LAFC scores technology hat trick at Banc of California Stadium

Banc of California Stadium, the new home of the Los Angeles Football Club. Credit all photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

There’s an elegance to the advancing striker – the foot work, feints, arc of the kick – as they target the opponent’s goal. For the Los Angeles Football Club, that elegance gets reflected back in its newly christened home field, Banc of California Stadium, with its graceful lines and minimalist design, plus visibility and a connection to the field rivaling venues half its size.

LAFC, one of Major League Soccer’s newest expansion teams, had a particular sort of experience in mind for fans inside the venue, with its capacity of 22,000. The steeply pitched stands create an intimate sporting and entertainment space. Multiple clubs, suites and concession areas are there to satisfy food and beverage desires. Team owners were equally adamant about having top-notch technology, according to Christian Lau, vice president of information technology for LAFC, especially where wireless networking was concerned. The requirement was for “unprecedented coverage,” he added. “We wanted to avoid doing any retrofitting for at least five years.”

Opened in April, LAFC’s gleaming new stadium sits adjacent to the Los Angeles Coliseum (home to USC football, and to the NFL’s Rams, at least for now), replacing what used to be the Los Angeles Sports Arena. That structure was demolished in early 2016 and LAFC’s lengthy list of owners (Peter Guber, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell and Mia Hamm, to name just a few of the sports and entertainment luminaries with a stake in the team) set the timer for April 29, 2018, LAFC’s first home game for its inaugural season.

Construction crews worked relentlessly to meet the deadline; the venue was ready one month early, thanks to good planning and construction crews putting in 16-hour days to be ready for BofC Stadium’s debut. On April 29, the gates opened and a new era had begun with the ‘hat trick’ of a fiber backbone, solid wireless coverage and an advanced app strategy.

The optics of LAFC networking

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 new DAS at Wrigley Field! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

No doubt where you are at. Welcome to LA… FC.

The foundation for LAFC’s networking is a gigabit passive optical network (GPON) backbone with two chassis, plus fiber links from two service providers, AT&T and Crown Castle. The stadium backbone is 10-Gbps fiber with 100-Gbps dark fiber in place, Lau explained. LAFC is one of just a few sporting venues using GPON, along with Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and Texas A&M’s Kyle Field in College Station. Perhaps not coincidentally, the technology contractor for all three projects was IBM.

Wi-Fi was an obvious requirement for BofC Stadium; back-of-the-house networks support ticketing processes at the gates, along with POS applications and LAFC administrative needs. Fan-facing Wi-Fi (“LAFC Guest”) blankets the venue with 487 access points; Lau’s leaving open the door to add more APs as requirements dictate. About 60 percent of the existing APs are installed under seats in the stands. Ruckus Networks is the Wi-Fi AP vendor and helped with system engineering and tuning.

While engineered for 70,000 users, the venue’s Wi-Fi has been averaging about 8,700 simultaneous users, according to Lau. The LAFC Guest network has no landing page since at some venues, loading times for landing pages can be long, leading to frustrated users abandoning the Wi-Fi. Users have also come to consider Wi-Fi a de facto amenity, so LAFC wanted to ensure its guest Wi-Fi network was easily and quickly accessible, Lau said.

The DAS details

On the cellular side, LAFC called on wireless services and engineering firm Mobilitie to pull together the distributed antenna system (DAS) for BofC Stadium. The venue’s DAS network consists of 25 zones powered by Ericsson gear; there are 160 antennas and over 7 miles of cabling to handle nearly 1.5 million square feet of DAS coverage.

Wireless gear covers the concessions areas

All four of the major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – have signed up for BofC’s DAS network. Verizon was on air for the first game; Sprint was scheduled to fully integrate into the DAS network by the end of June, according to Stephanie Gray, senior director, wireless coverage solutions for Mobilitie.

LAFC was looking something transformative in its use of technology that would set BofC stadium apart from other stadiums, Gray told Mobile Sports Report. LAFC wanted seamless wireless especially in transition zones, part of strict requirements for the DAS network.

“They wanted a high percentage of coverage throughout the venue, particularly where people are using SeatGeek and wireless/paperless ticketing at the gates,” she explained. “We needed optimum coverage that could handle the stadium under load.”

Mobilitie brought engineering know-how to deal with the inevitable onsite quirks unique to every venue. In the case of BofC Stadium, the overall design aesthetic is modern and slick. The ceiling materials in many parts of the stadium – clubs, suites and some concession areas — are sheathed in metal, which presents an RF propagation challenge for RF, reducing signal strength.

On-field DAS coverage was also challenging, according to Jamie Witherspoon, director, technical solutions, for Mobilitie. Antennas had to be mounted on stadium trusses before the trusses were craned into place, an unusual technical cart-before-the-horse process. The reason? Cherry-picker equipment couldn’t be on the field or its freshly laid sod to adjust DAS antennas. In addition, Witherspoon reported lots of negotiations with the architecture firm, Gensler, to ensure the DAS antennas were as unobtrusive as possible and to preserve the stadium’s design aesthetic.

“With DAS, we’re more accustomed to building out a pre-existing venue, coming in after the fact,” Witherspoon explained. “This was brand new construction, so we had to work around multiple construction teams.”

Bandwidth snapshots

Mobile Sports Report put the fan-facing Wi-Fi and DAS to the test at BofC Stadium’s opening day, a match between LAFC and the Seattle Sounders. We sampled upload and download speeds around the stadium using the Speedtest app to measure performance. All our tests are only from Verizon’s services inside the venue.

Underseat mounts for Wi-Fi

In general, the BofC wireless services appear well engineered and cover the stadium’s common areas effectively. As to be expected, bandwidth performance was higher in the areas around the suites and clubs, where Wi-Fi downloads clocked in anywhere from 12.38 Mbps in the Sunset Loge on the west side of the stadium to 15.26 Mbps in the Founder’s Club. Wi-Fi upload speeds came in at 63.92 Mbps and 71.94 Mbps, respectively, the highest speeds measured in our tests at BofC Stadium.

Verizon’s DAS wasn’t as fast as the guest Wi-Fi. Highest DAS download speed at the south concessions was 37.67 Mbps; Section 123 on the southern side of the bowl came in at 35.43 Mbps. Highest upload speed for DAS service was 21.42 Mbps in the southeast concession area, followed by 20.92 Mbps around the southwest concessions.

A couple areas were less robust from a wireless bandwidth perspective. The DAS performance in the concession area outside the Figueroa Club on the east side of the stadium measured 9.4 Mbps download/10.97 Mbps upload; guest Wi-Fi in the west concessions area came in at 8.58 Mbps/1.93 Mbps, while Wi-Fi in the south concession wasn’t much better at 8.27 Mbps/1.98 Mbps. But generally, the guest Wi-Fi outperformed Verizon’s DAS and most Wi-Fi download/upload speeds were in the double-digits of megabits per second.

Prepping the LAFC app

LAFC worked with mobile integrator Venuetize to build out the team’s app, using the MLS team app template as its foundation. As a new team and one that started its season with a succession of away games, there was no reason to have stadium-based features in the app’s first iteration, said Lou Fontana, vice president of project management for Venuetize. The earliest iteration of the LAFC app concentrated more on content pieces, followed by the BofC Stadium-specific features.

LAFC’s app features both mobile ticketing and a sophisticated digital wallet for making onsite purchases for food or team merchandise. LAFC’s Lau volunteered that the organization is looking to have totally digital ticketing by 2019 – no paper, no PDFs to print out. Venuetize did some backend integration with payment processing partner Vantive; the ticketing part of the app works with ticket marketplace and aggregator SeatGeek.

Wi-Fi APs point down from the rafters

The LAFC app also uses and artificial intelligence-powered chatbot named Otto to help with stadium info, developed by Satis.fy. A future iteration of Otto will take it out of the Web’s view and make it a native view, incorporating elastic search. “That will enable fans to ask about players and the team schedule, and will replace search function in the app,” Fontana said, adding the upgrade could come sometime this summer.

The current version of the app has video, served up from MLS’s site. Immediate replay is something Venuetize will work on with LAFC. “When is the video content source available? That’s an issue,” Fontana said, adding that scoring plays make it out of the MLS server within about 25 minutes. While Venuetize could take that content and make it native, it’s not a top priority for the team at the moment.

BofC Stadium has installed Bluetooth beacon technology. “We haven’t gone through process of dialing in beacons, but wayfinding and navigation are on the list” for the LAFC app, Fontana said.

The integrator is also looking at GameChanger MVP, an augmented reality game developer, for a scoreboard game to fold in. “AR gaming will be the next interesting thing” for sports apps generally, according to Fontana.

First CBRS steps: Boingo deploys test network at Dallas’ Love Field

Even though its regulatory status is still uncertain, the untapped promise of the spectrum band known as CBRS is already spurring public technology trials, including one announced by Boingo Wireless today that will be used to test back-of-house business applications at Love Field airport in Dallas.

CBRS, also known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service, is the acronym shorthand for a 150 MHz-wide swath of wireless spectrum at the 3.5 GHz range that can support communications using the LTE standard. While the final rules for CBRS use in the United States are still pending final FCC approval, the expected availability of the spectrum sometime soon has service providers, gear vendors and other interested parties scrambling to get the technology up and running to kick the tires ahead of any commercial offerings. Like Wi-Fi, the CBRS spectrum will essentially be free to use, making it an potentially attractive space for providers of wireless services to large public venues and stadiums.

In Boingo’s case, what’s different about its trial is that it has partnered with the tech team at Love Field not to offer any services airport travelers might notice, but instead mainly to “push the envelope” on CBRS networking, according to Derek Peterson, Boingo’s chief technology officer.

With FCC permission to test devices in the CBRS spectrum, Boingo and the Love Field team are “taking advantage of [the test approval] to get used to CBRS, to take a first stab at it,” said Peterson in a phone interview.

Though widespread support for the radio chips necessary to connect via 3.5 GHz bandwidth is not yet available, Peterson said Boingo was able to find a mix of phones, dongles and other devices to be able to start playing around with the spectrum in a live environment. Verizon, one of the wireless carriers aggressively pursuing CBRS, has publicly said it expects to see CBRS-capable devices out before the end of the calendar year.

Jared Miller leaves Falcons for Madison Square Garden

Jared Miller, former chief digital officer for the Atlanta Falcons, has moved to a new job with Madison Square Garden. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR


In a personnel move that may have some technological impact on the upcoming year’s Super Bowl, former Atlanta Falcons chief digital officer Jared Miller is now executive vice president and chief operating officer at Madison Square Garden Ventures, according to Miller’s LinkedIn page.

We haven’t yet spoken to any of the principals involved, so more details will have to come at a later time (maybe at next week’s SEAT conference in Dallas, where the greater world of the sports technology marketplace regularly gathers). Miller, as those who read MSR know, was the point person for all technology deployments at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new roost for the Falcons that opened last summer and is scheduled to host Super Bowl 53 in February, 2019.

If history is any guide, the networking teams at MBS are likely already busy preparing for the NFL’s big game — in the recent past, carriers have used the offseason before a Super Bowl date to update the DAS inside Super Bowl venues, a task likely already underway in Atlanta. What’s not known is how Miller’s departure may or may not affect technology strategy decisions, either on the DAS side or on the Wi-Fi side of things. After touring MBS during a press day last summer, MSR did not receive any network-performance updates during the 2017 football season, despite repeated requests to stadium representatives, including Miller.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium also hosted the College Football Playoff championship game this past season, but for the first time in years the stadium hosting the game did not provide Wi-Fi usage statistics.

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.

Giants, AT&T say new under-seat antennas triple cell capacity at AT&T Park

Under-seat Wi-Fi enclosures at AT&T Park now have DAS antennas in them as well. Credit: SF Giants/AT&T

An offseason experiment by AT&T and the San Francisco Giants may change the way sports venues and carriers think about cellular deployment, as a massive installation of under-seat antennas has significantly improved the cellular capacity at AT&T Park for AT&T customers, according to the team and the carrier.

By installing cellular antennas inside 916 existing under-seat Wi-Fi antenna enclosures, AT&T and the Giants made a huge bet that by densifying the coverage, they could significantly improve the cellular experience for AT&T customers at the ballpark.

While admitting that data accumulated so far is only a small sample, the Giants and AT&T are nonetheless convinced their move is already a win, as early season declines in Wi-Fi use and increases in cellular data use seem to point toward a conclusion that fans are using more cellular service because it’s providing a better connection. The change is so effective that it’s even making the Giants’ networking team wonder if Wi-Fi will be necessary moving forward, if other carriers added the same kind of network capacity to their cellular infrastructures.

‘Most significant upgrade, ever’

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!

With technologies like the multiple proposed iterations of 5G cellular and other plans to mine new spectrum territory on the near horizon, large public venues looking to keep up with wireless data demands are seeking whatever ways they can to keep customers connected. Historically, AT&T Park has been in the lead in this arena, from being the first pro venue to provide Wi-Fi to fans (in 2004) to staying committed to pushing the envelope, including the pioneering move of putting Wi-Fi access points under seats to improve and expand coverage.

New Ericsson radio gear (long grey box) powers the new under-seat DAS antennas at AT&T Park. Credit: AT&T

As the neutral-host provider of a distributed antenna system (DAS) at AT&T Park to provide cellular coverage for its own customers as well as customers from all the top wireless service providers, AT&T has also kept its cellular systems at the top levels of performance, at least at the levels possible for traditional top-down antenna placements. However, as demand for wireless services keeps growing — pushed somewhat by the recent revival of so-called “unlimited” data plans — many large venues (especially those facing “bucket list” events like Super Bowls or World Series games) have been challenged to find ways to expand DAS capacity.

At the past three Super Bowls, Verizon Wireless has increased DAS capacity by using extra DAS antenna installations under seats (Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium), under seating-area concrete (Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium) and inside handrail enclosures (Super Bowl 52, U.S. Bank Stadium). According to Bill Schlough, senior vice president and chief information officer for the Giants, the team and AT&T conducted a small experiment last fall, to see if putting cell antennas inside the existing under-seat Wi-Fi enclosures could help provide a better signal for fans.

“We did a small swath of stands and it worked well,” said Schlough in a recent phone interview. “So we said, ‘let’s do the whole ballpark.’ ” Some 916 antennas later, installed by crews who worked every day of the offseason, AT&T Park had what Schlough called “our most significant connectivity upgrade, ever,” no small statement for a network that has required more than $30 million in spending in its existence, according to Schlough. What’s kind of funny is that this paradigm-changing “experiment” has so far only netted a one-paragraph simple explanation in a “What’s new” public press release from the Giants and AT&T Park.

WCS band comes into play

If the Giants and AT&T seem to be soft-pedaling the deployment a bit, some of that modesty may come from the fact that this deployment may not be easy to replicate. Gordon Spencer, an area manager in AT&T’s RAN engineering group, said the deployment uses only spectrum from the WCS band, a chunk of wavelengths near the 2300 GHz region. None of the other top carriers has any licensed spectrum in this band; by using only WCS wavelengths, Spencer said, AT&T easily avoided any interference with its existing DAS, which uses a number of more-common cellular frequencies. There was also a huge construction savings by using the existing under-seat Wi-Fi infrastructure, which meant there was no extra core drilling necessary to deploy the new cellular devices.

Another part of the program AT&T is reluctant to talk about is how exactly it got the WCS antennas to work inside a Wi-Fi box, without having to open up the boxes from the top. Spencer would not comment about specifics of the antenna deployment, but did say that having WCS spectrum close to the unlicensed 2.4 GHz spectrum used by some Wi-Fi communications “made construction pretty simple.” Like under-seat Wi-Fi, Spencer said the under-seat cellular network designs in the interference caused by human bodies (aka “bags of water”) to allow antennas to be placed closer together.

“It works much better when the stadium’s full of people… we designed it that way,” Spencer said.

Could more dense cellular replace the need for Wi-Fi?

While the public press release doesn’t give any exact throughput numbers for proof, it does state that “This densification initiative effectively triples wireless capacity for AT&T customers at AT&T Park,” and notes that approximately 32 miles of fiber and copper cable were used to enchance 97 cell sectors.

But since AT&T customers typically are in the majority at most AT&T Park events, by moving many of them to a new network, the team was able to effectively free up space on the regular DAS as well as on the Wi-Fi, a network Schlough said could soon fall out of favor.

“Imagine if the other carriers were able to leverage this new AT&T cellular network,” Schlough said. “Could it come to a point where we ask ourselves, do we need Wi-Fi anymore?”

Some venues, of course, may want to keep expanding their Wi-Fi systems since by owning the network they also own the network user data, a trove of information not usually shared by wireless carriers for DAS usage. But unlike some theoretical 5G designs — which may call for “microantennas” in a much larger number — the more-dense via piggybacking on Wi-Fi idea may have some legs.

“If you have a greenfield design it may make sense to use microantennas everywhere,” Spencer said. “This deployment was pragmatic, and it works.”