Stadium Tech Report: Boingo brings Wi-Fi, DAS to Air Force Academy stadiums

Falcon Stadium, Air Force Academy

Falcon Stadium, Air Force Academy

Perched dramatically in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the architectural gem known as Falcon Stadium is a great place to watch Air Force Academy football games. As a place to install a new wireless network, however, it’s not quite a beautiful site.

“It looks beautiful from the highway, but it’s not modern,” said Dermot “Derm” Coll, CEO of the Air Force Academy Athletic Corporation, in a recent phone interview. Though its many of its 46,692 seats offer soaring views across the field and across the plains and foothills just north of Colorado Springs, Coll said the stadium, which was built in 1962, was something of a black hole when it came to cellular or wireless communications.

Over the past few years as smartphones have become popular, Coll said fans were frustrated by their inability to make calls or connect to the Internet, and even staffers on site couldn’t communicate wirelessly. “Fans wanted to do what they do at home, so we saw a great need” for better connectivity, Coll said. And thanks to a new deal with Boingo Wireless, fans and cadets and any other visitors to Air Force Academy sports facilities will soon have both high-speed Wi-Fi and cellular DAS connectivity, which should make communications as pleasing as the mile-high views. In addition to Falcon Field, the deal also calls for Wi-Fi and DAS networks inside the AFA’s Cadet Field House, a cavernous 1960s-era building that hosts a basketball arena, a hockey arena and an indoor track.

Historic landmark status a challenge

Coll, who runs the organization that deals with all the business activities for Air Force athletics, said that signing the deal was the easy part of the long-planned installation. What proved tougher was bringing new wireless technology to facilities that were not only built in the ’60s, but also had historical landmark status.

“It was really challenging just to do things like run cable,” said Coll. “We had to be a little bit creative.”

Clune Arena, Air Force Academy

Clune Arena, Air Force Academy

Doug Lodder, vice president of business development at Boingo Wireless, said installers had to hide some Wi-Fi antennas behind specially designed shielding that sported the Air Force Academy lightning-bolt logo, so as to blend in with Falcon Stadium’s distinctive architecture. “There were not a lot of places to hang stuff,” Lodder said.

For the 5,900-seat Clune Arena for basketball and the 2,500-seat Cadet Ice Arena, there were similar challenges. “The Fieldhouse is pretty old and dated, a real Cold War building,” Coll said. “It was not great for tech to prosper there.”

Yet to show how tech-savvy fans have become, Coll said that a small Wi-Fi network installed for internal use was seen by fans who were looking for SSIDs they could connect to.

“We got beat up because people could see the SSID and wanted access to the [internal] Wi-Fi,” Coll said. “So we knew fans had the desire to connect.”

Boingo’s airport rep helps land the deal

When it came to finding a provider for the DAS, Coll said the Academy wanted a neutral third-party host and Boingo fit that bill.

“Boingo gave us a great opportunity without having to go with one carrier over another,” Coll said. Though carrier hosts will often pledge that all their competitors will be welcome to join a carrier-built DAS, Coll didn’t want to have to worry about whether negotiations might keep one provider or another from joining the enhanced cellular network.

“You don’t want to [have to] hope your carrier is on the tower,” Coll said.

Boingo, which provides Wi-Fi service to Denver International Airport, was no stranger to Coll and the Academy.

Cadet Field House, Air Force Academy

Cadet Field House, Air Force Academy

“We knew their reputation, and they brought a lot to the table,” Coll said. The network at the Academy facilities will be free of charge, unlike some other Boingo public Wi-Fi deployments (such as at Chicago’s Soldier Field) where fans are charged a small amount for network access. The network inside Falcon Stadium is scheduled to be live in time for this year’s spring graduation ceremonies; Coll said the Academy is also looking into the possibility of having Boingo provide more wireless services to the rest of the campus, which is widely spread out through the hillsides just north of Colorado Springs.

Though the Academy has a game-day app, according to Coll you couldn’t really do much with it at the stadium because of the connectivity problems. In the near future, Coll said the idea is to bring more live info to the app, including updated stats and video replays.

“In the past you could sit in Falcon Stadium and launch the app, and not much would happen,” Coll said. “Now we’re looking forward to seeing it perform on game day.”

Boingo scores Wi-Fi and DAS deal with Air Force Academy

Boingo Wireless said it will be the exclusive neutral-host DAS and Wi-Fi provider at the Air Force Academy’s football and basketball arenas, in a deal announced Wednesday by Boingo.

While we are waiting to see if we can talk to the Academy folks about their decision, on paper it’s an impressive win for Boingo as the company (perhaps best known for its airport Wi-Fi) expands its presence in the stadium networking world. Boingo currently is part of the stadium networks at Soldier Field in Chicago, and at the University of Arizona and the University of Nebraska.

Boingo will provide services to both 46,00-seat Falcon Field, home of the Academy’s football team (and a place where many press members find themselves wheezing for air due to the mile-high elevation and the long trek up the many steps from the field to the press box), as well as the Academy’s cavernous Cadet Field House, which houses an indoor track, an ice hockey rink and Clune Arena for hoops all in one building.

No word yet about which carriers have signed up for the DAS, or whether the Academy will charge for Wi-Fi access, like Soldier Field does in Chicago. Stay tuned though, because the Boingo folks are usually pretty good at getting us in touch with their network customers.