Commentary: Time to rethink in-seat delivery?

A beer vendor at Wrigley Field this summer. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka,, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

I have a major scoop: Even though Wrigley Field doesn’t have its new Wi-Fi network installed yet, I can confirm that the Friendly Confines has food and drink delivery to fans in all seats.

And you don’t need an app to order a frosty malt beverage. You simply say, “Hey! Beer man! One over here!” And he walks over and pours you a cold one. Apparently this is not new, but has worked for many, many years.

Though I do jest a bit I hope my point is clear: Sometimes there is a bit too much fascination with technology, especially on the stadium app front, which has not yet been warranted. The main question of this essay is whether or not it’s time to rethink the in-seat ordering and delivery phenomenon, to find what really matters to fans and where technology can deliver better options.

Who really wants in-seat delivery?

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Fall 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at Notre Dame Stadium, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Colorado State’s new stadium, and the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

I will be the first to admit to being guilty as charged in being over-excited about stadium apps and the idea of things like instant replays on your phone and being able to have food and drink delivered to any seat in the stadium. When the San Francisco 49ers opened Levi’s Stadium four years ago, those two services were fairly unique in the sporting world, and it was cool to see how both worked.

The Niners did a lot of human-engineering study on the food delivery problem, knowing that it was more an issue of getting enough runners to deliver the goods than it was to get the app working right. Even a big glitch at the first-year outdoor ice hockey game at Levi’s Stadium was sort of a confirmation of the idea: That so many people tried to order food deliveries it screwed up the system wasn’t good, but it did mean that it was something people wanted, right?

Turns out, no so much. Recently the Niners officially announced that they are taking a step back on in-seat concessions ordering and deliveries at Levi’s Stadium, limiting it to club areas only. Whatever reasons the Niners give for scaling down the idea, my guess is that it mainly had to do with the fact that it turns out that the majority of people at a football game (or basketball too) may not want to just sit in their seats the whole game, but in fact get up and move around a bit.

The end zone view from the beer garden at Colorado State Stadium.

That may be why most of the new stadiums that have opened in the past couple years have purposely built more “porch” areas or other public sections where fans can just hang out, usually with somewhat of a view of the field. The Sacramento Kings’ nice beer garden on the top level of Golden 1 Center and the Atlanta Falcons’ AT&T Perch come to mind here. For the one or two times these fans need to get something to eat, they are OK with getting up and getting it themselves.

Plus, there’s the fact that at the three or four or more hours you’re going to be at a football game, if you’re drinking beer you’re going to eventually need to get up anyway due to human plumbing. We’ve been fairly out front in saying stadiums should spend more time bringing concession-stand technology into the 21st century, instead of worrying too much about in-seat delivery. It’s good to see there are some strides in this direction, with better customer-facing interfaces for payment systems and things like vending machines and express-ordering lines for simple orders.

While there may be disagreement about whether or not in-seat delivery is a good idea, there is certainly universal disgust for concession lines that are long for no good reason. It’s beyond time for stadiums to mimic systems already in place at fast-food restaurants or coffee shops and bring some of that technology spending to bear in the place that everyone agrees still needs work. Even at the uber-techno Levi’s, regular concession stand lines have been abysmal in their slowness. Maybe the Niners and others guilty of the same crimes will pay more attention to less flashy fixes in this department.

Is drink-only delivery the right move?

The Niners’ revolutionary attempt to bring mobile ordering and in-seat delivery to all fans in a big stadium was part of the app suite from VenueNext, the company the Niners helped start as part of their Levi’s Stadium plans. While VenueNext is regularly adding new pro teams to its stable of customers (in September at Mobile World Congress Americas, the Utah Jazz announced they would switch to VenueNext for the upcoming season), not a single one has tried to copy the Niners’ ambitious deliver-anywhere feature.

The end-zone AT&T Perch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

And for Super Bowl 50, the signature event that Levi’s Stadium was in part built for, remember it was the NFL shutting down the idea of in-seat delivery of food and drink, limiting the service instead to just beverage ordering and delivery. It probably makes sense for Mobile Sports Report to put together a list sometime soon about the various attempts at in-seat ordering and delivery around the pro leagues, to see what’s working and what hasn’t. To be clear we are talking here about widespread delivery to all seating areas, and not the wait-staff type delivery systems that have been widely deployed in premium seating areas for years.

Our guess, just from tracking this phenomenon the past several years, is that while such services make sense in premium and club areas, simple logistics and stadium real estate (like narrow aisles or packed, sellout crowds) make in-seat ordering and delivery a human-factor nightmare in most venues.

One experiment worth watching is the system being deployed by the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as part of the team/stadium app developed by IBM. Instead of working online, the app will let fans pick food items and enter payment information, and then take their phone to the appropriate stand to scan and fulfill the order. Nobody knows yet if this will speed up lines or make the concession process faster, but it is at the very least an attempt to try something new, using technology doing what it does best to eliminate a pain point of going to a game — waiting in line.

And while I will be excited to see the new networks being planned for Wrigley (Wi-Fi and a new DAS are supposed to be online for next season), I’m just as sure that whenever I visit there again, I won’t need an app to have a beer and hot dog brought to my seat. Maybe having more choice in items or having that instant gratification of delivery when you want it is where the world is going today, but on a brilliant summer afternoon at Wrigley Field somebody walking down the aisle every now and then works just fine. With the Cubs winning, the organ playing and the manual scoreboard doing its magic in center field, it’s a welcome reminder that sometimes, technology isn’t always the best or neccessary answer.

Bird of a different feather: Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium takes tech in a new direction

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the Atlanta Falcons. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As you walk up to it, the striking angular architecture of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a way of telling you, before you even set foot inside, that this building is different from any other stadium you may know. When you get inside, see the eight-petal roof and the circular video “halo board” right below it, those feelings are confirmed.

Deeper inside the venue’s construction, the theme is continued with the building’s network technology, which is similarly different if less easily seen. With more fiber optical cabling than perhaps any comparable stadium, the new home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons is built more with an eye toward what comes next, while also debuting with systems built with the peak of current knowledge and deployment designs.

Unlike the owners and operators of some other new arenas, the Falcons’ aren’t wasting much bandwidth trying to paint Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the best-ever when it comes to stadium technology. (In fact the stadium network crew is being very closed-mouth about everything, not providing any game-day statistics even though informed rumors tell us that the Wi-Fi network is doing very well.) But come back in 5 years, or even 10 years from now, and see if the decisions made here were able to consistently keep the Falcons’ new roost at the top of the stadium-technology game.

Table stakes, plus a halo board

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Fall 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at Notre Dame Stadium, Colorado State’s new stadium, and the Los Angeles Coliseum. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Inside the Falcons’ new roost, with the halo board and roof visible

What’s working now, as the venue enters the Falcons’ 2017 NFL season, includes a Wi-Fi network built with nearly 1,800 Aruba access points. Of the 1,000 of those installed in the main seating bowl, most are mounted underneath the seats, a trend that gained steam a couple years ago and now has numerous proof points behind the higher capacity and faster performance of so-called “proximate” networks. There’s also a neutral-host distributed antenna system, or DAS, for enhanced cellular coverage, built and owned by the arena with space rented out to all four of the major U.S. cellular carriers.

And then there’s the halo board, the circular or oval-shaped video screen that circumnavigates the roof right at the base of the also-innovative eight-petal roof, which is designed to open or close in seven minutes or less. If big video screens are a never-ending trend the Falcons are right out in front with their offerings at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, starting with the halo board and the “mega-column,” a hundred-foot high vertical screen just inside the main entryway. The 2,000-plus other regular-sized screens scattered around the venue should ensure there’s always a display visible, no matter where guests are looking.

And while the team has future plans for video, the one piece of network technology that may matter most is the optical fiber, which can support wider bandwidth and faster speeds than traditional copper cabling. The statistic thrown around often in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium press materials — nearly 4,000 miles of fiber used — is meaningless to most who repeat it, other than it seems like a lot of glass wiring.

What’s more interesting from a stadium-design perspective is not exactly the total but instead the reach of the fiber, as the network designers pushed fiber out to the edges much further than before, betting that by putting more capacity farther into the reaches of the stadium, there will be less needs for big-time network upgrades in the future, when the inevitable need for more bandwidth arrives.

Under-seat Wi-Fi AP

“We like to say we’re future flexible, not future proof,” said Jared Miller, chief digital officer for the Falcons. “Future proof does not exist in technology.”

Informed by Texas A&M

In picking IBM as its lead networking technology partner, the Falcons most certainly gleaned a lot of their stadium network design lessons from the 2015 deployment of a new Wi-Fi network at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, a project also led by IBM. Making deep use of Corning fiber networking technology, A&M’s Wi-Fi network hit the ground running hard, as a big number of under-seat APs supported several big days of data use by the 100,000-plus Aggie fans who filled the building on home-game weekends.

The basic idea behind using fiber is that optical cabling can carry far more bandwidth at faster speeds than a comparable copper wire. By putting more fiber farther out into all reaches of a stadium, a network can be “future proofed” by being able to support many more new devices on the end of each fiber strand. By not having to string new cabling everywhere to support greater demand, a stadium will theoretically spend far less money in the long haul.

Wi-Fi and DAS will have the bathroom lines covered

From a network backbone perspective, the Falcons took what Texas A&M did and pushed even farther with fiber, taking the glass circuits as close to the edge devices (mainly Wi-Fi APs) as possible. In our mid-August press tour at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we saw many of the so-called “mini-IDFs,” small closets with three or four pieces of gear in them, mounted on walls throughout the stadium.

“We kept the use of copper as short as possible,” said Miller. “With bandwidth demands continuing to grow at an exponential rate, we need to make sure we keep pace with rapidly evolving technology.”

If there is one big drawback to using fiber, it has to do with the intricacies of dealing with the construction end of building fiber networks, since the cables need to be precisely cut and joined, often with highly specialized equipment. There are also far more network technicians who are trained in copper wiring deployments than in fiber, so personnel issues can also increase costs and complexity.

On the eve of the Falcons’ first regular-season home game, a mid-September playoff rematch with the Green Bay Packers, Miller and his crew had not yet provided any traffic or network throughput statistics from the preseason games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. However, some inside sources told MSR that the Wi-Fi traffic during the preseason and the early September college game was at the top range of what has been historically seen for NFL game days, so it appears that the system is ready to go.

Holding off on more bells and whistles

Though it may be hard for any other stadium to top the halo board for a while, on some other technology-related items the Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium are taking a step back and not pushing digital solutions to where they might not be needed.

One of the many ‘mini-ISFs,’ this one in the press box

On the stadium app side, for instance, the IBM-developed application does not support some services seen at other NFL or pro-league stadiums, like “blue dot” wayfinding or in-seat food delivery or even express pickup for concessions. Instead, the app uses wayfinding based on static maps, where you need to put in both a location and a desired destination; and on the food-ordering side, fans can enter in an order and their credit card information, but must then take it to a stand to be scanned and fulfilled.

And while the Falcons’ new app does have a fun FAQ chatbot called “Ask Arthur” (for the team’s owner, Arthur Blank), there won’t be any live instant replay features in the app. With all the video screens in the stadium, the Falcons think they have the replay angle thing covered. The Falcons will use the app, however, for expanded digital-ticketing features as well as to help fans find and pay for parking. On the concessions side, the Falcons’ well-reported “fan friendly” pricing with low costs for most stadium food staples might prove more interesting to fans than being able to have food delivered.

Miller was also adamant that fans won’t see any portal or other marketing messages between finding and connecting to the Wi-Fi network.

“You just join ‘AT&Twifi’ and you’re on,” Miller said. “You’re a guest in our house. The last thing we want to do is slow you down from getting on the network.”

The big metal falcon in front of the stadium looks out over downtown Atlanta

More Wi-Fi APs visible under the overhang

A view from the AT&T Porch out through the windows

Notre Dame’s new Wi-Fi, Mercedes-Benz Stadium first look — all in our new Stadium Tech Report!

We always get excited here at Mobile Sports Report when we have a new quarterly report out, but the stories, profiles and analysis in our Fall 2017 issue just may be our best-ever effort. With a detailed look at the new Wi-Fi network at Notre Dame Stadium, and a first look at the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, our Fall 2017 issue starts off with a doubleheader of deep information profiles and it doesn’t stop there!

In addition to Notre Dame and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this issue also has a detailed look at the new football stadium at Colorado State University, which also has high-performing Wi-Fi and a neutral-host DAS deployment. We also take a look at the Wi-Fi renovation taking place at the Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Field at Mile High, a network upgrade that should lift the Broncos’ home to the top of the list of NFL stadium networks. And we’re still not done!

Also in this issue is a well timed, deeply informed essay from Chuck Lukaszewski about unlicensed LTE and what it means to venues. Chuck, the top wireless guru at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, digs into this developing cellular/Wi-Fi issue and delivers some heads-up knowledge that all venue tech professionals should absorb. We also have one more profle in the issue, a look at a temporary Wi-Fi network being installed at the Los Angeles Coliseum. That’s a lot of reading, so get started by downloading your free copy today!

Part of the reason we’re able to bring you so much good content is the support we get from our industry sponsors. In this issue we also have a record number of sponsors, including Mobilitie, Crown Castle, CommScope, JMA Wireless, Corning, Huber+Suhner, American Tower, Extreme Networks, Oberon, Cox Business, 5 Bars, Boingo Wireless and Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. The support of our sponsors allows Mobile Sports Report to not only do all the work necessary to bring you these great stories, but it also allows us to offer our reports to readers free of charge! We’d also like to welcome new readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our new partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers.

Download the Fall 2017 Stadium Tech Report today!

Wi-Fi, app ready to go for Falcons’ preseason opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The shiny new stadium gets ready to host its first big event this weekend. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

It might have taken some recent all-nighters, but the crew behind the technology at Mercedes-Benz Stadium said that the Wi-Fi and DAS networks, as well as the new app, will be ready to go when the Atlanta Falcons hold their first big event at their new home this Saturday.

“We’ve spent the last week really tuning the Wi-Fi, and it’s awesome to see the speeds we’re getting as I walk around,” said Jared Miller, chief digital officer for the Falcons, in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m anxious to see how it will do with a full house.”

The first potential for a packed stadium comes Saturday night, when the Falcons host the Arizona Cardinals in an NFL preseason game. With roughly 1,800 Aruba Wi-Fi APs installed inside (1,000 in the seating bowl and the rest in concourses and other areas), Mercedes-Benz Stadium should have excellent Wi-Fi coverage, even if it takes several events to figure out the things you can only figure out once you have live people in the seats.

“We’ll need a few events until we get to a spot where we’re dialed in [with network performance],” said Miller. Though Miller said the Falcons were able to get some network feedback during a recent season-ticket holder open house, real performance stats won’t come until fans are filling the venue for an NFL game.

“You just have to go through a series of events to see actual performance,” Miller said.

Home page of the new Falcons app from IBM

Curiously, Miller would not comment directly when asked if any carriers other than sponsor AT&T had officially signed on to be on the Falcons’ neutral-host DAS. However, he did say that “all the fans who [are at the game] should be able to have cellular connections.” (Any attendees who want to send us speedtests of Wi-Fi or DAS, you know where to find us.)

New app gets its debut

One area that might cause some delays getting into the arena is the Falcons’ decision to go to all-digital ticketing — fans must either have an RFID card (for season tickets) or must download the new team app so they can have digital tickets on their phones. Both the RFID cards and phones can be scanned at the SkiData turnstyle machines.

“We’re encouraging fans to download the app before they get to the game,” Miller said.

The new version of the team app, which was only made live in the last couple days, was built by main IT contractor IBM.

App view of a wayfinding map

The IBM app will do things a little bit differently than other stadium apps; the wayfinding maps are not “blue dot” or interactive like Google Maps or other stadium apps like those at Levi’s Stadium or Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. Instead, fans must enter both their location and their desired destination to see a path on a stored map.

Food ordering via the app is also handled differently than apps that support in-seat delivery or express window pickup. With the Falcons app fans will select from a list of concession stands, then enter credit card information and their order, which will be scanned at the stand, according to IBM. While such new services always take some time for fans to discover and use, Miller is keen to see if the new systems work as promised.

“We want to see not just quantitative numbers but qualitative data too,” Miller said. “Did it really benefit fans? Were they able to bust the queue? Would they do it again?”

The app also has a Falcons-esque chat bot, called “Ask Arthur” for owner Arthur Blank; while the bot can quickly answer FAQ-type questions about the stadium and its operations, more open-ended queries will require perhaps some time with IBM’s Watson technology (see examples in photos below).

And on a final low-tech note, Miller said the Falcons had been in constant touch with several local groups, including the Georgia Department of Transportation, the city of Atlanta and the MARTA light rail system to get all the pertinent maps and signs updated. On Mobile Sports Report’s visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Atlanta last week, we noticed that there were very few signs up with Mercedes-Benz Stadium on them.

One big map on the wall inside the nearby CNN Center (where there is a large public food court) didn’t even have Mercedes-Benz Stadium on an area map, and a sign over the MARTA station just outside the new stadium’s doors had no mention of Mercedes-Benz Stadium but still did mention the Georgia Dome, the next-door neighbor slated for demolition. The MARTA online map still lists “Dome” but not “Mercedes-Benz Stadium” for the stop outside the venue’s doors.

“We’ve scoured the city looking for anything that still says Georgia Dome,” Miller said. Getting all the new signs up, he said, is “in the process of getting done.”

The ‘Ask Arthur’ bot can answer simple questions about Mercedes-Benz Stadium but…

… don’t ask the app for Super Bowl odds

We’re hoping this map, seen here on a wall inside the nearby CNN Center, has been updated

One of the many under-seat Wi-Fi APs that will be getting their first test this weekend

Chief digital officer Jared Miller answers questions at the recent media day

On Aug. 15, this sign over the nearby MARTA station still didn’t mention Mercedes-Benz Stadium

First Look: Inside the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Big Bird greets all visitors to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

We’ll have much more to report on what we saw at the press day at the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but we thought it was important to share these views as soon as we could — so here is an extended photo essay from the newest NFL venue (which will also be used for soccer). Unfortunately the Wi-Fi and DAS networks were live but not yet optimized, so we weren’t able to do any comprehensive speed testing (but hey, that’s what a regular season game is for!).

Overalll first impressions, technology wise — this is another well thought out venue specifically from a technology standpoint but also mainly just from a visual feel. The halo board is as impressive as advertised, though we would want to see it in action during a game (while sitting in a seat) to fully judge whether or not it fits in with the flow of an event. For advertisers it’s a wonder, as watching all the video screens in the house go to a synchronized ad video was a big wow factor.

Since much of the stadium interior is unfinished concrete, there wasn’t much of an effort to hide networking components — but given all the other piping and cabling, the equipment does kind of fade out of sight in plain view.

MSR welcomes you to the big house

It’s our educated guess that the AT&T Porch — a wide open gathering area in the end zone opposite the windows toward downtown — is going to be a popular hangout, since you can see the field and have multiple big screen TV options behind you. We also liked the “technology loge suites,” smaller four-person private areas just off the main concourse with their own small TV screens and wireless device charging.

On the app side of things, it’s fair to say that features will iterate over time — both the wayfinding and the food-ordering options are not wirelessly connected yet, but according to IBM beacons are a possible future addition to the mix. And while Mercedes-Benz Stadium is going to all-digital ticketing, season ticket holders will most likely use RFID cards on lanyards instead of mobile phone tickets simply because the RFID is a quicker option. The ticket scanners are by SkiData, fiber backbone by Corning, Wi-Fi APs by Aruba, and DAS by Corning and a mix of antenna providers.

Like we said, more soon! But enjoy these photos today, ahead of the first event on Aug. 26.

The view inside the main entry, with halo board visible above

The view from the other side of the field, from the AT&T Porch

Just hard to fit all this in, but you can see here from field to roof

I spy Wi-Fi, APs point down from seat bottoms to main entry concourse

One of the many under-seat APs

A good look at the roof: Eight “petals” that all pull straight out when open, which is supposed to take 7 minutes according to design

Good place for maximum coverage

View from the field

One of “hundreds” of mini-IDFs, termination points that bring fiber almost right to edge devices

The mega-vertical TV screen, just inside the main entry. 101 feet tall!

Something Falcons fans may like the most: Look at the prices!

MORE SOON!

Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan gets 1st look inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Oh sure, don’t let any of us who are part of the stadium technology world in for a peek, but give an inside pass to some guy named Matt Ryan? OK I guess we can forgive the Atlanta Falcons for snubbing us while catering to their MVP QB. At the very least go check out the post about the visit for the latest look inside the venue we’re all interested in.

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan visits Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Screen grabs from Atlanta Falcons website.

Matt looks around at his soon-to-open new home stadium.