CBRS demos, 5G talk highlight venue news at Mobile World Congress

A legendary telecom building in downtown Los Angeles, the city that was the home of last week’s Mobile World Congress Americas show. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Some live demonstrations of wireless devices using spectrum in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) topped the venue-specific news at last week’s Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in Los Angeles.

At Angel Stadium in nearby Anaheim, a group of companies led by Connectivity Wireless and JMA teamed up to do some live demonstrations of use cases for the CBRS spectrum, a swath of 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz range that uses the cellular LTE standard for device communications. One demo we heard about reportedly used a Motorola push-to-talk (PTT) handset to carry on a conversation from a suite behind home plate to centerfield, a “home run” distance of at least 400 feet.

Mobile Sports Report, which doesn’t often attend trade shows, found lots for venue technology professionals to be interested in at the show, including the live demonstrations of CBRS-connected devices in the JMA booth that included handsets, headsets and standalone digital displays using CBRS for back-end connectivity. MSR also sat down with Heidi Hemmer, Verizon’s vice president of technology, to talk about 5G for stadiums and why the push for the new cellular standard doesn’t mean the end of Wi-Fi. Read on for highlights of our visit to LA, which also included an interview with Boingo’s new CEO Mike Finley and with Paul Challoner, a CBRS expert at Ericsson.

Look at me, I can hear… centerfield

MSR wasn’t able to make it to the press event held at Angel Stadium, but we heard from multiple sources that the trial CBRS network installed there for a short stint in October by Connectivity Wireless and JMA performed as advertised, especially with the aforementioned full-field PTT talk between two devices, with one of those more than 400 feet away from the CBRS radio.

The worth of the ability for a device to communicate to a access-point radio at such a distance should be clearly apparent to venue wireless professionals, who may want to tap into CBRS networks to increase connectivity inside their venues. With more powerful radios than Wi-Fi and connectivity that utilizes the mobility and security of the LTE standard, teams and venues may look to CBRS for back-of-house communications that would benefit from being separated from the shared Wi-Fi infrastructures. While we are still waiting for the first publicly announced contract win for CBRS in venues — even the Angels are still weighing the decision to go forward with a CBRS deal — being able to show networks working live is a big step forward in the “is it real” phase.

Connecting digital displays, and more PTT

If there was a true “hot spot” for CBRS activity on the MWC show floor, it was at the JMA booth, where the wireless infrastructure company was running a live CBRS network with all kinds of devices running off it. JMA, which was showing its own CBRS radio cell (a kind of access point-on-steroids radio that will provide connectivity to client devices in a CBRS network) as well as a version of its XRAN virtual network core software, had a working prototype of one of the first commercially announced CBRS networks, a wireless deployment of digital displays for the parking lots at the American Dream shopping mall in New Jersey.

A prototype of the CBRS-connected displays JMA is installing at the American Dream mall. (Don’t miss the Jimmy Hoffa joke at the bottom)

According to JMA director of markets and solutions Kurt Jacobs, the 600-acre parking lot at the huge new mall near the Meadowlands (it will have an amusement park and an indoor skiing slope, among other attractions and stores) was a perfect place to harness the ability of CBRS networks. The displays, large LED signs that can change dynamically to assist with parking instructions and directions, needed wireless connectivity to provide the back-end information.

But after considering a traditional deployment with fiber backhaul and Wi-Fi — which Jacobs said would have cost the mall at least $3 million to deploy with construction taking 6 months or more — the mall turned to JMA and a CBRS network deployment, which Jacobs said will use nine radios and 13 antennas to cover the signs, which will be spread out at key traffic junctions. Total cost? About a half-million dollars. Total deployment time? About eight weeks, according to Jacobs. Jacobs said the system will also eventually be able to support mobile CBRS radios inside security vehicles for real time updates from the lots.

Verizon to cover all NFL stadiums with 5G… and lots of Wi-Fi

Heidi Hemmer, Verizon

Heidi Hemmer, Verizon

MSR was fortunate enough to get on the appointment schedule of Heidi Hemmer, Verizon’s vice president of technology. A few days after Verizon had publicly announced a spate of 5G deployments in NBA arenas, Hemmer doubled down on the carrier’s 5G commitment to NFL stadiums, saying the current list of 13 stadiums with some kind of Verizon 5G coverage would soon expand to the entire league.

While hype is heavy around 5G — if you’re a football fan you’ve no doubt seen the Verizon TV commercial where Verizon’s technology development director Eric Nagy walks around various stadiums touting the service — Hemmer was clear that 5G is just part of a full-spectrum stadium wireless solution, one that will likely include 4G LTE as well as Wi-Fi well into the future.

While Verizon is clearly proud of its cutting-edge 5G deployments, the company is also probably the biggest provider of Wi-Fi networks in large stadiums, with many NFL and even some large colleges having Verizon-specific SSIDs for Verizon customers, usually as part of a sponsorship deal from Verizon. Verizon is also a big bankroller of distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments inside stadiums, sometimes acting as the neutral host and other times participating as a tenant on the in-venue cellular networks.

A fuzzy shot of a 5G antenna in the wild at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver

According to Hemmer, having as much connectivity as possible allows Verizon to provide the best possible experience for its customers. The eventual end goal, she said, would be a world where fans’ phones “dynamically” connect to whatever network is best suited for their needs, from Wi-Fi to 4G to 5G. Currently, many of the Verizon Wi-Fi deployments will automatically connect Verizon customers to Wi-Fi in a venue where they have previously logged on to the network.

And while the millimeter-wave 5G deployments inside stadiums right now don’t come close to covering the full space of any venue (at the Denver Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High, for instance, there are only 16 5G antennas in the building), they do provide a different level of connectivity, with much faster download speeds and less latency. Hemmer said those characteristics could spawn an entirely new class of services for fans like better instant-replay video or advanced statistics. While MSR hasn’t personally tested any 5G networks, the early word is that in some situations download speeds can be in the gigabit-per-second range.

“Speeds are important to our customers and 5G can really push up the fan experience,” Hemmer said.

New Boingo CEO bullish on venues business

Mobile World Congress was also MSR’s first chance to meet Mike Finley, who became Boingo’s CEO back in February. A former Qualcomm executive, Finley said that Boingo’s history of being a neutral-host provider for venues should continue to drive more business in that realm, especially as newer complex possibilities like CBRS and Wi-Fi 6 networks emerge.

“We are satisfying a need” that venues have for connectivity expertise, Finley said, especially when it comes to relationships with wireless carriers.

At MWC, Boingo was part of the CBRS Alliance’s multi-partner booth space promoting the OnGo brand for CBRS gear and services. In its space Boingo was showing its new converged virtualized core offering (which was using JMA’s XRAN product) with a live combined CBRS and Wi-Fi 6 network running side by side. A booth representative with an iPhone 11 device was able to quickly switch between the two networks, offering a glimpse at the potential future networking choices venues may be able to offer.

Ericsson Dots target stadiums, CBRS

In its large MWC booth, connectivity gear provider Ericsson had a special display for venue equipment, including a weather-hardened version of its Radio Dot System that Ericsson booth reps said should be appearing soon in some U.S. sporting venues. Ericsson was also showing some Dots that it said would support CBRS, a service Ericsson sees great promise for in venues.

Paul Challoner, Ericsson’s vice president for network product solutions, said it will be interesting to see whether or not venues will need to pursue licenses for CBRS spectrum when those are auctioned off next year, or whether venues will choose to use the unlicensed parts of the CBRS spectrum. Like others at the show, Challoner was excited about Apple’s decision to include support for CBRS bands in the iPhone 11 line — “it’s a fantastic boost for the CBRS ecosystem,” he said.

More MWC photos below!

Some of the Ericsson Dot radios designed for inside venue use

A prototype digital display kiosk from JMA, Intel and LG MRI, with space up top for CBRS gear

Another wireless-enabled display kiosk, this one in the Ericsson booth. Looks like wireless and digital displays are the next hot product.

Eagles sign Appetize for new point-of-sale system at Lincoln Financial Field

Self-serve kiosks from Appetize allow fans to order and pay for their own food for nearby pickup. Credit all photos: Appetize

The Philadelphia Eagles have signed a deal with Appetize to bring its technology-centric point of sale system into Lincoln Financial Field, a deal designed in part to help speed up concessions transactions for home fans of the new Super Bowl champions.

According to a press release out today, Appetize will install “more than 500” iOS- and Android-based terminals inside the Linc, including some touch-screen fan-facing checkout displays as well as self-service concession kiosks that are meant to function much like the terminals found at airports for checking in to flights.

Kevin Anderson, co-founder and chief strategy officer for Appetize, said in a phone interview that internal company tests have shown that the self-service kiosks can speed up a concessions transaction by as much as 20 percent, good news for fans who are tired of spending lost minutes standing in line waiting for a cheesesteak. For teams and venue owners, the 10-inch screens being installed at other, regular concession stands in the Linc can help with upsell, as Anderson said that the screen space allows the operator to program in add-on options (like adding a drink or fries to a sandwich order) via a side-of-screen advertisement that makes it easy to add to the order with a click.

In addition to the new customer-facing technology, Appetize is also gaining entree to venues for its cloud-based back-end systems, which Anderson said cuts out the need for teams to have localized infrastructure to buy and manage. Though he won’t name them all yet, in addition to the Eagles win Anderson said Appetize has claimed three other NFL contracts that were out for bid this summer, perhaps proof that the company’s mantra of having “enterprise and modern” facets in their systems is finding receptive ears.

Making sure the infrastructure is set up for kiosks

While MSR clearly needs to schedule a stadium visit sometime to check out kiosk wait times compared to older concessions systems, Anderson did note that teams can’t just plug the kiosks in and expect them to work with an existing infrastructure. “There is a shift in operations” that is necessary, he said, since kiosks can double or triple the number of orders in a given time to an existing kitchen location. However, having kiosks also means that self-service stands can be staffed with workers who simply put orders together, instead of having to train those workers on payment systems and devices.

New tablet-based POS terminals can entice fans into add-on purchases

One area where Appetize doesn’t see a lot of explosive growth is on the in-seat delivery end, a trend that seems to slowing down and finding its way mostly into premium seating areas at most venues. While Appetize can support mobile-device ordering and delivery (it even started its corporate life with an end-user focus on a mobile/delivery app) Anderson said the infrastructure and human engineering necessary to support a full-stadium delivery scheme is usually found to be unworkable. The San Francisco 49ers, who opened Levi’s Stadium in 2014 with mobile-app delivery of concessions to every seat, scrapped that service last season.

“We’re definitely not seeing [customers] asking us to do full-stadium” in-seat delivery, Anderson said. However, having the ability to place an order via a mobile device does have value in premium seating areas, where stadiums may already have systems like the Appetize-based one currently used at Lincoln Financial Field, where servers with wireless devices roam the seating areas offering in-seat ordering as a white-glove service.

“It’s a nice line-item for the season ticket sales sheet” to offer in-seat delivery services in places where it makes sense, Anderson said. “Venues are being smart [now] about where they are putting it.”

San Antonio Spurs refresh mobile app with new features from YinzCam

Screen shot of new app design for the San Antonio Spurs. Credit: YinzCam

The San Antonio Spurs announced a new version of the team’s mobile app, which includes new features both for fans attending Spurs home games at AT&T Center as well as for fans following the team remotely. The new features were added to the app by developer YinzCam, which also designed previous versions of the team’s app.

According to YinzCam and the Spurs, a new interface designed for clarity and faster navigation will help fans find new features like blue-dot wayfinding (available only for Apple iOS devices) as well as new interactive maps available for both iOS and Android devices. Another update is the inclusion of on-demand replays for fans at AT&T Center, with four different camera angles to choose from, according to YinzCam.

In a nod toward a trend of team and stadium apps adding more attendance-specific services, the new version of the Spurs app will inlcude a “Season Ticket Member Club,” which the Spurs and YinzCam said will provide special offers and discounts, as well as the ability for season ticket holders to have single sign-on access to Ticketmaster’s account manager, which they can then use to digitally manage their tickets.

What’s not clear is if this update is an addition to an update YinzCam was scheduled to provide to the Spurs in the wake of a 2015 deal with the NBA under which YinzCam was to redesign 22 NBA team apps, including the Spurs’. Since that deal several teams have replaced YinzCam with a competitor — the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Hornets are all currently working with VenueNext to deliver their team apps. The Orlando Magic are also a VenueNext client, the first NBA team to pick that developer.

YinzCam, however, still claims to have developed 21 of the NBA team apps in use this season, including apps for the following teams: Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards. The Sacramento Kings and the Miami Heat use apps designed by Built.io, another newcomer in the stadium and team-app market. This year the Detroit Pistons turned to Venuetize for their team app in their new home, Little Caesars Arena. According to this release Venuetize also helped design the new app for the Portland Trailblazers. The Dallas Mavericks’ team app is supplied by Tixsee.

BNP Paribas Open serves up new app from YinzCam

Screen shot of new BNP Paribas Open app from YinzCam.

The BNP Paribas Open, one of the premier stops on the professional tennis tour, has tapped YinzCam to provide a new app for this year’s event that includes support for a wide range of services including ticket purchases, wayfinding, transportation to and from the venue, and a schedule of matches.

The new app, available for iOS and Android devices, is the first tennis-venue app for YinzCam, whose market-leading list of customers is mainly in U.S. professional sports, including the NHL, the NFL and the NBA. Reflecting YinzCam’s historic excellence in providing content to mobile apps, the BNP Paribas Open app will include biographies and photos for the more than 200 women and men players from the WTA and the ATP World Tour. According to YinzCam, the app will also support live scoring and real-time match results.

Probably one of the more important features to fans at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the tournament’s host venue, is the interactive map, which provides information on food and beverage options as well as other services (restrooms, ticket offices, etc.) as you scroll through the map. YinzCam said the app also has a chatbot to answer questions, though when we tried asking it “will Roger Federer win?” it asked us to rephrase the question because it didn’t understand.

As previously reported by MSR, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is well covered for Wi-Fi with a network using gear from Ruckus; apparently, the new app replaces the previous app developed by The App Company of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

Tampa Bay Lightning pick Venuetize for new Amalie Arena app

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Amalie Arena have selected developer Venuetize for a new team and stadium app that will bring features including a multi-purpose digital wallet that will help fans manage their ticket options for hockey games and other events at the venue.

Screen shot of the new Amalie Arena app by Venuetize.

Announced in January, the new app is already available for iOS and Android devices. According to the team, the app supports the ability to purchase concessions and merchandise with a mobile device, as well as being able to perform detailed ticketing transactions including transfers and even transfers of discounts.

The deal with the Lightning represents Venuetize’s second NHL deal this season, following the company’s win to provide a similar stadium and team app for the Detroit Red Wings (and the Detroit Pistons) at Little Caesars Arena. Venuetize also previously built an integrated app for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres.

With new entrants like Hopscotch challenging established app players like YinzCam and VenueNext in the stadium and team app arena, Venuetize seems to be claiming its own turf with apps that lean heavily on transaction features, as well as the ability to easily shift between sporting events and other events at stadiums.

YinzCam, which made its name early in the space with content-focused apps, recently unveiled a feature that allows app users to order and pay for food and beverages. Clearly, the ability to support more transaction-based services seems to be part of the increased table stakes in the stadium and team app market going forward.

Spiking the Surface: Why Microsoft’s NFL deal got thrown for a loss

Bill Belichick’s very thorough takedown of the Microsoft Surface slapped a fried egg on the face of Microsoft’s $400 million deal with the NFL to use the tablets on game-day sidelines. In the latest STADIUM TECH REPORT PODCAST, co-hosts Phil Harvey and Paul Kapustka explore why the deal was flawed from the beginning, and whether or not wireless technology can be counted on to perform in NFL sideline environments.

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