ ‘old’ Coors Field

The main gate at Coors Field, the third-oldest ballpark in the NL. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

For someone who covered the origin of major league baseball in Denver, it somehow doesn’t seem possible that Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, is the third-oldest stadium in the National League. But after venerable venues Wrigley Field and Dodgers Stadium, there sits Coors as the next-oldest in line.

Opened in 1995, the brick-and-steel venue in Denver’s lower downtown has another oldest-type attribute, in the fact that Coors was one of the first MLB stadiums to get a Wi-Fi network built for it by MLB’s Advanced Media arm, a deployment that went fully live in time for the 2015 season. Like its bricks-and-mortar host, the “old” network is still doing fine, even if it was built without some of the newer technology and techniques that have appeared in stadium networking in the lifetime of the past couple years.

With an opening-day Wi-Fi data total of 2.2 terabytes used, Coors Field’s Wi-Fi network is more than ready and able to handle any increases in activity that may or may not be related to the Rockies’ resurgence on the field, where the purple players have spent most of the season so far in playoff contention.

During an early May visit, Mobile Sports Report found the network performing strong throughout the venue, with many 60+ Mbps readings for Wi-Fi download speeds in all seating areas as well as on heavy-traffic concourses. What follows here is some history of the park and its role in the MLBAM Wi-Fi rollout, as well as our random speedtests from a visit during a doubleheader with the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, whose well-traveled fans add to the capacity in any ballpark where the team happens to be playing.

One of the earliest in ‘downtown parks’ resurgence

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, new Wi-Fi for Westfield’s Century City Mall in Los Angeles, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

The green box at the bottom of the aisle is a Wi-Fi antenna pointing up the rows.

A little personal history for yours truly intersects with the origin of Coors Field — way back in 1991, I was one of the lead baseball writers for the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera, and our main story that spring was the question of whether or not Denver would land one of the two NL expansion franchises soon to be awarded. Like many other cities and regions hopeful for pro sports, Denver and Colorado voted for a tax that would help build a new baseball-only park, which looked great in those artist-concept sketches that are always floated around.

But for me what really hit home was when the team behind Denver’s bid actually went out and chalked out a baseball field in the vacant lots where Coors Field would actually sit, among the old brick warehouses in the city’s lower downtown neighborhood. On the day of the official National League visit, there was even a group of kids playing baseball on that field — whether it was staged or not, the presentation was cool, and it probably stuck in the minds of many others like it did in mine, that a downtown park would be a great thing in Denver.

After being awarded the franchise and playing a couple years in the old Mile High football stadium, the Rockies finally moved into their new home for the 1995 season, in a building inspired by Orioles Park at Camden Yards, the downtown venue built for the Baltimore Orioles a few years earlier. My first impressions at the time were favorable, noting the wider concourses and seats tilted to the action on the field, along with a ballpark brewpub as being good trends for others to imitate.

Fast forward 20 years, and at Coors Field, lots has changed from the fan perspective. With personal digital devices everywhere, and fans wanting to use social media to share experiences, the home of the Rockies is no different from any other large sports or entertainment venue in needing solid connectivity. As perhaps befits the pro sport with the best digital league-wide plan, MLB’s advanced media arm (MLBAM) in 2014 embarked on a program to make Wi-Fi and DAS deployments happen in every stadium that didn’t have them (or had older. underperforming networks). By cutting deals with carriers and equipment suppliers and teams. MLBAM put together $300 million in the kitty for a buildout that reached 23 stadiums by this year’s ASG.

Some orderly DAS wiring coming out of the head end room.

(Some teams, like the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park and the Atlanta Braves at new SunTrust Park, have opted to build their own physical networks, even while working closely with MLBAM on matters like the league-wide Ballpark app.)

Coors Field was among the very first in the MLBAM buildout efforts, with fan-facing Wi-Fi available in time for the 2015 season. Though its buildout predated some of the newer techniques and technologies used for stadium Wi-Fi deployments — like under-seat or handrail-mounted Wi-Fi APs — our tests showed the Coors Field Wi-Fi network, which now has approximately 550 APs, to be as strong as any we’ve tested, with signals in the 60 Mbps download range throughout most of the park. We didn’t test all the DAS carrriers but from all appearances, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are well represented on the AT&T-built cellular network. According to AT&T there are 322 antennas in the newer version of the DAS, also built in 2015, which AT&T said has roughly six times the capacity of the previous network.

As the Rockies enjoy an on-field resurgence (Colorado was in or near first place in its division through most of the spring and remain in the wild-card hunt as of this writing), fans should be happy to know their connectivity is competitive as well, with both team IT types and MLBAM keeping an eye on keeping customers connected.

Deck locations help ‘front to back’ work well at Coors Field

With three main tiers of seating, the 50,398-seat Coors Field has plenty of overhangs to work with as antenna mounts, making the so-called “front to back” design philosophy work well. Michael Bush, senior director of information systems for the Rockies, led us on a tour of the stadium, noting that at the tops of most seating areas there were two antennas, one pointing straight down and a “Gillaroo” panel antenna pointing down the rows of seats.

Good camoflauge on antennas serving the left field bleachers area.

At the bottom of most seating areas, including close to field level, there are Wi-Fi APs mounted either on the playing-field walls, or on the railings in the upper decks, pointing back up the rows of seats. In section 131, right behind home plate, we got readings as high as 63.10 Mbps on download and 48.75 Mbps for upload, almost exactly halfway between field level and the concourse at the top of the lower bowl.

In row 16 of section 138, behind the Rockies’ dugout, we got a speedtest reading of 63.32 / 41.63 Mbps, and in the outfield seats behind the left-field foul pole we saw speeds of 68.29 / 49.66 Mbps. Up in the “Rockpile” seats, way up top in straightaway center, we still got a Wi-Fi mark of 66.69 / 41.44 Mbps, probably from one of the four antennas we saw mounted on the back-side railings.

In the back of the walk-around “Rooftop” club and bar area in the upper deck of right field we got speeds of 61.21 / 28.86 Mbps, and then marks of 61.52 / 40.53 Mbps when we moved around to the front of the Rooftop, where you can lean on a railing while watching the game below. The lowest marks we got were in the upper deck of section 317 along the first-base line, where the speeds were 42.16 / 25.33.

All of these tests came during a break between games during a doubleheader versus the Cubs, when the stadium was cleared between games. The marks also varied between being on the main Rockies fan Wi-Fi SSID, and one reserved for Verizon Wireless customers, which our device kept autoconnecting to. But even as the stadium filled up for the nightcap, our signals stayed strong, including a 67.62 / 29.78 Mbps mark up in section 342, in the upper deck along the third-base line.

On Verizon’s LTE network we got a reading in the left-field bleachers of 14.99 / 15.19 Mbps, and a reading of 11.26 / 7.69 Mbps up in front of “The Tavern,” one of the bars in the Rooftop area. We did not have devices to test cellular signals for AT&T or T-Mobile, both of which like Verizon are also on the stadium DAS. Sprint, according to Bush, serves its Coors Field customers with a macro antenna deployment on a rooftop across the street from the stadium along the first-base side.

Wi-Fi antennas in the back of the ‘Rockpile’ centerfield bleacher area.

In our tour of the venue, Bush led us down to the head end rooms, where the DAS deployment looked military in its precision and organization. He also pointed out the cooling vents, which went from field level through the ceilings to finally pop out above the concession stands on the main concourse level, out of view for anyone who wasn’t trying to look down to see them.

Though Coors Field’s lower level seemed to have more than enough room for head end rooms, Bush did show us the parking lot “shed” that MLBAM built to house its video operations, including the on-field replay system that shuttles signals back to league headquarters. There is also some Wi-Fi coverage outside the building, mainly in the north parking lot which doubles as an area for media tenting for large events like postseason games. But for the most part Bush said Coors Field is careful to limit its Wi-Fi footprint to the facility’s walls, so there isn’t any bleed-over use by the residential and commercial buildings that are just across the street from three sides of the stadium.

Making sure the tech fits the park

As one of the first MLBAM deployments, the Coors Field network might have been excused for being more functional than aesthetic, but as our visit showed the opposite is true. Unless you are explicitly looking for Wi-Fi and other networking gear, it’s hard to see with the naked eye. In our unofficial wanderings we’d put Coors Field among the best in terms of hiding things in plain sight, with exact paint color matches as well as finding locations for mounting where gear doesn’t stick out. Helping out with this task is Coors Field’s overall embrace of brick and exposed steel beams, a sort of benign camoflauge that the network deployment team made good use of.

“A huge part of the fight” was making the antennas and other gear disappear, Bush said, pointing out several deployment spots we otherwise might have missed (including a huge bank of DAS gear right above a concession stand, perfectly painted to blend in with the green structural steel right above).

“The owners wanted to make it look like it [the network] was always there from the start,” said Bush.

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, new Wi-Fi for Westfield’s Century City Mall in Los Angeles, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

DAS gear hidden in plain sight above a concession stand

Cubs fans invaded the Rooftop, among other areas

A good look at the Rooftop area, with its open gathering spaces

A Wi-Fi AP pointing back up toward the seats from the field level wall

The view from center field

Coors Field’s beer stands were playing to the Cubs visitors with this offering

Let’s play two!

The pro pick for your after-Coors Field jazz consumption

State of the art network shines through at SunTrust Park

Opening weekend at SunTrust Park. Credit all photos: Atlanta Braves (click on any photo for a larger image)

Seasoned major-league baseball fans know better than to get too excited by good performances in April. Many times, long seasons and league-wide competition have a way of taking some of the shine off a sparkling start.

In Atlanta, however, Braves fans can start rejoicing now about their brand-new ballpark. If network performance is any clue, the thought, care and execution that went into the building of SunTrust Park seems pretty much state of the art, guaranteeing a great fan experience, no matter what happens on the field.

Like any other stadium or large public venue network, the Wi-Fi deployment at the Braves’ new home (located about 10 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta) will likely be tested sometime in the near future, either by large crowds or a bandwidth-taxing moment like a milestone home run or an important victory. But some early positive user reviews and hard numbers showing 8.4 terabytes of data used on the network in and around the park on its MLB opening weekend, it appears that the Braves and their partners put together a network ready for high performance from the first call of “Play Ball.”

It takes a village… of partners

Editor’s note: Welcome SEAT attendees to Atlanta! This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, Westfield’s Century City Mall, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Bird’s-eye view of SunTrust Park and The Battery.

To be sure, the networking inside SunTrust Park and in the surrounding mixed-use entertainment/retail/residential/business area known as “The Battery Atlanta” had many hands in its making, starting with major partner Comcast, which helped bankroll the almost $12 million spent on the core networking components. Cisco, the main supplier of Wi-Fi and networking gear to many MLB parks, was also involved at SunTrust, not just on the equipment side but also by bringing its StadiumVision digital-display software system to the facility’s numerous TV screens.

Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company, in somewhat of a coming-out party for the firm’s advanced technology solutions division that serves the sports, entertainment and retail industries, led the way with display deployments at SunTrust Park and The Battery, starting with the stadium’s main video board, a 120.9-foot wide by 64.3-foot high 16mm-pixel pitch SMD LED display. While we don’t have any performance measurements yet, SunTrust Park also has a neutral-host DAS built by Verizon, with AT&T already on board and T-Mobile scheduled to join later this summer.

Also in the mix was the organizational and consulting efforts of Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment. Bob Jordan, senior vice president of team and venue services at Van Wagner, said the Wi-Fi network at SunTrust Park and The Battery is “the culmination of a lot of information, including best practices and learning from all the stadiums we’ve done and seen.”

Close-up of a railing Wi-Fi AP during installation.

Jordan said having a commitment to building “the most comprehensive wireless platform” available meant that known possible constraints were eliminated ahead of time, producing something close to the sum of all the good experiences seen elsewhere.

Planning for speed and capacity

With the opening weekend’s traffic numbers — supported by some on-the-scene reports of device speedtests in the 60- and 80-Mbps ranges — perhaps the Braves can be forgiven for sending out some enthusiastic press releases right after the first home series that proclaimed the SunTrust Park network as the fastest in any stadium, anywhere. While we here at MSR would rather see more data before making such broad proclamations — and would caution against trying to compare the network at a 41,149-seat baseball stadium to those built in 100,000-seat football stadiums — we have little doubt that the project is at the very least among the best, given just the raw stats and smarts behind its deployment.

Some of that starts with the backbone bandwidth supplied by sponsor Comcast, a pair of 100 Gbps pipes that are for now probably overkill, since even fully loaded football stadiums at Super Bowls will only use a fraction of that kind of throughput. While those knowledgeable about networking know that just having lots of backbone capacity doesn’t automatically mean your network will have great client-side speeds, it also doesn’t hurt to have way more than you need before you even start.

Another aerial view of the park.

“We wanted to make sure we had ample connectivity for everything we did,” said Greg Gatti, senior director of information technology for the Braves, in part explaining the humongous backbone bandwidth, which so far in sports we’ve only heard of at one other new stadium, the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, where Comcast also was the supplier of two 100 Gbps connections.

According to Gatti the Wi-Fi network “is the enabler for everything we do” at the park and the surrounding business areas, including fan-facing services as well as business needs and things like concession kiosks. The Wi-Fi runs off a fiber-based network that Gatti said connects almost all devices in the stadium. “Pretty much every single thing, including sprinklers, HVAC, elevators and lighting are connected to the network,” he said.

And while we here at MSR would like to see more data and tests before we agree with any self-proclaimed claims of being “the fastest” stadium network, with 900 Wi-Fi APs in the stadium — many of those Cisco’s newest 3800 series — and another 450 APs out in The Battery — Gatti is confident that the Braves won’t have any issues delivering high-density Wi-Fi bandwidth to fans.

“We’ll give you as much connectivity as your device can handle,” he said.

Leaning toward a 5 GHz-only future

Like several other sports stadium networks, the Braves will be using mostly 5 GHz channels only for fan-facing Wi-Fi. The reasoning behind this so far (at stadiums like Golden 1 Center, Bankers Life Fieldhouse and SAP Center) is that with most fan devices now having 5 GHz support, it’s easier and cheaper to offer only 5 GHz channels, leaving behind the challenges of supporting the 2.4 GHz band.

Putting the gear in place.

During an exhibition game ahead of the Braves’ MLB opener, Gatti said the SunTrust Park Wi-Fi network offered only 5 GHz connections for the first five innings. “After that, we turned on 2.4 [GHz] but we didn’t have much uptake,” Gatti said. “We’re leaning toward staying with 5 GHz only and avoiding 2.4 GHz if at all possible.”

Some of the 700 Wi-Fi APs in the main seating bowl are mounted in handrail enclosures designed by Wi-Fi integration experts AmpThink, devices used in many MLB deployments. “AmpThink has a lot of experience in MLB stadiums,” Gatti said.

One interesting note is that the Braves and Comcast did not participate in the ongoing MLB advanced media (MLBAM) program that helps pay for networking deployments in MLB stadiums; instead, Gatti said, the Braves and their sponsors footed the technology bill directly.

The Braves did work closely with MLBAM, however, on the stadium app front. According to Gatti, the team was interested in building a secondary app to expose new services available in and around the stadium and commercial area; but given that (according to Gatti) the Braves fans have the highest “take rate” on using the MLB-standard Ballpark app, MLBAM saw fit to help the Braves add additional SunTrust Park-only features to the Ballpark app; right now the Braves’ version of Ballpark includes support for digital ticketing and parking with mobile entry, mobile check-in, interactive maps and directories, integration with Waze, and seat and experience upgrades, according to the team. Some other services are not yet unveiled, as Gatti said the Braves are still testing beacon technology that will be used for wayfinding and other applications. The Braves also unveiled a kiosk-based wayfinding application, developed by YinzCam, to help fans find their way around the new stadium and The Battery area, which is all new to Atlanta and anyone visiting.

Bright future ahead

While most of the story about whether or not SunTrust Park and The Battery will be a successful combination of entertainment plus real-life activity, so far things look good, especially from a networking perspective. With The Battery’s office buildings, restaurants and living spaces, the combination may be the first real test of whether or not it building “city spaces” right next to stadiums is a winner for both customers and the owners.

Whether or not that business idea succeeds, its fortunes apparently won’t be decided by whether or not there is a good network in place. That test has already been passed, after what Gatti called “a fun and aggravating experience at the same time,” a greenfield project that doesn’t come around often in the stadium networking marketplace, that had one driving goal: Make sure the wireless worked well.

“It was pretty simple — in a modern ballpark, the expectation for fans is to have good connectivity,” Gatti said. If the opening weekend is any indication, the Braves and SunTrust Park have already recorded an important win in that category.

Editor’s note: SEAT attendees, see you at the Braves game Tuesday! This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, Westfield’s Century City Mall, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Opening day fly-by is repeated on the video board.

Let the networking fireworks begin!

Verizon, JMA bring high-speed DAS to Sonoma Raceway

Entrance to the track at Sonoma Raceway. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

For the second year in a row, NASCAR fans who are Verizon Wireless customers should have a speedy cellular experience at this weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, thanks to a neutral-host DAS Verizon built there two winters ago.

According to Verizon, at last year’s races the carrier saw 2.7 terabytes of data used by its customers over the weekend of race activity. The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event includes practice and qualifying heats Friday and Saturday on the 12-turn, 2.52-mile road track built into the hills just south of Northern California’s famed Wine Country, before Sunday’s main event.

With one main grandstand and numerous other seating areas spread out around the course’s twists, turns, climbs and dips, bringing enhanced cellular connectivity to the venue had as many curves to conquer as a driver during a 350-mile race. Built during the winter of 2015-16, Verizon said the deployment was a “considerable construction project,” using more than 25,000 feet of underground boring runs and conduit to reach different tower locations on the raceway property.

On a recent tour of the raceway, Jere Starks, the facility’s vice president for facilities and operations, showed why the boring was necessary, since trenching of fiber would have disrupted the integrity of the hills and surfaces that support not just the track but the seating areas, many of which back into hillsides.

When the NASCAR series was sponsored by Sprint, Starks said cellular connectivity for the NASCAR event was provided mainly by mobile COWs, or cell trucks on wheels. Like any other large venue, the increased digital activity of fans on mobile devices (“they do everything on their phones except their income taxes,” joked Starks) meant that a higher-capacity solution was in order.

A new DAS tower at the track

According to Verizon, its customers used another 1.7 TB of data during last fall’s IndyCar race, the other “big” event on the Sonoma Raceway calendar. Though it is designed as a neutral network, according to Verizon no other wireless carrier is yet using the DAS.

Getting power to the towers

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, and even a profile of a new Wi-Fi network for Westfield Century City Mall! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

For its DAS hardware, Verizon turned to JMA Wireless, which said it used its multi-band, multi-carrier TEKO DAS gear at the raceway. According to JMA, there are 76 low-power, five-band remote units and four high-power, five-band remote units, as well as 88 ODAS (outdoor DAS) antennas deployed at various strategic locations around the track as well as between seating and parking-lot areas. The deployments mesh in well with existing infrastructure, even sometimes sharing poles with speakers to blend in with the racetrack elements.

The headend building (can you see the fiber lines?)

JMA said the deployment also made use of its FUZE wireless power technology, which can bring electricity to DAS tower gear without having to have the local utility bringing AC power to each location. According to JMA, using digital electricity also allowed for the use of composite cable (fiber and copper together in one sheath), making installation faster and easier by utilizing a single “pull” cable.

Touring the facility with Starks, Mobile Sports Report saw towers located at the front of main grandstand areas pointing back, and at the back of some seating areas with antennas pointing both toward the seats as well as down the hills to the main parking areas located to the east of the racing area. Farther east to almost the edge of the property is the network’s headend building, a facility whose build-in story is probably worth a novel-length essay all by itself.

According to both Starks and Verizon, the prefab headend building was shipped to Sonoma from Louisiana, a process that took months both due to the logistics of simply shipping such a large, heavy building (according to Starks the trailer bringing in the main part of the facility had 11 axles) as well as negotiating its passage with the highway patrols and departments of transportation for states along the way. According to Starks and Verizon, the headend deployment process included having to build a new road across the dirt parking lot to support the buildings’ transport, as well as a strengthened concrete pad to support the facility.

A trackside tower that points back to seating

(Starks told a longer, great story about how some local ingenuity helped speed up final deployment after a legal delay kept the main building tied up at a state border for a few weeks. After the delay meant certain crane placements wouldn’t work, someone suggested the crew spread sand on the concrete pad and bulldozer the bigger building into place, a trick that Starks said worked well — “it just slid right in there.”)

Ready for more connectivity

With another 100,000-plus fans expected during the NASCAR weekend, as well as at the venue’s popular drag-racing events and the fall IndyCar stop, Starks is happy that fans will be able to use their mobile devices as much as they want, now for Verizon Wireless customers and for other carriers’ subscribers in the future.

“When you have 50,000 people all doing video [on their phones] at the same time, we knew we had to overhaul the system,” Starks said. “Verizon did a great job, they were very sensitive to the facility and it was a great experience working with them.”

A look at one grandstand area, with several DAS antennas in front

A concession stand for old-school fans who remember the track as simply “Sears Point”

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

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