PGA Tour gives CBRS a test

Volunteers track shots with lasers on the fairways of PGA Tour tournaments. Credit: Chris Condon/PGA TOUR (click on any photo for a larger image)

CBRS technology doesn’t need spikey shoes to gain traction on the fairways, if early results from technology tests undertaken by the PGA Tour at courses around the country are any indication.

A recent 14-state test run by the top professional U.S. golf tour tapped the newly designated Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which comprises 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. Golf courses, which typically lack the dense wireless coverage of more populated urban areas, are easily maxed out when thousands of fans show up on a sunny weekend to trail top-ranked players like Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy or perennial favorite Tiger Woods.

To cover the bandwidth needs of tournaments, the PGA Tour has over time used a mix of technologies, many portable in nature given the short stay of a tournament at any given course. Like Wi-Fi or temporary cellular infrastructures used in the past, the hope is that CBRS will help support public safety, scoring and broadcast applications required to keep its events operating smoothly and safely, according to the PGA Tour.

“We’re looking at replacing our 5 GHz Wi-Fi solution with CBRS so we can have more control over service levels,” said Steve Evans, senior vice president of information systems for the PGA Tour. Unlike 5 GHz Wi-Fi, CBRS is licensed spectrum and less prone to interference the Tour occasionally experienced.

CBRS will also make a big difference with the Tour’s ShotLink system, a wireless data collection system used by the PGA Tour that gathers data on every shot made during competition play – distance, speed and other scoring data.

“CBRS would help us get the data off the golf course faster” than Wi-Fi can, Evans explained. “And after more than 15 months of testing we’ve done so far, CBRS has better coverage per access point than Wi-Fi.”

The preliminary results are so encouraging that the Tour is also looking to CBRS to carry some of its own voice traffic and has already done some testing there. “We need to have voice outside the field of play, and we think CBRS can help solve that problem,” Evans added.

But as an emerging technology, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of CBRS. Compatible handsets aren’t widely available; the PGA Tour has been testing CBRS prototypes from Essential. Those units only operate in CBRS bands 42 and 43; a third, band 48, is expected to be added by device makers sometime in the first half of 2019.

“We’re waiting for the phones to include band 48 and then we’ll test several,” Evans told Mobile Sports Report. “I expect Android would move first and be very aggressive with it.”

CBRS gear mounted on temporary poles at a PGA Tour event. Credit: PGA Tour

The PGA Tour isn’t the only sports entity looking at CBRS’s potential. The National Football League is testing coach-to-coach and coach-to-player communications over CBRS at all the league’s stadiums; the NBA’s Sacramento
Kings are testing it at Golden 1 Center with Ruckus; NASCAR has been testing video transmission from inside cars using CBRS along with Nokia and Google, and the ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz., recently launched a live CBRS network that it is currently using for backhaul to remote parking lot Wi-Fi hotspots.

Outside of sports and entertainment, FedEx, the Port of Los Angeles and General Electric are jointly testing CBRS in Southern California. Love Field Airport in Dallas is working with Boingo and Ruckus in a CBRS trial; service provider Pavlov Media is testing CBRS near the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana with Ruckus gear. Multiple service providers from telecom, cable and wireless are also testing the emerging technology’s potential all around the country.

Where CBRS came from, where it’s going

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 the new game-day digital fan engagement strategy at Texas A&M, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at Merceds-Benz Stadium, home of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

CBRS has undergone a 6-year gestation period; 150 MHz worth of bandwidth was culled from the 3.5 GHz spectrum, which must be shared (and not interfere) with U.S. government radar operations already operating in that same spectrum.

From a regulatory perspective, CBRS’s experimental status is expected to give way to full commercial availability in the near future. Consequently, wireless equipment vendors have been busy building – and marketing – CBRS access points and antennas for test and commercial usage. But entities like the PGA Tour have already identified the benefits and aren’t waiting for the FCC to confer full commercial status on the emerging wireless technology.

CBRS equipment vendors and would-be service providers were hard to miss at last fall’s Mobile World
Congress Americas meeting in Los Angeles. More than 20 organizations – all part of the CBRS Alliance – exhibited their trademarked OnGo services, equipment and software in a day-long showcase event. (Editor’s note: “OnGo” is the alliance’s attempt to “brand” the service as something more marketable than the geeky CBRS acronym).

The CBRS Alliance envisions five potential use cases of the technology, according to Dave Wright, alliance president and director of regulatory affairs and network standards at Ruckus:
• Mobile operators that want to augment capacity of their existing spectrum
• Cable operators looking to expand into wireless services instead of paying a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO)
• Other third-party providers looking to offer fixed broadband services
• Enterprise and industrial applications: extending or amplifying wireless in business parks and remote locations; Internet of Things data acquisition.
• Neutral host capabilities, which some have likened to LTE roaming, an important development as 5G cellular services ramp up.

Previously, if customers wanted to extend cell coverage inside a building or a stadium, their best option was often distributed antenna systems (DAS). But DAS is complicated, expensive and relies on carrier participation, according to Wright. “Carriers also want to make sure your use of their spectrum doesn’t interfere with their macro spectrum nearby,” he added.

CBRS uses discrete spectrum not owned by a mobile operator, allowing an NFL franchise, for example, to buy CBRS radios and deploy them around the stadium, exclusively or shared, depending on their requirements and budgets.

More CBRS antenna deployment. Credit: PGA Tour

On a neutral host network, a mobile device would query the LTE network to see which operations are supported. The device would then exchange credentials with the mobile carriers – CBRS and cellular – then permissions are granted, the user is authenticated, and their usage info gets passed back to the carrier, Wright explained.

With the PGA Tour tests, the Essential CBRS devices get provisioned on the network, then connect to the CBRS network just like a cell phone connects to public LTE, Evans explained. The Tour’s custom apps send collected data back to the Tour’s network via the CBRS access point, which is connected to temporary fiber the Tour installs. And while some of Ruckus’s CBRS access points also support Wi-Fi, the Tour uses only the CBRS. “When we’re testing, we’re not turning Wi-Fi on if it’s there,” Evans clarified.

While the idea of “private LTE” networks supported by CBRS is gaining lots of headline time, current deployments would require a new SIM card for any devices wanting to use the private CBRS network, something that may slow down deployments until programmable SIM cards move from good idea to reality. But CBRS networks could also be used for local backhaul, using Wi-Fi to connect to client devices, a tactic currently being used at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

“It’s an exciting time… CBRS really opens up a lot of new opportunities,” Wright added. “The PGA Tour and NFL applications really address some unmet needs.”

CBRS on the Fairways

Prior to deploying CBRS access points at a location, the PGA Tour surveys the tournament course to create a digital image of every hole, along with other data to calculate exact locations and distances between any two coordinates, like the tee box and the player’s first shot or the shot location and the location of the hole. The survey also helps the Tour decide how and where to place APs on the course.

Courses tend to be designed in two different ways, according to the PGA Tour’s Evans. With some courses, the majority number of holes are adjacent to each other and create a more compact course; other courses are routed through neighborhoods and may snake around, end-to-end.

“In the adjacent model, which is 70 percent of the courses we play, we can usually cover the property with about 10 access points,” Evans explained.

Adjacent-style courses where the PGA Tour has tested CBRS include Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.; Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Penn.; and East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

In the second model, where the holes are strung back to back, the PGA Tour may have to deploy as many as 18 or 20 APs to get the coverage and throughput it needs. That’s the configuration used during a recent tournament at the TPC Summerlin course in Las Vegas, Nev., Evans told Mobile Sports Report.

On the course, CBRS APs get attached to some kind of structure where possible, Evans added. “Where that doesn’t make sense, we have portable masts we use – a tripod with a pole that goes up 20 feet,” he said. The only reason he’d relocate an AP once a tournament began is if it caused a problem with the competition or fan egress. “We’re pretty skilled at avoiding those issues,” he said.

A handful of PGA Tour employees operates its ShotLink system, which also relies on an army of volunteers – as many as 350 at each tournament – who help with data collection and score updates (that leader board doesn’t refresh itself!). “There’s a walker with each group, recording data about each shot. There’s technology for us on each fairway and green, and even in the ball itself, as the ball hits the green and as player hits putts,” said Evans.

The walker-volunteers relay their data back to a central repository; from there, ShotLink data then gets sent to PGA Tour management and is picked up by a variety of organizations from onsite TV broadcast partners; the pgatour.com Website; players, coaches and caddies; print media; and mobile devices.

In addition to pushing PGA Tour voice traffic over on to CBRS, the organization is also looking for the technology to handle broadcast video. “We think broadcast video capture could become a [CBRS] feature,” Evans said. The current transport method, UHF video, is a low-latency way to get video back to a truck where it can be uploaded for broadcast audiences.

A broadcast program produced by the organization, PGA Tour Live, follows two groups on the course; each group has four cameras and producers cut between each group and each camera. That video needs to be low latency, high reliability, but is expensive due to UHF transmission.

Once 5G standards are created for video capture, the PGA Tour could use public LTE to bond a number of cell signals together. Unfortunately, that method has higher latency. “It’s fine for replay but not for live production,” Evans said, but is expected to eventually improve performance-wise. “The idea is eventually to move to outside cameras with CBRS and then use [CBRS] for data collection too,” he added. “If we could take out the UHF cost, it would be significant for us.”

In the meantime, the Tour will continue to rely largely on Cisco-Meraki Wi-Fi and use Wi-Fi as an alternate route if something happens to CBRS, Evans said. “But we expect CBRS to be primary and used 99 percent of the time.”

Super Bowl cellular report: AT&T, Sprint combine for almost 50 TB of game-day traffic

An under-seat DAS antenna in the 300 seating section at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Let the cellular traffic reports begin! AT&T is the first to report numbers for our annual unofficial tabulation of wireless traffic from the Super Bowl, with 11.5 terabytes of data in and around Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Sunday’s Super Bowl 53.

While the New England Patriots’ 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams can and will be debated for its entertainment value (or lack thereof), as usual the fans there for the “bucket list” event apparently held up the trend of mobile wireless traffic continuing to grow. According to AT&T it also saw a total of 23.5 TB of traffic on its network in a 2-mile radius around the stadium Sunday. Both the near-stadium and wider metro numbers were records for AT&T; previously it had seen a high of 9.8 TB of near-stadium traffic at Super Bowl 51 in Houston, and a wider metro total of 21.7 TB last year at Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis.

Next in with numbers is Sprint, which said it saw 25 TB of traffic “in and around” the stadium on game day, but with Sprint this number is usually the bigger geographical area of the downtown area around the stadium, and not just in and directly outside. Right now Sprint is declining to provide any more granularity on the size of its reporting area “for competitive reasons,” so feel free to speculate if the 25TB comes from network activity actually close to the stadium or if it includes all of downtown Atlanta.

It’s worthwhile to note that Sprint’s reported total grew from 9.7 TB last year to 25 TB this year. So the big-area total is now at 48.5 TB, and that is all the reporting we are going to get this year. A spokesperson from Verizon said that while the company saw “record-breaking” traffic at the event, the spokesperson also said that Verizon “decided to no longer release specific performance statistics around this event.” T-Mobile also declined to provide any traffic figures.

Sprint did have more to say this year about upgrading Atlanta-area infrastructure, adding its massive MIMO technology in an effort to boost performance.

Even without actual numbers from Verizon or T-Mobile it’s clear that last year’s total of 50.2 TB of total metro cellular traffic was most likely surpassed, by a huge margin.

Wi-Fi numbers for Super Bowl 53, reported Friday at 24.05 TB, are an indication that traffic overall is still climbing year to year, with no ceiling in sight.

Going into Sunday’s game there had been some lingering questions about whether or not the Mercedes-Benz Stadium DAS would hold up to the demands, given that its initial deployment is now the subject of a lawsuit between IBM and Corning. As usual, all the wireless carriers said that they had made substantial improvements to infrastructure in the stadium as well as in the surrounding metro Atlanta area ahead of the game, to make sure Super Bowl visitors stayed connected, so for now it seems like any DAS issues were corrected before the game.

An interesting factoid from AT&T: At halftime, AT&T said it saw more than 237 GB of data crossing its network within 15 minutes. Sprint also said that it saw the most data cross its network at halftime. More as we hear more! Any in-person reports welcome as well.

Impressive renovation makes Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena feel ‘new’ again

Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, the venue formerly known as Philips Arena, feels like a new NBA arena thanks to an extensive remodel. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

From the outside looking in, it’s hard to tell what has changed besides the name on the building that is the Atlanta Hawks’ home.

But once inside the doors, the venue formerly known as Philips Arena has pretty much disappeared, with full-scale knockdown remodels, finishing touches and high-definition Wi-Fi making the newly named State Farm Arena feel like something just-built from the ground up.

“If you’re just driving by, you don’t see any changes,” said Marcus Wasdin, chief information officer for the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena. Even the subway signage and a map in the attached CNN Center still call the basketball arena by its old name, not adequately preparing visitors (especially media in town for this Sunday’s Super Bowl) for the $200 million makeover that’s now finished inside.

While those who’d been there previously might have a hard time believing their eyes, even first-time visitors to the hoops venue in downtown Atlanta can be suitably impressed, as the fan-facing structural improvements — including a number of different premium seating and club spaces, as well as open-air concourses surrounding main seating areas — put the newly named arena on a service par with any brand-new facilities that have opened recently.

Throw in a high-definition Wi-Fi network added by Comcast Business’ emerging sports-arena division, using Cisco gear and design and deployment by AmpThink, as well as a solid DAS operated by Boingo, and you have a complete modern fan-experience setting for Hawks followers to enjoy as they await to see if new stars like rookie Trae Young can lift the Hawks into NBA title contention.

Ripping out the concrete

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 the new game-day digital fan engagement strategy at Texas A&M, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at Merceds-Benz Stadium, home of this week’s Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

New trusses were needed to support the new Samsung center-hung video board.

“We call it a new arena under the old roof,” said Wasdin, our host for a stadium tour as well as full-area access to a packed-arena game against the defending world champion Golden State Warriors on Dec. 3. Since Mobile Sports Report had never been to a live event in the venue when it was known as Philips Arena (State Farm agreed to take over as sponsor this summer, with the name change in time for the new season and the stadium re-opening), we didn’t have any old memories to compare it to. But photos from the past show a much different arena, with one side an entire flat wall of suites, a construction strategy popular back in 1999, when the arena opened.

Fast forward to 2018, and visitors to the 17,600-seat arena will find all the cool new things that are popular with today’s fans, like expanded club areas and open spaces where fans can mingle with a view of the court. The renovation also added a wide mixture of premium seating and club spaces above and beyond the old staple of the corporate suite.

Following preliminary activities to get set for the renovation the previous two years, the arena fully closed this past April, with heavy construction machinery in as soon as the fans left. According to Wasdin, some 300 tons of concrete were taken out of the building, opening up spaces for the new, creative architectural ideas.

Why didn’t the Hawks just knock the building down and start anew, like their NFL neighbors next door did? According to Wasdin, the estimated cost at knocking down and building a new structure was in the neighborhood of $550 million — but by keeping the foundations and outside structure and only renovating the insides (including adding a new support truss overhead for the distinctive center-hung video board from Samsung’s Prismview), the Hawks got the equivalent of a new venue for less than half the cost, in the neighborhood of $200 million.

“We call it a new arena under the same roof,” Wasdin said.

Fast wireless and multiple hospitality options

We started our pregame tour at one of the stadium’s innovative club spaces, a stand-up Altanta Hawks logo bar at court level, just behind one of the backboards. Fans who have courtside seats as well as some of the lower-bowl seats can wander there during the game, as well as to a hospitality area just under the stands where amenities like a pizza oven are part of the all-inclusive charge.

A lower-bowl Wi-Fi enclosure

During pregame shootarounds we sat in the lower-bowl seating area, which is covered by Wi-Fi APs in an under-seat deployment. According to AmpThink, there are approximately 480 total APs in the new Wi-Fi network. As the seats were filling up to watch Golden State’s Stephen Curry in his mesmerizing pregame shooting routine, we got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 31.3 Mbps on the download and 41.6 Mbps on the upload. A cellular speedtest on the Verizon network in the same place checked in at 33.7 Mbps / 6.43 Mbps; the DAS antennas for the lower bowl seats are inside railing enclosures. In the upper seating sections, both Wi-Fi and DAS use overhead mounts for antennas.

Other premium-seat options include access to clubs under the stands on both long sides of the court. On one side, a sports-bar theme has touches like tables made from the hardwood used for last year’s court; that club also includes a seating area that opens to the hallway used by players getting from the locker room to the court, an amenity that lets fans high-five the players as they pass by (Sacramento and Milwaukee have similar premium club spaces with the same interactive idea).

As you might guess, the premium club areas are well-covered by wireless. In the sports-bar “Players Club” we got a Wi-Fi test of 59.6 Mbps / 69.1 Mbps and a cellular test of 67.1 Mbps / 32.9 Mbps at just about 45 minutes before tipoff, as fans watched other basketball action on a humongous two-panel flat-screen display behind the bar, more screens from PrismView installed by display integrator Vitec.

Up in the main level concourse, which Wasdin said used to feel more like a concrete tunnel, the open-air concessions area (with stands along the wall as well as in the middle of the space) saw a Wi-Fi test of 20.4 Mbps / 61.4 Mbps, even as thick crowds of fans streamed by. On an escalator up to the second level and the “Atlanta Social Club” premium area, we got a Wi-Fi mark of 30.8 Mbps / 46.9 Mbps.

A very Atlanta feel to premium spaces and suites

We spent part of the game watching from some comfy-chair seats that are one of the options in the “Social Club” premium area, which is backstopped by a large all-inclusive food and drink area with several dining and bar options. Other premium seating choices include “cabana” suites, where couches and tables in the back of an open-air area lead through a passage to courtside seating. Just below that level are four-top tables with high bar-chair seating, an arrangement popular at new venues like Atlanta’s SunTrust Park. A bit lower down are the comfy-chair seats, a range of choices that gives the Hawks the ability to reach a wider audience of smaller groups who are still looking for an above-average experience.

A DAS railing enclosure

And yes, the wireless in this area is solid as well, with a Wi-Fi test of 46.4 Mbps / 60.2 Mbps, back in the bar area just before tipoff. On the other side of the court are the more traditional suites, with the lower-level “veranda” suites offering a back room as well as a courtside seating area that is unique in that it’s open on top. Above that level is the loft-suite row, smaller spaces with a shared all-inclusive food and beverage area in the back.

In and around the suite level there are other premium finish touches, like acoustic wood paneling to help make State Farm Arena a more friendly venue for music acts. AmpThink’s commitment to aesthetics was visible (or invisible, unless you were looking for it) in places like the veranda suites, where a custom enclosure that fit flush to the outside wall allowed a two-radio Cisco AP to broadcast one way out to the seats, and on the other side, back into the enclosed area.

“Food and connectivity were two of the things we really wanted to fix,” said Wasdin about the renovation. On the food side, local dining choices are available throughout the arena, with artisan pizza, barbecue and even a bar/grill area run by local recording star Zac Brown.

On the connectivity side, Wasdin said the Hawks were impressed by the integration work previously done by the fairly new sports-arena division inside Comcast Business, especially at nearby SunTrust Park and at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, experience that led the Hawks to pick Comcast as their lead technology integrator.

“Comcast brought in AmpThink and there could not be better partnering,” Wasdin said. As always in construction projects, the tech deployment had to work around the unforeseen but inevitable hurdles and delays, but the networks were ready to go when the building re-opened in late October. (The networks will likely get a good stress test this week as State Farm Arena serves as the media headquarters for Super Bowl LIII, taking place on Feb. 3 next door at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.)

“We’re pretty pleased with how well the networks are working,” said Wasdin. Both Comcast and AmpThink, he said, “lived up to their track records.”

A look from above at the new courtside club space

And here’s what the court looks like from that same club space

Stephen Curry doesn’t miss many shots. This was a swish

Samsung video walls in one club space

Fried chicken and a Wi-Fi enclosure

Wi-Fi antennas covering the upper seating deck

Mercedes-Benz Wi-Fi (and DAS) ready for Super Bowl LIII

Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s Wi-Fi network is ready for its moment in the Super Bowl sun. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

With less than two weeks to go before Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosts Super Bowl LIII, there’s no longer any doubt that the venue’s Wi-Fi network should be ready for what is historically the biggest Wi-Fi traffic day of the year.

Oh, and that DAS network you were wondering about? It should be fine too, but more on that later. On a recent game-day visit to the still-new roost of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons (and the latest MLS champions, Atlanta United), Mobile Sports Report found that the stadium’s Wi-Fi network, using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise company, in a design by AmpThink for lead technology provider IBM, was strong on all levels of the venue, including some hard-to-reach spots in the building’s unique layout.

And in our game-day interview with Danny Branch, chief information officer for AMB Sports & Entertainment, we also finally got some statistics about Wi-Fi performance that should put any Super Bowl capacity fears to rest. According to Branch, Mercedes-Benz Stadium saw 12 terabytes of Wi-Fi used during the College Football Playoff Championship Game on Jan. 8, 2018, the second-highest single-game Wi-Fi total we’ve seen, beaten only by the 16.31 TB recorded at Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“We’re confident, and we’re ready for the Super Bowl,” said Branch about his stadium’s network preparedness, during an interview before the Dec. 2 Falcons home game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens. The night before our talk, Mercedes-Benz Stadium had hosted the SEC Championship Game, where a classic comeback by Alabama netted the Tide a 35-28 win over Georgia, while fans packing the stadium used another 8.06 TB of Wi-Fi data, according to Branch.

Along with lawsuit, DAS gets 700 new antennas

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 the new game-day digital fan engagement strategy at Texas A&M, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at the renovated State Farm Arena in Atlanta! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

An under-seat DAS antenna in the 300 seating section at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The Wi-Fi totals revealed by Branch were the first such statistics reported by Mercedes-Benz Stadium since its opening in August of 2017. While initially the lack of reports of any kind last fall were thought to have been just some kind of Southern modesty, MSR had been hearing back-channel industry questions about the wireless coverage in the venue since its opening, particularly with the performance of the DAS network.

Those whispers finally became public when IBM filed a lawsuit on Oct. 31 in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, alleging that subcontractor Corning had failed to deliver a working DAS. In its lawsuit complaints IBM said that the DAS had not worked correctly throughout 2017, and that IBM had to spend large amounts of money to fix it. Corning has since countered with its own legal claims, asking IBM’s claims to be dismissed.

While that battle is now left to the lawyers, inside the stadium, Branch said in December that the DAS was getting its final tuning ahead of the Super Bowl. In addition to (or as part of) the IBM DAS improvements, Branch said that an additional 700 under-seat DAS antennas have been installed in the seating bowl. In our walk-around review during the Falcons’ game, MSR noticed multiple DAS antenna placements that seemed to be new since our last visit in August of 2017, during the stadium’s press day.

“IBM addressed the DAS issues, and we’re in a good place,” said Branch. The NFL’s CIO, Michelle McKenna, also gave her office’s approval of the readiness of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium networks in a separate phone interview. And MSR even got to witness a live opening of the stadium’s unique camera-shutter roof, another technology that ran into some bugs during football season last year but now appears to be solved.

Selfies and speedtests

So how do the networks perform at a live event? The short answer is, on the Wi-Fi side we saw steady speeds wherever we tested, typically in a range between 20 Mbps on the low side to 60+ Mbps on the high side, for both download and upload speeds. On the DAS side, our Verizon network phone saw a wide range of speed results, from some single-digit marks all the way up to 99 Mbps in one location; so perhaps the best answer is that on cellular, your speedtest may vary, but you will most likely always have a strong enough signal to do just about any task you might want to at a stadium, even on Super Sunday. All four major wireless carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, use the Mercedes-Benz Stadium DAS. And you can also expect all the major carriers to beef up local bandwidth with a combination of permanent and temporary upgrades, to ensure good connectivity throughout downtown Atlanta during Super Bowl week. Sprint and AT&T have already made announcements about their local upgrades, and we are sure Verizon and T-Mobile will follow suit with announcements soon.

The iconic ‘halo board’ video screen below the unique roof opening at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Though we didn’t get any tests during the brief on-field part of our tour, Branch did point out some Wi-Fi APs on the sidelines for media access. Mercedes-Benz Stadium also now has a pair of MatSing ball antennas perched way up near the roof openings, to help with cellular coverage down to the sidelines.

MSR started our speedtest tour in the place where most Falcons fans probably pull out their phones, in front of the metal falcon structure outside the main entry gate. Even with digital ticketing activities taking place close by and groups of fans taking selfies in front of the bird, we still got a high Wi-Fi test of 35.8 Mbps on the download side and 41.6 Mbps on the upload. On cellular our top speeds in the same area were 3.94 Mbps / 17.2 Mbps.

Just inside the stadium doors from the Falcon is what the team calls the stadium’s “front porch,” an extended concourse with a clear view down to the field. On the Sunday we visited there was a stage with a DJ and rapping crew providing pregame entertainment, in front of two of the stadium’s more distinctive Daktronics digital displays, the 101-foot-tall “Mega Column” and the 26-foot-tall (at its highest point) triangular “Feather Wall” display, which frame part of the porch.

In the middle of a slowly moving crowd that was taking selfies in multiple directions, MSR still got good connectivity, with Wi-Fi speeds of 22.4 Mbps / 12.3 Mbps, and a cellular mark of 5.38 Mbps / 12.0 Mbps. As far as we could see, the wide-open space was being served by antennas mounted on walls on two sides of the opening.

Bridges, nosebleeds and concourses

Looking for some tough-to-cover spots, we next headed to one of the two “sky bridges,” narrow walkways that connect over the main entry on both the 200 and 300 seating levels. Out in the exact middle of the 200-level sky bridge we still got a Wi-Fi test of 14.6 Mbps / 8.19 Mbps; celluar checked in at 4.07 Mbps / 4.59 Mbps.

For some more fan-friendly speeds we wandered in front of the nearby concourse watering hole, the Cutwater Spirits bar, where our Wi-Fi signal tested at 35.8 Mbps / 42.4 Mbps, and the DAS signal (directly in front of an antenna mounted above the concourse) reached 99.2 Mbps / 25.4 Mbps even with heavy foot traffic coming by.

The roof opens at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Right before kickoff, we wandered into the top sections of the Falcons’ new roost, where about halfway up in section 310 (near the 50-yard line) we got Wi-Fi speeds of 11.6 Mbps / 1.86 Mbps, and cellular speeds of 13.1 Mbps / 2.50 Mbps, during the height of the on-field pregame festivities. In that section and in others we walked around to, many fans were busy with phones during pregame, with many watching live video.

One interesting technology note: The stadium’s unique Daktronics halo video board, a 58-foot-high screen that circles around underneath the roof, is partially obscured in the uppermost sideline seats. But that’s pretty much the only place you aren’t wowed by the screen’s spectacle, which from most of the rest of the stadium offers multiple-screen views no matter where you are looking up from.

One final speedtest on the 300-level concourse saw the Wi-Fi speeds at 35.8 Mbps / 38.2 Mbps, while another one of those new-looking DAS antennas gave us a speed test of 77.0 Mbps / 21.4 Mbps. During the third quarter we visited the AT&T Perch, a section above the end zone area opposite of the entry porch where there are large displays with multiple TV screens and even some recliner-type chairs where fans can get their other-game viewing on while inside the arena. Wi-Fi in the Perch tested at 42.1 Mbps / 61.0 Mbps.

Fans are finding the Wi-Fi

Though we haven’t yet seen any more detailed network use statistics, like unique game-day connections or peak concurrent connections for any events, Branch said fans are definitely finding the network. Sponsored by AT&T with an “ATTWifi” SSID, there is no landing page or portal for the network asking for any information — once fans find the network and connect, they’re on.

This type of personal assistance might be even more needed at the Super Bowl.

“In the first year we didn’t promote it [the Wi-Fi] heavily, because we were making sure everything worked well,” Branch said. But this year, he said the team has been promoting the network in emails to season ticket holders, and with video board messages on game days. At a high school football weekend this past fall, Branch said the Falcons saw 75 percent of attendees connect to the Wi-Fi network.

“AmpThink and Aruba did a really good job” on the Wi-Fi network, Branch said. “I love it when my friends tell me how fast the Wi-Fi is.”

By adding solid wireless connectivity to the host of other amenities found inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium — including fan-friendly food and drink prices that are simply the lowest you’ll see anywhere — Branch said he felt like the Falcons’ ownership had succeeded in creating a venue that was “an experience,” where fans would want to come inside instead of tailgating until the last minute.

With the Super Bowl looming on the horizon, Branch knows there’s still no rest until the game is over, with new challenges ahead. The Sunday we visited, the Falcons debuted a new footbridge over the road outside the back-door Gate 1 entry, and Branch knows there will be networking challenges to make sure fans can still connect when the NFL erects its Super Bowl security perimeter far out from the actual stadium doors.

“Our motto is be prepared for anything,” said Branch, noting that there is really no template or historical model for a building unique as Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re changing tires on a car going 100 miles per hour,” Branch said, only partially in jest. “But we’re confident we’ll be ready for the Super Bowl.”

The metal falcon is selfie central for visitors new and old

Wi-Fi and DAS antennas cover the ‘front porch’ landing area inside the main entry

Under-seat Wi-Fi AP enclosure

A shadowy look at one of the MatSing ball antennas in the rafters

The gear behind the under-seat DAS deployments

The view toward downtown

Levi’s Stadium sees 5.1 TB of Wi-Fi data used at college football championship

Fans and media members at Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game used a total of 5.1 terabytes of data on the Wi-Fi network at Levi’s Stadium, according to figures provided by the San Francisco 49ers, who own and run the venue.

With 74,814 in attendance for Clemson’s 44-16 victory over Alabama, 17,440 of those in the stands found their way onto the stadium’s Wi-Fi network. According to the Niners the peak concurrent connection number of 11,674 users was seen at 7:05 p.m. local time, which was probably right around the halftime break. The peak bandwidth rate of 3.81 Gbps, the Niners said, was seen at 5:15 p.m. local time, just after kickoff.

In a nice granular breakout, the Niners said about 4.24 TB of the Wi-Fi data was used by fans, while a bit more than 675 GB was used by the more than 925 media members in attendance. The Wi-Fi data totals were recorded during an 8-1/2 hour period on Monday, from 1 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. local time.

Added to the 3.7 TB of DAS traffic AT&T reported inside Levi’s Stadium Monday night, we’re up to 8.8 TB total wireless traffic so far, with reports from Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile still not in. The top Wi-Fi number at Levi’s Stadium, for now, remains Super Bowl 50, which saw 10.1 TB of Wi-Fi traffic.

Can virtualization help venues meet growing mobile capacity demands?

By Josh Adelson, director, Portfolio Marketing, CommScope

U.S. mobile operators reported a combined 50 terabytes of cellular traffic during the 2018 Super Bowl, nearly doubling over the previous year. In fact, Super Bowl data consumption has doubled every year for at least the past 6 years and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Clearly, fans love their LTE connections almost as much as they love their local team. Fans have the option for cellular or Wi-Fi, but cellular is the default connection whereas Wi-Fi requires a manual connection step that many users may not bother with.[1] The same dynamic is playing out on a smaller scale in every event venue and commercial building.

Whether you are a venue owner, part of the team organization or in the media, this heightened connectivity represents an opportunity to connect more with fans, and to expand your audience to the fans’ own social connections beyond the venue walls.

But keeping up with the demand is also a challenge. High capacity can come at a high cost, and these systems also require significant real estate for head-end equipment. Can you please your fans and leverage their connectedness while keeping equipment and deployment costs from breaking the capex scoreboard?

Virtualization and C-RAN to the rescue?

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.

Enterprise IT departments have long since learned that centralizing and virtualizing their computing infrastructures has been a way to grow capacity while reducing equipment cost and space requirements. Can sports and entertainment venues achieve the same by virtualizing their in-building wireless infrastructures? To answer this question, let’s first review the concepts and how they apply to wireless infrastructure.

In the IT domain, virtualization refers to replacing multiple task-specific servers with a centralized resource pool that can be dynamically assigned to a given task on demand. Underlying this concept is the premise that, while each application has its own resource needs, at any given time only a subset will be active, so the total shared resource can be less than the sum of the individual requirements.

How does this translate to in-building wireless? Centralizing the base station function is known as C-RAN, which stands for centralized (or cloud) radio access network. C-RAN involves not only the physical pooling of the base stations into a single location — which is already the practice in most venues — but also digital architecture and software intelligence to allocate baseband capacity to different parts of the building in response to shifting demand.

C-RAN brings immediate benefits to a large venue in-building wireless deployment. The ability to allocate capacity across the venue via software rather than hardware adds flexibility and ease of operation. This is especially important in multi-building venues that include not only a stadium or arena but also surrounding administrative buildings, retail spaces, restaurants, hotels and transportation hubs. As capacity needs shift between the spaces by time of day or day of week, you need a system that can “point” the capacity to the necessary hot spots.

C-RAN can even go a step further to remove the head-end from the building campus altogether. Mobile network operators are increasingly deploying base stations in distributed locations known as C-RAN hubs. If there is a C-RAN hub close to the target building, then the in-building system can take a signal directly from the hub, via a fiber connection. Even if the operator needs to add capacity to the hub for this building, this arrangement gives them the flexibility to use that capacity in other parts of their network when it’s not needed at the building. It also simplifies maintenance and support as it keeps the base station equipment within the operator’s facilities.

For the building owner, this architecture can reduce the footprint of the on-campus head-end by as much as 90 percent. Once the baseband resources are centralized, the next logical step is to virtualize them into software running on PC server platforms. As it turns out, this is not so simple. Mobile baseband processing is a real-time, compute-intensive function that today runs on embedded processors in specialized hardware platforms. A lot of progress is being made toward virtualization onto more standard computers, but as of today, most mobile base stations are still purpose-built.

Perhaps more important for stadium owners is the fact that the base station (also called the signal source) is selected and usually owned by the mobile network operator. Therefore the form it takes has at most only an indirect effect on the economics for the venue. And whether the signal source is virtual or physical, the signal still must be distributed by a physical network of cables, radios and antennas.

The interface between the signal source and the distribution network provides another opportunity for savings. The Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) establishes a digital interface that reduces space and power requirements while allowing the distribution network — the DAS — to take advantage of the intelligence in the base station. To leverage these advantages, the DAS also needs to be digital.

To illustrate this, consider the head-end for a 12 MIMO sector configuration with 4 MIMO bands per sector, as shown below. In this configuration a typical analog DAS is compared with a digital C-RAN antenna system, with and without a CPRI baseband interface. In the analog systems, points of interface (POIs) are needed to condition the signals from the different sources to an equal level before they are combined and converted to optical signals via an e/o (electric to optical) transceiver. In a digital system, signal conditioning and conversion from electric to digital is integrated into a single card, providing significant space saving.

* A typical analog system will require 8 POIs (4 MIMO bands per sector) and 2 o/e transceivers per sector resulting in 10 cards per sector. A typical subrack (chassis) supports up 10-12 cards, so a subrack will support 1 MIMO sector. For 12 MIMO sectors, 12 subracks are needed and each is typically 4 rack unit height. This results in a total space of 48 rack units.

* For a digital system[2] without CPRI, each subrack supports 32 SISO ports. Each MIMO sector with 4 MIMO bands will require 8 ports resulting in supporting 4 MIMO sectors per subrack. For 12 MIMO sectors, 3 subracks of 5 rack unit height each are needed resulting in total space of 15 rack units.

* For a digital system with CPRI, each subrack supports 48 MIMO ports. Each MIMO sector with 4 MIMO bands will require 4 ports resulting in 12 MIMO sectors per subrack. For 12 MIMO sectors, only 1 subrack of 5 rack unit height is needed resulting in total space of 5 rack units.

One commercial example of this is Nokia’s collaboration with CommScope to offer a CPRI interface between Nokia’s AirScale base station and CommScope’s Era C-RAN antenna system. With this technology, a small interface card replaces an array of remote radio units, reducing space and power consumption in the C-RAN hub by up to 90 percent. This also provides a stepping-stone to future Open RAN interfaces when they become standardized and commercialized.

The Benefits in Action — A Case Study

Even without virtualization, the savings of digitization, C-RAN and CPRI at stadium scale are significant. The table below shows a recent design that CommScope created for a large stadium complex in the U.S. For this, we compared 3 alternatives: traditional analog DAS, a digital C-RAN antenna system with RF base station interfaces, and a C-RAN antenna system with CPRI interfaces. Digital C-RAN and CPRI produce a dramatic reduction in the space requirements, as the table below illustrates.

The amount of equipment is reduced because a digital system does in software what analog systems must do in hardware, and CPRI even further eliminates hardware. Energy savings are roughly proportional to the space savings, since both are a function of the amount of equipment required for the solution.

Fiber savings, shown in the table below, are similarly significant.

The amount of fiber is reduced because digitized signals can be encoded and transmitted more efficiently.

But these savings are only part of the story. This venue, like most, is used for different types of events — football games, concerts, trade shows and even monster truck rallies. Each type of event has its own unique traffic pattern and timing. With analog systems, re-sectoring to accommodate these changes literally requires on-site physical re-wiring of head-end units. But with a digital C-RAN based system it’s possible to re-sectorize from anywhere through a browser-based, drag and drop interface.

The Bottom Line

It’s a safe bet that mobile data demand will continue to grow. But the tools now exist to let you control whether this will be a burden, or an opportunity to realize new potential. C-RAN, virtualization and open RAN interfaces all have a role to play in making venue networks more deployable, flexible and affordable. By understanding what each one offers, you can make the best decisions for your network.

Josh Adelson is director of portfolio marketing at CommScope, where he is responsible for marketing the award-winning OneCell Cloud RAN small cell, Era C-RAN antenna system and ION-E distributed antenna system. He has over 20 years experience in mobile communications, content delivery and networking. Prior to joining CommScope, Josh has held product marketing and management positions with Airvana (acquired by CommScope in 2015) PeerApp, Brooktrout Technology and Motorola. He holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a BA from Brown University.

FOOTNOTES
1: 59 percent of users at the 2018 Super Bowl attached to the stadium Wi-Fi network.
2: Dimensioning for digital systems is based on CommScope Era.