New third-party wireless infrastructure company buys 5 Bars’ stadium business

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

Neutral Connect Networks (NCN), a newly formed third-party operator of wireless systems for sports and entertainment venues, has purchased the stadium business part of 5 Bars as part of its inception, a transaction publicly announced last week.

As part of its rollup NCN also acquired DAS Communications, a third-party infrastructure provider with deployments in Boston and New York. The new company also received a $30 million funding round from M/C Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm.

Though 5 Bars recently basked in the successful glow of its biggest stadium project — building the Wi-Fi network at Houston’s NRG Stadium, home of the recent Super Bowl LI — the firm had faced challenges winning deals due to its smaller size, according to Paul McGinn, the CEO of NCN. With more personnel resources along with the $30 million war chest, McGinn said the 5 Bars sports business has a better chance to compete.

“We’re going to put tens of millions into 5 Bars,” said McGinn in a phone interview. “We’re looking forward to growing that business quickly.”

In addition to NRG Stadium, 5 Bars had built third-party networks at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Angels Stadium, and is constructing DAS and Wi-Fi networks at the new football stadium at Colorado State University, which is scheduled to be completed in time for this fall’s season.

McGinn, who was most recently at Vertical Bridge as director of business development, leads a team that includes Brian Porter, a former vice president of in-building operations at telecom gear provider Ericsson. Porter will be NCN’s senior vice president of sales and operations. Bruce Banigan, II, vice president of business development for 5 Bars’ sports operations, will continue in that role at NCN.

John Clarey, 5 Bars’ former CEO, who will continue as an investor in NCN, said in a prepared statement that “the financial commitment from NCN and M/C Partners provides 5 Bars the needed resources to continue to build and operate the large projects it has in its pipeline.” The terms of the all-cash deal for buying 5 Bars’ sports business were not revealed. UPDATE: 5 Bars said its other main business line, a nascent operation looking to provide third-party wireless infrastructure for cities and communities, will continue to operate under the name XG Communities.

Though some recent comments by telco executives seem to be signaling a change in their companies’ willingness to participate in third-party DAS and Wi-Fi deployments may be waning, NCN’s McGinn said his new company will approach third-party deals with a different mindset, mainly one that looks longer into the future.

“We’re not going to be looking to recoup 100 percent of the cost of the system in one to three years,” said McGinn. Instead, McGinn said the new NCN/5 Bars approach will be one of looking for smaller cash contributions over a longer time frame.

5 Bars, JMA Wireless, Cisco part of Wi-Fi and DAS at new Colorado State stadium

Panoramic view of the west and south outsides of the new CSU football stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Panoramic view of the west and south outsides of the new CSU football stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Network components haven’t yet been installed at the new under-construction football stadium at Colorado State University — but when they do, integrator 5 Bars and wireless suppliers JMA Wireless and Cisco will all be part of the fan-facing Wi-Fi and DAS networks, according to the companies.

Scheduled to open in time for next year’s football season, the yet-unnamed new stadium is a busy construction scene, as you can tell from the photos we took during a sneak peek at the venue last week (thanks to CSU, Mortenson, 5 Bars and JMA Wireless for the access).

Though specifics on numbers of APs aren’t set yet, 5 Bars said it will be using Cisco equipment in a mixed design of overhead and under-seat AP deployments, depending upon the area of the stadium. JMA Wireless will handle the DAS.

Nice roomy head-end room for all that DAS gear!

Nice roomy head-end room for all that DAS gear!

As you can see from the photos, parts of the stadium have good overhang coverage for mounting, while other parts of the planned 40,000-seat venue are open-bowl construction, which will need under-seat APs for optimal coverage. 5 Bars and JMA reps on hand also said that the distinctive light towers (especially on the east side of the stadium) will also provide antenna mounting sites for top-down coverage.

Unlike Hughes Field, the three miles west-of-campus football facility that just hosted its last game this weekend, the new stadium sits right in the middle of the campus in Fort Collins, Colo. According to our first glances, it looks like there will be sevearl open-terrace type areas inside the stadium as well as a beer garden (or so we heard rumored) outside one of the main entrances. According to CSU, Hughes has been used for football since 1968.

What will be interesting to see is how CSU handles parking for the new venue, which won’t have any large lots surrounding it. We’ll have more updates between now and next football season, so stay tuned!

csu3

A look at the west side stands with press box and suites above

csu4

A look underneath the west side overhang — lots of antenna room

csu5

This shot of the north end of the east stands shows the proximity to campus

csu6

Before long, this tray will be filled with cable and fiber

csu7

Panoramic view of the east and south stands

Comcast bringing backbone bandwith to NRG Stadium Wi-Fi

Free Wi-Fi is something Houston Texans fans will be able to cheer about this season at NRG Stadium. Credit: HoustonTexans.com

Free Wi-Fi is something Houston Texans fans will be able to cheer about this season at NRG Stadium. Credit: HoustonTexans.com

With the new Wi-Fi network just getting ready to go live at Houston’s NRG Stadium, Comcast announced that it will provide backbone bandwidth to the network under a sponsorship deal, with two 100-gig pipes that will both be available to the stadium facility.

Michael Bybee, a Houston-based director of external affairs for Comcast, said the company has a large fiber network throughout the Houston area, and a longtime relationship with the NFL’s Texans, making the network sponsorship deal a great fit. Comcast supplies (or will soon supply) similar broadband bandwidth to a number of other large stadiums, including the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, the Sacramento Kings’ new Golden 1 Center, the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, the Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Field, the Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park, the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Field and the Oakland A’s Oakland Coliseum, among others.

In Houston, where integrator 5 Bars is installing a new Wi-Fi network using Extreme Networks gear ahead of next February’s Super Bowl 51, Bybee said Comcast will have two 100-gigabit per second pipes coming into the stadium, where they will feed a main 10-Gbps circuit for the regular-season NFL Wi-Fi needs. Should the stadium require more circuits, Bybee said, the facility will be able to “seamlessly add additional circuits” given the surplus of bandwidth supplied by the 100-Gbps pipes.

Though there hasn’t yet been an official announcement of the network being ready for public use, sources tell us that fans at Saturday’s preseason game between the Texans and the New Orleans Saints should finally find fan-facing Wi-Fi (look for the xfinitywifi SSID), an amenity that had been missing at NRG Stadium in the past. Anyone who goes to the game — send us a speed test!

Stadium Tech Report: Los Angeles Angels and 5 Bars build ‘wireless halo’ of Wi-Fi & DAS for Angels Stadium

The iconic sign outside the "Big A," aka Angels Stadium of Anaheim. Credit all photos, even tilted ones: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

The iconic sign outside the “Big A,” aka Angels Stadium of Anaheim. Credit all photos, even tilted ones: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Every baseball team wants to notch a win on opening day, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are no exception. So while the number of runs scored was important to Al Castro, the franchise’s IT director, his eye was also on wireless performance in Angels Stadium, since 2015 will be the first full season with both Wi-Fi and DAS technology in place. The Angels may have lost their opener against the Kansas City Royals, but their wireless networks scored big by handling more than 1.3 TB of data that afternoon.

“Fans expect connectivity these days,” Castro told Mobile Sports Report during a tour of Angels Stadium, aka the Big A, which was built in 1966. Once the home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the stadium went through and extensive renovation in 1997-98 and now seats about 44,000 for baseball and serves 3 million visitors annually. “If they’re going to come to a ballgame for four hours,” said Castro of today’s fans, “they won’t tolerate not being connected.”

Adding wireless to the ‘Big A’

To get the wireless ball rolling last year, teams of engineers on scaffolding started on the uppermost tier of the Big A (the “View Level”) to mount DAS and Wi-Fi antennas to the stadium canopy. Working from outermost edges of the C-shaped stadium, two sets at of scaffolding at each end leapfrogged each til they met in the middle – a five-week process, according to Castro.

Angels IT director Al Castro, in front of his wireless deployment map

Angels IT director Al Castro, in front of his wireless deployment map

The 15-zone DAS network went live in June 2014 with Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile on board; Sprint is expected to add some antennas in the next several weeks. Currently, there are 122 DAS remotes in 33 locations. Angel Stadium Wi-Fi went live in September 2014 and now counts more than 400 access points around the stadium, according to team figures. Ruckus Wireless is the Wi-Fi vendor; the DAS gear is from Teko Telecom, now part of JMA Wireless.

The Angels worked closely with technology partner 5 Bars, a builder of turnkey wireless networks for sports venues’ wireless needs. Castro would not disclose the budget for the wireless upgrades at Angels Stadium.

In addition to using Major League Baseball’s Ballpark app, Angels fans can post to social media, surf the Web and check email from the stadium’s wireless networks. On the stadium’s club level, spectators can wirelessly order food and beverage from their seats; Legends, which operates the stadium’s concessions, uses an unpublished SSID for 150 wireless-enabled moveable cash registers and more than two dozen handheld point-of-sale devices. Similarly, TicketMaster has its own invisible SSID for wireless scanning of tickets at the stadium’s entry gates; the SSID for the press box is also masked, according to Castro.

Hiding in plain (or painted) sight

The DAS antennas and APs have been strategically installed and well concealed; they’re as discrete as chameleons. Working with Ruckus gear, 5 Bars installed narrow-beam, sectorized-beam and high-capacity APs, all centrally managed by Ruckus’s SmartCell Gateway 200.

A nice view of the field -- with antennas in silhouette

A nice view of the field — with antennas in silhouette

The Angels also use SmartCell Insight, a reporting and analytics package that helps the team track number of unique connections to the Wi-Fi during the course of a game, device types, total and average data uploaded and downloaded, and their speeds, Castro said.

Angel Stadium Wi-Fi has been engineered for 20,000 simultaneous users; there’s no throttling of user bandwidth and no filtering for streaming media like Spotify — “yet,” Castro was quick to add with a laugh. Download speeds vary depending on crowd size, according to Tommy Taylor, senior manager, engineering services for 5 Bars. For a game with 36,000 in attendance, for example, average download speed for devices using 2.4 GHz bandwidth is 8-12 Mbps, while 5 GHz connections can run as fast as 18-24 Mbps. On the traffic side, currently the network is seeing upload volume of about 20 percent of the download average volume, Taylor said, in an email to Mobile Sports Report.

The Angels will continue to fine-tune the network and add or re-point APs as necessary. “We are in the process of adding additional APs to cover some areas that, when the stadium is full, do not receive the high level of coverage we are targeting to provide,” Castro said. Those additions should be done by mid-June. Management has an eye on monetizing the network through sponsorships, and extending the in-seat ordering system beyond the club level of the ballpark, according to Castro.

He also wants to add streaming video to the network so that fans can watch replay from multiple angles, which Castro described as “a good incentive — something you can’t get at home.” He also intends to expand his use of analytics and report generation on a game-by-game basis. It’s the sort of thing that the owners and managers of the team are increasingly interested in, Castro added.

5 Bars helps Angel Stadium get Wi-Fi and DAS to full strength for playoffs

Angel StadiumIn addition to a packed house and a top-performing team, the Angel Stadium of Anaheim will have a fully functional Wi-Fi network and a full-strength DAS on hand when the American League divisional playoffs begin there Thursday.

Just as the Los Angeles Angels oF Anaheim built their American League West division-winning record all summer, networking infrastructure provider 5 Bars brought the connectivity in the team’s stadium to the top this season as well, completing the neutral-host DAS in June and finishing the Wi-Fi network in time for the last regular-season homestand, according to the company. As the Angels get set to host the Kansas City Royals on Oct. 2, the 400-plus antenna DAS and the 300-plus Wi-Fi access point network should be able to handle the expected crush of selfies, Vines and other fan-based wireless communications that will course the airwaves during game time at the 45,050-seat facility.

While we hope there’s still time this season to get down to Anaheim for a live visit and test, for now we’ll let some quotes from the prepared press release let you know how the team feels about having better-than-average connectivity for its fans:

“We want to bring the best possible Major League Baseball experience to fans attending our games, and we’re confident this new, high-performance Wi-Fi network will fully meet those expectations when our fans come to Angel Stadium,” said John Carpino, President of the Angels, in a prepared statement.

Though the 5 Bars name is a new one in the stadium technology deployment marketplace (earlier this year the company was calling itself “5 Bars Inside,” but the inside is now dropped from the name), its leadership team claims “more than two decades of practical experience in developing and managing DAS networks for wireless service providers,” according to the press release announcing the Angel Stadium networks. For its neutral-host DAS 5 Bars is using the Teko DAS platform of products from JMA Wireless; according to 5 Bars both AT&T and Verizon will be active on the DAS on Oct. 2. On the Wi-Fi side, 5 Bars used gear from Wi-Fi supplier Ruckus Wireless. The Wi-Fi network will be free to all fans at the stadium.

UPDATE: The folks at Ruckus have an well detailed press release about the Angel Stadium deployment that is worth reading through.