Connect the DAS: Enhanced cellular finally arrives at Wrigley Field

Cubs VP of IT Andrew McIntyre looks up at some new DAS antenna placements in the main level concourse. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

When it comes to sports fans and their beloved stadiums, change is sometimes hard to take, especially at historic venues like the Chicago Cubs’ beloved Wrigley Field.

The last ballpark in the major leagues to get lights (in 1988), fans of the iconic Wrigley with its ivy-covered outfield walls put up some fierce resistance to some of the latest changes brought to the ballpark by the team’s latest owners, the Ricketts family, ove the past few years. An expansion of the bleacher seats, some new video boards behind the stands in the outfield and construction of a hotel and office building adjacent to the stadium all had their naysayers, some of whom would still prefer the old to anything new.

But this season, Wrigley is finally unveiling a part of its renovation that everyone can get behind — better cellular connectivity inside the park thanks to a new neutral-host distributed antenna system (DAS) built by DAS Group Professionals (DGP) for the Cubs. Delayed a couple years from its originally planned deployment due to the Cubs’ World Series title run in 2016, the new system has contracts with all four of the major U.S. wireless carriers, and should help fans share more memories from the Friendly Confines in the seasons to come.

Success on the field makes waiting OK

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of a new MatSing ball DAS deployment at Amalie Arena, a new under-seat DAS deployment for the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park, and a look at the networks inside the new Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

First announced in 2015, the plan to bring the new DAS as well as a new Wi-Fi network to Wrigley was pushed back until this season, mainly because of the Cubs’ new-found success on the field. In addition to the World Series title in 2016 — as everyone knows, the Cubs’ first in 108 years — the Cubs also went deep into the postseason in both 2015 and 2017, reaching the NLCS in both those years. As the extended seasons pushed back all kinds of renovation construction schedules, the arrival of the new connectivity options was pushed back a season longer than expected — a delay that was felt but perhaps not minded all too much by the celebrating Cubs fans.

DAS antennas visible near tops of stanchions in lower seating bowl

Since deployment of the DAS was (mostly) fairly straightforward — the DGP deployment uses entirely overhead and side-structure antenna placements, thanks to Wrigley’s multiple overhangs — it was finished in time for opening day. The Wi-Fi network, however, will be rolled out as the season progresses, mainly due to the need to place APs under seats in the lower seating sections.

Much of the engineering to get both systems inside the stadium faced more than the regular share of stadium conflicts, as this past offseason saw the Cubs pull out almost all the lower-bowl seats and dig 60 feet down into the dirt to clear room for some under-seat club areas, one of which is already open. Even though the DAS network wasn’t powered up until about a week before the season’s first pitch, deadlines were met and the new celluar system was ready for opening day.

“We definitely put scheduling and timing to the test, but we got it done,” said Andrew McIntyre, vice president of technology for the Chicago Cubs. “By the All-Star break, we should have both systems online,” McIntyre said.

The DAS system deployed by DGP uses JMA equipment, just like DGP’s other big-stadium DAS deployments at the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center. Steve Dutto, president of DGP, acknowledged the challenge of the Wrigley buildout, including one instance where DGP technicians needed to set up scaffolding to mount antennas but couldn’t because instead of a concrete floor there was a 60-foot hole in the ground.

“We worked around all that and got it done,” said Dutto.

New club spaces get new flat antennas

Mobile Sports Report traveled to Chicago for a mid-April visit, hoping to get some sense of the new network’s performance on a full-stadium game day. Instead, we got a lonely and chilly tour when sub-freezing temperatures caused that day’s game to be canceled. One positive was that with empty stands, it was easier to get around and see all the DAS antenna placements.

New flat-panel DAS antenna blends nicely in club space.

The first part of our tour was a trip underground to the new 1914 Club (for the year Wrigley opened) that sits directly under the seats right behind home plate. With the feel of sports bar-meets-speakeasy, the classy premium-seat space has great connectivity even while underground, thanks in part to a new flat-panel disc-shaped omnidirectional DAS antenna from Laird Technologies that DGP used in both indoor and outdoor placements.

With nobody in the club, we got an off-the-scale speedtest of 139 Mbps down and 46.7 Mbps up, proof on one level that the system is ready to go. Since it was freezing outside (did we mention it was cold?) MSR didn’t stop to take our gloves off to get many more tests, but we did get marks in the high 30 to high 40 Mbps range pretty much anywhere we did stop, including the upper decks and the bleachers. Even out in the middle of the adjacent plaza (where the Cubs’ networks are designed to cover) we got a DAS speed mark of 38.2 Mbps / 44.0 Mbps.

“The new DAS is much more higher performance grade than in the past,” McIntyre said.

The premium-seating club spaces, which were previously nonexistent at Wrigley, will expand next year when the Cubs finish out two more underground spaces, along each base line. According to McIntyre fans in those clubs will be able to watch players using the underground batting tunnels to tune their swings mid-game.

The last phase of the current Wrigley renovations will also see the addition of some more open gathering and club areas on the upper deck level, including party porches on the outside of the stadium walls overlooking the plaza (now called Gallagher Way under a sponsor-naming deal with the Illinois-based insurance brokerage). Gallagher Way, which hosted an outdoor ice rink in the winter, is set to hold concerts and other gatherings like movie nights this summer.

Old overhangs perfect for new technology

Sometimes in stadium wireless retrofits, you get lucky and the old stuff blends pretty well with the new. Take Wrigley Field’s classic metal-and-wood overhangs, which provide shade and rain cover for fans on the lower back and upper decks. According to DGP vice president of engineering Derek Cotton, getting DAS antennas in the right spots for a good signal there was half easy, half hard.

On the top levels, DGP was able to install the JMA gear out where it could offer the best connection — at the edge of the roofs, pointing backward toward the stands. With aesthetics a top concern at Wrigley, the roofs were a perfect place to “hide” some of the 420 total antennas in the deployment.

Green-painted DAS antennas point toward stands from back of bleachers club area

But on the lower-level roof, DGP and the Cubs had a concession to make that will be fixed during the upcoming offseason. Because of the deep pits dug into the box seat and field level, Cotton said DGP couldn’t get a scaffolding set to reach the outer parts of the lower roof — so instead DGP put those antennas in toward the backs of the roofs, and will move them out to the edges this winter. Some other antennas installed this year will have to be taken out and replaced while the rooftop party decks get built; and by next year the Cubs hope to have all the marooned gear from an AT&T Wi-Fi deployment from 2012 removed — but if you have sharp eyes this summer you can spot some of the old “Pringles can” Wi-Fi radios still nestled up in the rafters.

‘Creativity’ needed for bleachers

If DAS deployment in the main seats at Wrigley was fairly straightforward, for the venue’s unique and famous bleacher seating DGP’s Cotton said “some creativity was needed” to find places to mount antennas.

With no overhead structure and only the historic, manually operated scoreboard in the back, Wrigley’s bleacher seating now has DAS coverage from a wide array of antenna placements that took use of just about every kind of mounting area available. Some gear hangs from the back of a sponsor’s sign in left field; other antennas are tucked underneath the bottom of the scoreboard, pointing out from a small club area there; and still others are concealed in the tall grass of the planters that go up the sides of the centerfield seating section, just next to the poles that carry the Cubs’ World Championship flags from 1907, 1908, and most recently, 2016.

Other more normal antenna placements are found around the back side of the bleachers, where recent renovations added a concessions area and more stairways.

DGP’s Derek Cotton inside the Wrigley head end room

Moving outside the park to the plaza, artistic concealment continues with antennas hidden on light poles that surround the triangular plot of lawn. According to McIntyre, the club’s wireless coverage extends across Clark Street to the new Hotel Zachary, named for Wrigley Field’s original architect, Zachary Taylor Davis.

The hotel, which has retail shops on the street level — including a McDonald’s franchise that replaces a standalone McDonald’s that used to sit in the parking lot where the plaza now stands — has DAS coverage on all floors, with Wi-Fi planned for public spaces on the first floor and second floor, where the main lobby and lobby bar reside. In the lobby bar comfortable couches provide a great place to look over the plaza and at Wrigley; and in fact the Extreme Networks Wi-Fi gear visible on the ceilings is already operative there, though purposely limited in throughput to 7.5 Mbps up and down for now.

Most of all the wiring for the new networks comes together in a small brick headend building about a block north on Clark, behind the Wrigleyville hot dog stand. Unless you knew what was inside, you’d be hard pressed to guess why there are huge strands of red, white and blue cabling coming through one wall. Just before the start of the season, the Cubs announced a deal with Comcast Business that will see a “XfinityWiFi@Wrigley” label on the Wrigley Wi-Fi SSID. According to McIntyre Comcast will bring in twin 10-Gbps pipes to power the Wrigley Wi-Fi network.

When the Wi-Fi network comes online later this season, there will be even less of a reason to believe there will be any more grumbling about connectivity at the Friendly Confines. The new era starts with the DAS deployed by DGP, which was picked by McIntyre and the Cubs several years ago, after hearing of DGP’s deployments at Levi’s Stadium and over face-to-face meetings at the SEAT Conference.

And while Cubs fans didn’t have to wait for new wireless as long as they did for a world championship, they can now start enjoying the ability to connect to the world outside the ivy.

“When it’s fully done our fans will have a real ability to share, in a modern way, from one of the most iconic and historic venues,” McIntyre said. “It’s a whole new world.”

This look at the main seating shows the multiple overhangs where DAS antennas were mounted

This look at the Wrigley Field bleachers shows the lack of any structures to hang antennas from

If you get hungry while at the Wrigley Field head end, this fine dining establishment is just outside the door

“How often does the train come by?” “So often you don’t notice.”

Massive MIMO is Sprint’s path to 5G, says CTO Saw

Dr. John Saw, CTO of Sprint, at an IEEE keynote speech. Credit all photos: Sprint

Sprint chief technical officer John Saw has seen the future of cellular wireless, and according to him it was at a sports event.

“I was at the [Winter] Olympics where KT [Korea Telecom] and Intel set up the first 5G network,” said Saw in a recent phone interview. “Stadiums will be a good showplace for the capabilities of 5G. It’s pretty impressive what you can do with 5G that you can’t do today.”

Saw, who was CTO at WiMAX play Clearwire before that company became part of Sprint, will be the first to admit that the network built for the PyeongChang Olympics wasn’t “true” 5G, but said it was a good precursor. He also added that it wasn’t a cost-conscious deployment, something MSR had heard from other sources who said Intel and KT didn’t hold back when it came to spending.

“They spent a lot of money [on the network],” Saw said.

But some of the services the Olympic network was able to support included local viewing of replays using Intel’s True View technology, which gives fans the ability to watch a play or action from a 360-degree angle. While Intel has had limited deployments of the technology at some U.S. sporting events, for the Olympics Saw said they used hundreds of cameras linked over millimeter wave frequencies, which can offer very low latency.

“They needed [to have the images] in real time,” Saw said, and built the millimeter wave network to do just that. While the network “wasn’t fully compliant to the subsequent 5G standards, a lot of what they built is the forerunner to 5G,” Saw said. “It was a pretty cool showcase, and will certainly find a home in stadiums.”

No Millimeter Wave spectrum for Sprint

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of a new MatSing ball DAS deployment at Amalie Arena, a new DAS for the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, and a look at the networks inside the new Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

Millimeter wave networks, however, won’t be part of Sprint’s early push toward 5G, said Saw. Instead, he said Sprint will concentrate on deploying “Massive MIMO” networks in its rich space of spectrum at the 2.5 GHz frequency, where Sprint controls upwards of 150 MHz of spectrum in most major U.S. metro markets.

Without trying too hard here to explain exactly how Massive MIMO works — think splitting up transmissions between mulitple antennas then using lots of compute power to bring the data back together — the key here is Sprint’s spectrum holdings, which Saw said are still only about half used.

“When we launched LTE [on the 2.5 Ghz spectrum] we used less than half the spectrum we had,” Saw said. “With 5G, we will use all the spectrum we have in market. We’ll be one of very few carriers who launch 5G in the same [spectrum] footprint [as LTE].”

With the ability to carry “four to 10 times the capacity of regular LTE,” Saw sees Massive MIMO 5G as something perfect for large public venues like stadiums and shopping malls.

Dr. John Saw

“When you have sports events with 50,000 people in the stadium, you need this kind of capacity,” Saw said. “Were building out the footprint for [5G] this year, and we’ll launch next year.”

Saw said that part of the infrastructure support for 5G networks will be different as well.

“It’s more than just speed, or more capacity. It’s more than tonnage,” Saw said. “We’ll have a different way of deploying the new network, with a more distributed core, one [with more resources] out to the edge of the network.”

Why is such equipment redistribution necessary? According to Saw, a network with more components at the edge can help with content delivery for the new bandwidth-hungry apps like virtual-reality replays.

“Say you want VR at a hockey game, where you want to give real time [replay] viewing to customers, with different camera angles,” Saw said. “You literally have to have the 5G core inside the stadiums, so it can process [the content] without having to go back to the cloud.”

Will DAS trail in the path to 5G?

One type of network Saw doesn’t see leading the way to 5G is the traditional DAS, or distributed antenna system.

“DAS is going to have to migrate to 5G,” Saw said. “It’s not going to lead the pack.”

In fact, Saw said Sprint has been somewhat of a reluctant DAS participant at times, including at the most recent Super Bowls. In the last two of the NFL’s “big game” events, Super Bowl 51 in Houston and Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis, Saw said Sprint used small cell deployments instead of the neutral DAS systems to augment its coverage.

“We had hundreds of small cells, inside and outside [the venues],” Saw said. “We got the same performance, maybe better, for a lot less money.”

Part of the issue for Sprint and DAS, Saw said, is that the carrier usually has to pay more for its unique spectrum bands, especially the 2.5 GHz frequencies which are not used by any of the other major wireless carriers.

“We always think through before we sign up for DAS fees… there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Saw said. While in many cases there is no alternative except to participate in a neutral-host configuration, Saw said “we do prefer small cells.”

Will CBRS help?

One of the more hyped platforms being pushed this year is use of the CBRS spectrum at the 3.5 GHz range for not just more carrier networks, but even for “private” LTE networks, like for venues or campuses.

“It’s an interesting concept because it opens things up to more than just four operators,” Saw said. But he also called out the need for an online database to make sure CBRS spectrum use doesn’t interfere with systems run by the U.S. Navy, and added that without any definitive FCC action yet, the rules for future CBRS use are still unclear.

“There’s quite a lot of work to be done, and not a lot of spectrum there,” said Saw. While claiming that Sprint is “watching CBRS with interest,” he added that with its 2.5 GHz holdings, Sprint most likely won’t be at the front of any CBRS deployments.

“At the end of the day, CBRS is not 5G,” Saw said.

How will a merger with T-Mobile help?

Since our conversation took place just a day after Sprint and T-Mobile announced their renewed plans to merge, Saw didn’t have a lot of details to share, beyond his opinion that the two companies’ different spectrum holdings would build a more powerful competitor when put together.

“When you put our 2.5 (GHz) with their 600 MHz it gives you a much larger footprint with higer capacity,” Saw said. “There’s tremendous synergy. Both [companies] are enthusiastic about this deal.”

Editor’s note: This post is part of Mobile Sports Report’s new Voices of the Industry feature, in which industry representatives submit articles, commentary or other information to share with the greater stadium technology marketplace. These are NOT paid advertisements, or infomercials. See our explanation of the feature to understand how it works.

New Report: DAS deployments rule, with new networks at Wrigley Field, AT&T Park and Amalie Arena

Call it the ‘Connect the DAS’ issue — our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT is heavy on DAS news, with new deployments at Wrigley Field, AT&T Park, and Amalie Arena — all of them breaking news, as in you heard it here first!

At AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants, there is a brand new upgrade to the stadium’s DAS network, an AT&T-only deployment of DAS antennas inside the same under-seat enclosures used for stadium Wi-Fi. An experiment at first, just a few months into the season it has surprised both the team and the carrier with how well it’s doing. Get the details by DOWNLOADING OUR FREE REPORT right now!

Second at bat in the news-scoop arena is another DAS deployment, this one just getting underway at Amalie Arena in Tampa, home of the NHL’s Lightning. The twist on this new network — also being installed by AT&T — is that it will exclusively use MatSing ball antennas, those quirky-looking “big ball” antennas that you may have seen used in a temporary fashion at outdoor events. What’s bringing them inside? DOWNLOAD THE REPORT and read our exclusive story!

And at venerable Wrigley Field — the friendly confines of the Chicago Cubs — a long-planned upgrade to the venue’s cellular systems is finally in place, using JMA Wireless equipment deployed by DAS Group Professionals. Our in-person visit took a look at how DGP and the Cubs merged new technology with one of baseball’s most historic structures. Who says DAS is dead?

In addition to those stories we also have a complete, in-person visit and profile of the new networks at the newest stadium in MLS, the Los Angeles Football Club’s Banc of California Stadium. We also have a Q&A with Sprint CTO Dr. John Saw, all packed into one issue ready for FREE DOWNLOAD right now!

We’d like to thank our sponsors for this issue, which includes Mobilitie, Corning, Huber+Suhner, JMA Wireless, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, Oberon, Boingo, MatSing, ExteNet and DAS Group Professionals — without their support, we wouldn’t be able to make all this great content available to you for no cost. Thanks for your interest and we hope you enjoy the latest issue of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series!

State of the Stadium Network, 2018: Smooth sailing right now but rough waters ahead?

Here at Mobile Sports Report we used to have a yearly survey (called “State of the Stadium”) which we used mainly to see if and when wireless networks were being deployed in large sports venues. After just a few years, it quickly became apparent that for almost all the respondents we heard from, the question was no longer “if” networks would be deployed, but just “when.” And for more than most, the “when” was happening already.

Looking back over the past year or so of our stadium profile visits, it’s clear that the still-young market of large-venue wireless connectivity has reached a certain level of maturity, especially when it comes to well-funded deployments of Wi-Fi and cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) networks. Where in the recent past the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium was a groundbreaker with its extensive wireless coverage when it opened in 2014, such networks have now become the standard expectation for new venues like the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and even in many “Tier 2” stadiums like Colorado State University’s new football stadium.

Similar high-quality networks are also finding their way into older stadiums as those venues get networking for the first time or revamp their initial outlays. Over the past couple years we’ve seen new networks appear in old venues like Notre Dame Stadium, SAP Center in San Jose and more recently, the Alamodome. Other venues that led the initial charge toward wireless networks for fans, like the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, all had recent upgrades to their wireless infrastructures as the venues smartly stayed in tune with the ever-increasing demands of fans and their mobile devices. And then there are pioneers like AT&T Park and AT&T Stadium, which have always managed to lead the way in finding new ways to keep their connectivity at state of the art levels.

What really helps point to a certain level of maturity is the different methods and manufacturers who all have figured out their own ways to get things done. Wi-Fi antenna deployments placed under seats, in railing mounts or overhead have all proven themselves in numerous live tests; DAS deployments have shown similar successes in a somewhat corresponding number of techniques and equipment usages; in all, there seems to be well more than one path to a successful wireless infrastructure. But before we start taking networking for granted as a commodity like electricity or plumbing, it’s a good time to remember that unlike those two services, networking doesn’t stand still. As new end-user devices and the apps they run continue to drive growth in demand, the question now is whether current Wi-Fi and DAS networks for venues will be able to keep up, or whether new technology is needed.

The need for more wireless spectrum

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT issue for Spring 2018, which includes a look at Wi-Fi performance during the Final Four, a recap of wireless performance at Super Bowl 52, a profile of new venue construction in Los Angeles and more! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY right now from our site!

In a previous lifetime as a cellular systems analyst, yours truly wrote a long research paper about the importance of spectrum, predicting that at some point the leading wireless carriers, namely AT&T and Verizon Wireless, were going to need new bands to expand their services. While there have been some technological tweaks to find more capacity than originally thought in the 4G LTE space, on the cellular front the march to so-called “5G” systems is well underway, with the predictable problem of marketing promises being far out ahead of usable reality.

While we’ll save an in-depth look at 5G for another point in time, it’s useful to notice that all the large wireless carriers are already making 5G announcements, of 5G trials, of 5G local networks and other assorted claims of leadership. While nobody really knows exactly what 5G is for sure, what is known is that to get to the faster/better claims being staked there is going to be new spectrum in play for 5G services, and some of it may work better than others for use inside venues.

What’s clearly not known at all is how 5G services will arrive for sports stadiums, as in whether or not they will fit inside the current DAS model. Will carriers be able to share 5G systems like they do now on neutral-host DAS deployments? Right now that’s doubtful given that carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile are already talking about 5G deployments on much different spectrum spaces — and if the proposed merger between the two carriers becomes reality, how does that further change the 5G planning landscape? Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is a lot of mixed messages in the near future about the best way to move forward from a cellular perspective.

Will carriers take over unlicensed bands?

On the Wi-Fi side of things, a smart friend of ours once claimed that when it came to Wi-Fi network deployments, “real estate is the new spectrum” since building owners could pretty much stake a free claim to the unlicensed spectrum spaces within their walls.

But now, there may be some storm clouds brewing as carriers seek to implement systems that let them use some of the 5 GHz unlicensed channels for LTE networks, an idea with possible consequences for current venue networks.

Aruba’s Chuck Lukaszewski wrote about this issue for Mobile Sports Report last summer, and some of his points bear repeating and remembering, especially these two: One, most Wi-Fi networks in large stadiums are already “spectrum constrained,” meaning that they need all the channels in the unlicensed band to ensure good service across an entire venue; Two, by introducing a system where cellular providers would use a chunk of that spectrum for LTE networks, the effects are as yet unknown — and venue operators would most likely be at the mercy of carriers to both acknowledge and comply with any possible conflicts that might arise.

As we here at Mobile Sports Report are cynics of the first order, our first question in this matter is about whether or not there are any clauses in those contracts venues have signed with carriers that will allow the cellular providers to “share” spectrum in the Wi-Fi space as well. While Verizon, AT&T and other service providers have paid quite a few dollars to support many stadium systems, it’s worth it to wonder if some of those deals may not look so good going forward if they include the legal ability for carriers to poach spectrum currently used only by Wi-Fi.

CBRS to the rescue?

Another technology/spectrum space we’ll be looking at more closely in the near future is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which sits at the 3.5 GHz space in the electromagnetic spectrum roster. Though new FCC rules on the use of this spectrum (currently used primarily by the U.S. Navy) haven’t yet been solidified, it seems from all signals that eventually what will emerge is a kind of tiered licensing type of situation with licenses that cover large, small or even local geographic areas, which may allow for building owners to set up private networks that work sort of like Wi-Fi does now.

One attractive option being touted is “private” LTE networks, where venue or building owners could build their own DAS-like LTE network infrastructure for CBRS spectrum, then rent out space to carriers or run their own networks like Wi-Fi but with LTE technology instead.

What’s unknown is exactly how the licensing scheme will shake out and whether or not big carriers will be able to dominate the space; here it’s helpful to remember that big wireless carriers typically spend millions in lobbying fees to influence decisions in places like the FCC, and venue owners spend… nothing. Verizon recently announced it expects to have CBRS-ready devices working before the end of this calendar year, so it’s likely that CBRS systems may be more of an immediate concern (or opportunity) for venues than 5G. And the marketing folks behind CBRS are on full speed ahead hype mode, even crafting a marketing name called “OnGo” as an easier-to-sell label than the geeky “CBRS.” So buyer beware.

Already, Mobile Sports Report has heard chatter from folks who are helping design networks for greenfield operations that the choices simply aren’t as clear as they were recently, when you could pretty much count on Wi-Fi and DAS to meet whatever wireless needs there were. While that duo may still be able to get the job done for the near future, looking farther ahead the direction is much less clear and the sailing no doubt much less smooth. Here at MSR, we’ll do our best to help batten the hatches and give as much clear guidance as we can. At the very least, it should be an interesting trip.

Final Four sees 9.97 TB of data used on Alamodome Wi-Fi

Fans at the Alamodome using mobile devices before the big game. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

The final stats are in, and this year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament Final Four weekend in San Antonio saw a total of 9.97 terabytes of data used on the Wi-Fi network inside the Alamodome, according to official NCAA network reports.

With 4.9 TB of traffic used during the Saturday semifinal games and 5.07 TB used during the Monday night final the Alamodome Wi-Fi mark fell a bit below the 11.2 TB of data use seen during the 2017 Final Four weekend at the University of Pacific Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. With about 10,000 more fans per game (attendance at last year’s two sessions was 77,612 for Saturday’s semifinals and 76,168 for Monday’s championship, which were both second-highest ever numbers) and a more mature network it’s not surprising that there was a dip in Wi-Fi usage; the somewhat smaller Alamodome had 67,831 in attendance for the Monday night championship game.

So far only AT&T has reported DAS stats from this year’s Final Four, with 2 TB used on Saturday and 1.1 TB used Monday. Last year in Glendale AT&T said it saw 6.4 TB of DAS use. We have asked Verizon and Sprint for numbers but so far have not yet gotten any replies. As a stated policy T-Mobile does not report data traffic numbers from big events.

In a slight change from the preliminary reports we got, the official numbers show that the Alamodome Wi-Fi network saw 19,557 unique devices connect to the network on Saturday, with a peak concurrent total that day of 12,387 devices. On Monday night those numbers were 17,963 unique connections and 12,848 peak concurrent connections. Peak throughput for the Wi-Fi network on Saturday was 2.1 Gbps, while on Monday the mark was 1.6 Gbps.

Wrigley Field gets new DAS in time for Cubs’ home opener

The Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field will have a new DAS working for opening day. Credit for these 2017 season pictures: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

After some construction delays that no Chicago Cubs fans minded, the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field will have a new high-performance distributed antenna system (DAS) operational for Monday’s scheduled Cubs home opener for the 2018 season.

Designed and deployed by DAS Group Professionals, the new in-stadium cellular network was originally scheduled to be ready by last year; but when the Cubs took their historic march to the World Series title in 2016, many of the in-progress construction plans for Wrigley Field got delayed or rearranged, to the objection of nobody at all who cheers for the north siders.

And even though some of the most ambitious parts of the Wrigley renovation took place this winter — including removing most of the seats and concrete in the lower seating bowl to clear the way for some lower-level club spaces — the DGP crew along with the Cubs’ IT organization delivered the new cell network in time for the first pitches scheduled Monday afternoon.

Wi-Fi coming in as season goes on

“We definitely put scheduling and timing to the test, but we got it done,” said Andrew McIntyre, vice president of technology for the Chicago Cubs, in a phone interview. First announced back in 2015, the networking plan for the Wrigley renovations — which includes coverage for the plaza outside the stadium, the new team office building as well as the across-the-street Hotel Zachary that also just opened for business — also includes a new Wi-Fi network using gear from Extreme Networks. Since the Wi-Fi network is more construction-conflicted than the DAS deployment, it will be introduced gradually over the next few months, McIntyre said.

“By the All-Star break, we should have both systems online,” McIntyre said.

The DAS system deployed by DGP uses JMA equipment, just like DGP’s other big-stadium DAS deployments at the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center. Steve Dutto, president of DGP, acknowledged the challenge of the Wrigley buildout, including one instance where DGP technicians needed to set up scaffolding to mount antennas but couldn’t because instead of a concrete floor there was a 60-foot hole in the ground.

Hey hey!

“We worked around all that and got it done,” said Dutto. According to Dutto DGP has signed up all four major U.S. wireless carriers for the DAS, with all except Sprint operational for opening day. The head-end building for the DAS, he said, is located in what he thinks is a former hot-dog stand a half a block from the park. (If you’re looking for a snack in the head end room, just remember, in Chicago there’s no ketchup on hot dogs.)

Dutto said the DAS antennas are all overhead mounts, not a problem in Wrigley since the overhangs offer plenty of mounting spaces. However, given the historic look and feel of the park, Dutto did say that “we definitely had to tuck things away better and make sure we had good paint matches.” Not a Chicago native, Dutto said that the charm of the stadium hit him on first view.

“When we pulled up for the first time,” he said, “it was… wow. There’s nothing like it.”

Under seat for Wi-Fi will take time to deploy

The Cubs’ McIntyre, who admits to guzzling coffee by the quart these days, said the field-level renovations — which included removing all lower seats and the foundational concrete to clear out room for field-level club spaces — made finishing the Wi-Fi deployment something that couldn’t be pushed. With no overhangs covering the premium box seat areas, Wi-Fi APs there will need to be mounted under seats, something that just couldn’t get finished by Monday.

“It’s less of a technical challenge and more of a structural engineering challenge,” said McIntyre of the under-seat deployment method, which usually involves a lot of work with drilling through concrete and mounting APs in weather-sealed enclosures. McIntyre said the Cubs and Extreme also plan to use under-seat deployments in Wrigley’s famous outfield bleachers, which also lack any overhead infrastructure. In what he termed a “slow roll,” McIntyre said parts of the Wi-Fi network will come online gradually as the season progresses, starting first with the spaces outside the stadium.

Bringing backbone power to the new network is partner Comcast Business, which just announced a sponsorship deal with the Cubs that will see a “XfinityWiFi@Wrigley” label on the Wrigley Wi-Fi SSID. According to McIntyre Comcast will bring in twin 10-Gbps pipes to power the Wrigley Wi-Fi network.

This panoramic view shows why the lower level seats will need under-seat APs for Wi-fi