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”

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Final Four final score: 17.6 TB (at least) of wireless data used at University of Phoenix Stadium

We finally have the Wi-Fi numbers from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Final Four weekend at the University of Phoenix Stadium, and they are big — a total of 11.2 terabytes of data used during the two days of competition, according to the stadium network crews running the operations for the NCAA. Combined with AT&T’s reported DAS total of 6.4 TB, that means the total wireless usage so far is at least 17.6 TB — and that’s not including DAS numbers from Verizon Wireless, Sprint or T-Mobile, which if we had them would probably push the total far higher.

Just on the Wi-Fi side of things, the Saturday semifinal games this year produced enough single-day traffic (6.3 TB) to sneak into our unofficial Top 5 list for Wi-Fi events, barely edging Super Bowl XLIX, which saw 6.2 TB of traffic in the same building a couple years earlier. Granted, the Final Four has more fans in attendance and more time with two games compared to one, but it’s still a sign (to us, anyway) that wireless use by fans at big games of all types is continuing to grow. (It’s cool to see the comparison between a Super Bowl and a Final Four in the same venue, as well. Looks like the network operators there keep improving from big game to big game.)

According to the network stats provided to us, the Final Four crowd on Saturday saw 38,520 unique users connected to the Wi-Fi at some point, with a max concurrent user total of 20,675. On Monday night’s championship game, those numbers were 31,458 uniques and 19,861 max concurrent users. Attendance for the two sessions was 77,612 for Saturday’s semifinals and 76,168 for Monday’s championship, which were both second-highest ever numbers, according to a cool NCAA infographic that has some more stats on TV and internet viewership.

See you next year in San Antonio, NCAA… to see if the connectivity pace keeps increasing!

THE NEW TOP 8 FOR WI-FI

1. Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium, Houston, Feb. 5, 2017: Wi-Fi: 11.8 TB
2. Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 7, 2016: Wi-Fi: 10.1 TB
3. Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys, Divisional Playoffs, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, Jan. 15, 2017: Wi-Fi: 7.25 TB
4. WrestleMania 32, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, April 3, 2016: Wi-Fi: 6.77 TB
5. NCAA Men’s Final Four, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., April 1, 2017: Wi-Fi: 6.3 TB
6. Super Bowl 49, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 1, 2015: Wi-Fi: 6.23 TB
7. Alabama vs. Texas A&M, Kyle Field, College Station, Texas, Oct. 17, 2015: Wi-Fi: 5.7 TB
8. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots, AFC Championship Game, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Jan. 22, 2017: Wi-Fi: 5.11 TB

Super Bowl LI Wi-Fi sees drop in average per-fan use total

Under seat Wi-Fi APs visible down seating row at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

Under seat Wi-Fi APs visible down seating row at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

While Super Bowl LI in Houston set records for most total Wi-Fi used in a single day event, the actual amount of average Wi-Fi data used per connected fan actually dropped from the previous year’s game, from about 370 megabytes per user at Super Bowl 50 to about 333 MB per user for Super Bowl 51.

Using official totals provided by the NFL’s official analytics provider, Extreme Networks, there was a total of 11.8 TB of data used on the Wi-Fi network at NRG Stadium in Houston during Super Bowl 51, compared to 10.1 TB used during Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

While the total Wi-Fi data number represents approximately a 17 percent increase from Super Bowl 50 to Super Bowl 51, the most recent game had 35,430 users who connected at least once to the network, an almost 30 percent leap from Super Bowl 50’s 27,316 unique users. So while Super Bowl 51 had more unique users (and more peak concurrent users as well) and a higher data total, the average amount of data used per connected fan decreased, from about 370 MB per user to about 333 MB per user.

Data for Super Bowls in years past is thin (mainly because stadium Wi-Fi didn’t really exist), but it’s certainly the first time in very recent history that the per-user average has dropped from one Super Bowl to the next. Super Bowl 49, held at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., saw a total of 6.23 TB of Wi-Fi used, with 25,936 unique users, for a per-user average total of 240 MB. We don’t have any stats for unique users at Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium, but with the total Wi-Fi used there at 3.2 TB the average was also presumably much lower as well, unless there were also 50 percent fewer connected users.

Did autoconnect drop the average?

Wi-Fi gear visible above concourse kiosk at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

Wi-Fi gear visible above concourse kiosk at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

The drop in per-user average data for Wi-Fi is curious when compared to the huge leap in overall DAS stats for the last two Super Bowls, with Super Bowl 51 checking in at 25.8 TB of data, a figure that does not include statistics from T-Mobile, which is declining to report its data total from the game. At Super Bowl 50, all four top wireless carriers combined saw 15.9 TB, so the total for Super Bowl 51 is about 62 percent higher — and if you add in the estimated 3-4 TB that was likely recorded by T-Mobile, that leap is even bigger.

Unfortunately cellular carriers do not provide the exact number of connected users, so there is no per-user average data total available. It would be interesting to know if the expanded DAS preparations made at Super Bowl 50 and at Super Bowl 51 actually connected more total users, or allowed users to use more data per user. We have a request with Verizon for more stats, but it may be a long wait.

One theory we have here at MSR is that it’s possible that a large number of autoconnected devices may have increased the unique-user total while not necessarily adding to the overall Wi-Fi data-used total. In our reporting about the NRG Stadium network we noted that Verizon, which helped pay for the Wi-Fi deployment, had reserved 40 percent of the Wi-Fi capacity for its customers, many of whom could have been autoconnected to the network even without them knowing. We have asked both Extreme and Verizon for a breakdown on Verizon users vs. other wireless customer users on the Wi-Fi network, but have not yet received a response.

Update: Super Bowl LI breaks 37 TB wireless mark

NRG Stadium during Super Bowl LI. Credit: AP / Morry Gash/ Patriots.com

NRG Stadium during Super Bowl LI. Credit: AP / Morry Gash/ Patriots.com

It’s official now, and without any doubt Super Bowl LI broke the single-day wireless data use mark, with at least 37.6 terabytes used.

The official stats for Wi-Fi at NRG Stadium are finally in, with a mark of 11.8 TB, which is a bit more than the 10.1 TB recorded at last year’s Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium, the previous top mark. The official stats were reported Thursday by Wi-Fi gear provider Extreme Networks, which posted them on the company website.

New DAS records even without any T-Mobile stats

On the cellular side Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint all set new records, with Verizon reporting 11 TB of use and AT&T reporting 9.8 TB, while Sprint (which ran on its own DAS at NRG Stadium) hit 5 TB. At last year’s Super Bowl Verizon (7 TB) and AT&T (5.2 TB) had set their respective previous high-water marks, while Sprint had reported 1.6 TB at Levi’s Stadium. Even without numbers from T-Mobile the current DAS count is 25.8 TB, much higher than the 15.9 TB cellular total from Super Bowl 50.

(Unfortunately, T-Mobile right now is refusing to provide a total data number — a spokesperson who didn’t want to be quoted claimed on a phone call that the total data number was “not relevant,” and that T-Mobile would not provide a final number. However, we did see a blog post from the company claiming it passed its 2.1 TB total from last year by halftime, so at the very least we could probably accurately add at least another 2.2 TB to the overall DAS total. So we may see a combined total of all cellular and Wi-Fi nearing 40 TB before it’s all counted up, approved or not.)

One of our close friends in the business was at the game, and was kind enough to send us a bunch of Wi-Fi speedtests from NRG Stadium (go check our Twitter timeline at @paulkaps to see the tests linked).

What was interesting was watching the speeds go down when “spike” events occurred, like touchdowns and the end of Lady Gaga’s halftime show. The incredible comeback by the New England Patriots to claim a 34-28 overtime victory kept the network busy through the night, and after the game as well during the awards ceremony.

Tom Brady with the Lombardi Trophy. Credit: AP / Patriots.com

Tom Brady with the Lombardi Trophy. Credit: AP / Patriots.com

New record for take rate

According to Extreme, fans at NRG Stadium also set new high-water marks for unique connections to the network as well as for peak concurrent connections. At Super Bowl LI Extreme said it saw 35,430 fans connect to the network, a 49 percent take rate with the attendance of 71,795. Last year at Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium a total of 27,316 fans connected to the network out of 71,088 attending, a 38 percent take rate.

On the peak concurrent-connection side, Super Bowl LI set a new mark with 27,191 fans connected at one time, according to Extreme. At the Super Bowl 50, the top concurrent-connected mark was 20,300.

Extreme also released some social-media statistics, claiming that 1.7 TB of the Wi-Fi total was social media traffic. Leading the way in order of most users to fewer were Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Interestingly, Snapchat consumed almost as much data as Facebook, according to pie graphs in the Extreme infographic, which did not provide any actual numbers for those totals. Extreme also did not report what is typically the highest use of bandwidth in any stadium situation, that being Apple iOS updates and Google Gmail activity.

The NFL, which had its own game-day application for Super Bowl LI, has not released any statistics about app use.

Congrats to all the carriers, integrator 5 Bars and Wi-Fi gear supplier Extreme Networks.

THE NEW TOP 6 FOR WI-FI

1. Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium, Houston, Feb. 5, 2017: Wi-Fi: 11.8 TB
2. Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 7, 2016: Wi-Fi: 10.1 TB
3. WrestleMania 32, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, April 3, 2016: Wi-Fi: 6.77 TB
4. Super Bowl 49, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 1, 2015: Wi-Fi: 6.23 TB
5. Alabama vs. Texas A&M, Kyle Field, College Station, Texas, Oct. 17, 2015: Wi-Fi: 5.7 TB
6. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots, AFC Championship Game, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Jan. 22, 2017: Wi-Fi: 5.11 TB

THE NEW TOP 4 FOR TOTAL USAGE

1. Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium, Houston, Feb. 5, 2017: Wi-Fi: 11.8; DAS: 25.8 TB**; Total: 37.6 TB
2. Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 7, 2016: Wi-Fi: 10.1 TB; DAS: 15.9 TB; Total: 26 TB
3. Super Bowl XLIX, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 1, 2015: Wi-Fi: 6.23 TB; DAS: 6.56 TB**; Total: 12.79 TB**
4. WrestleMania 32, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, April 3, 2016: Wi-Fi: 6.77 TB; DAS: 1.9 TB*; Total: 8.6 TB*

* = AT&T DAS stats only
** = AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint DAS stats only

Verizon goes under concrete to bolster NRG Stadium DAS for Super Bowl LI

Nodes on wheels, or NOWs, provide extra coverage for Verizon Wireless in Houston for Super Bowl LI. Credit: Verizon Wireless

Nodes on wheels, or NOWs, provide extra coverage for Verizon Wireless in Houston for Super Bowl LI. Credit: Verizon Wireless

In a slight twist from its strategy for last year’s Super Bowl, Verizon Wireless has installed DAS antennas underneath the concrete flooring of lower-tier seats at Houston’s NRG Stadium, to provide extra bandwidth for the expected high wireless data usage at Super Bowl LI.

Last year at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Verizon beefed up its distributed antenna system (DAS) with under-seat antennas it designed specifically for use in stadiums. The idea of mounting antennas under seats, a growing trend in the stadium Wi-Fi world, is gaining traction as another method of bringing signals closer to fans, especially in places (like lower bowl seats) where there are no overhangs or other places to mount gear.

And while Verizon has been preparing for Sunday’s big game at NRG Stadium for years, that didn’t stop the company from “continually tweaking” its network preparations, according to Leo Perreault, executive director of network operations for Verizon’s South Central market, a region that stretches from west of Florida to Arizona, including Houston. In a phone interview this week, Perreault said that Verizon installed the under-concrete antennas during the middle of the 2016 football season, giving the company “some good experience” with the deployment ahead of Sunday’s game.

Under concrete = easier install and maintenance

A view inside the head end room that runs Verizon's NRG Stadium DAS. Credit: Verizon Wireless

A view inside the head end room that runs Verizon’s NRG Stadium DAS. Credit: Verizon Wireless

It might not be well known outside of wireless networking circles, but signals will travel through concrete; many early stadium Wi-Fi designs (and some current ones, including a new network installed at the Pepsi Center in Denver) use antennas mounted under concrete floors, pointing up. Though fixed under-seat antennas can provide better coverage, Perreault said the ease of deployment made putting the additional DAS antennas underneath the floor a better option in Houston.

“This way [under the concrete] is non-intrusive,” Perrault said, noting that the devices are also not affected by stadium power-washing units. The decision may have been influenced by the fact that NRG Stadium’s new Wi-Fi network had a big issue with moisture in under-seat AP placements, forcing a mid-season rip and replace for all the under-seat Wi-Fi APs.

Even though antennas under concrete are not as powerful, Perrault said Verizon is “very pleased with the performance. It’s a good compromise.”

Biggest stadium DAS?

Between the game being the Super Bowl and it being in Texas, there’s no shortage of hyperbole surrounding the game and all its attendant facets, including the network technology. But when Perreault claims that the DAS Verizon has installed for NRG Stadium “might be the largest we have anywhere,” that might be true since it also serves adjacent properties including the NRG Convention Center, the NRG Arena and an outdoor DAS in the surrounding spaces. In addition to Houston Texans games, NRG Park (which includes the stadium) is also host to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which humbly bills itself as the “world’s largest livestock show and richest regular-season rodeo.”

An alien spaceship, or a temporary cell tower from Verizon? You choose.

An alien spaceship, or a temporary cell tower from Verizon? You choose.

Inside NRG Stadium, Perreault said the new Verizon DAS (built before the 2015 season) has more than 900 antennas. As neutral host, Verizon will also provide access to AT&T and T-Mobile on its network; Sprint, which built a previous DAS at NRG, will continue to run on that system.

Outside the stadium and around Houston, Verizon has done the usual big-event preparations, with lots of permanent and temporary macro network improvements, and portable units like COWs (cells on wheels) and smaller NOWs (nodes on wheels). You can review all the Verizon preparations in a company blog post.

As previously reported in MSR, Verizon also helped foot part of the bill for the new NRG Stadium Wi-Fi network, a deal that will give Verizon a reserved claim to 40 percent of the Wi-Fi network’s capacity, according to Perreault.

Whether or not Super Bowl LI breaks the wireless data consumption records set at last year’s game remains to be seen, but Perreault said there doesn’t seem to be any slowing down yet of the perpetual growth in wireless data use at stadiums, especially at big events like the Super Bowl.

“Fans just seem to find ways to consume whatever additional bandwidth you provide,” he said.