LAFC scores technology hat trick at Banc of California Stadium

Banc of California Stadium, the new home of the Los Angeles Football Club. Credit all photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

There’s an elegance to the advancing striker – the foot work, feints, arc of the kick – as they target the opponent’s goal. For the Los Angeles Football Club, that elegance gets reflected back in its newly christened home field, Banc of California Stadium, with its graceful lines and minimalist design, plus visibility and a connection to the field rivaling venues half its size.

LAFC, one of Major League Soccer’s newest expansion teams, had a particular sort of experience in mind for fans inside the venue, with its capacity of 22,000. The steeply pitched stands create an intimate sporting and entertainment space. Multiple clubs, suites and concession areas are there to satisfy food and beverage desires. Team owners were equally adamant about having top-notch technology, according to Christian Lau, vice president of information technology for LAFC, especially where wireless networking was concerned. The requirement was for “unprecedented coverage,” he added. “We wanted to avoid doing any retrofitting for at least five years.”

Opened in April, LAFC’s gleaming new stadium sits adjacent to the Los Angeles Coliseum (home to USC football, and to the NFL’s Rams, at least for now), replacing what used to be the Los Angeles Sports Arena. That structure was demolished in early 2016 and LAFC’s lengthy list of owners (Peter Guber, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell and Mia Hamm, to name just a few of the sports and entertainment luminaries with a stake in the team) set the timer for April 29, 2018, LAFC’s first home game for its inaugural season.

Construction crews worked relentlessly to meet the deadline; the venue was ready one month early, thanks to good planning and construction crews putting in 16-hour days to be ready for BofC Stadium’s debut. On April 29, the gates opened and a new era had begun with the ‘hat trick’ of a fiber backbone, solid wireless coverage and an advanced app strategy.

The optics of LAFC networking

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 a new MatSing ball DAS deployment at Amalie Arena, a new under-seat DAS deployment for the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park, and a look at the new DAS at Wrigley Field! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

No doubt where you are at. Welcome to LA… FC.

The foundation for LAFC’s networking is a gigabit passive optical network (GPON) backbone with two chassis, plus fiber links from two service providers, AT&T and Crown Castle. The stadium backbone is 10-Gbps fiber with 100-Gbps dark fiber in place, Lau explained. LAFC is one of just a few sporting venues using GPON, along with Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and Texas A&M’s Kyle Field in College Station. Perhaps not coincidentally, the technology contractor for all three projects was IBM.

Wi-Fi was an obvious requirement for BofC Stadium; back-of-the-house networks support ticketing processes at the gates, along with POS applications and LAFC administrative needs. Fan-facing Wi-Fi (“LAFC Guest”) blankets the venue with 487 access points; Lau’s leaving open the door to add more APs as requirements dictate. About 60 percent of the existing APs are installed under seats in the stands. Ruckus Networks is the Wi-Fi AP vendor and helped with system engineering and tuning.

While engineered for 70,000 users, the venue’s Wi-Fi has been averaging about 8,700 simultaneous users, according to Lau. The LAFC Guest network has no landing page since at some venues, loading times for landing pages can be long, leading to frustrated users abandoning the Wi-Fi. Users have also come to consider Wi-Fi a de facto amenity, so LAFC wanted to ensure its guest Wi-Fi network was easily and quickly accessible, Lau said.

The DAS details

On the cellular side, LAFC called on wireless services and engineering firm Mobilitie to pull together the distributed antenna system (DAS) for BofC Stadium. The venue’s DAS network consists of 25 zones powered by Ericsson gear; there are 160 antennas and over 7 miles of cabling to handle nearly 1.5 million square feet of DAS coverage.

Wireless gear covers the concessions areas

All four of the major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – have signed up for BofC’s DAS network. Verizon was on air for the first game; Sprint was scheduled to fully integrate into the DAS network by the end of June, according to Stephanie Gray, senior director, wireless coverage solutions for Mobilitie.

LAFC was looking something transformative in its use of technology that would set BofC stadium apart from other stadiums, Gray told Mobile Sports Report. LAFC wanted seamless wireless especially in transition zones, part of strict requirements for the DAS network.

“They wanted a high percentage of coverage throughout the venue, particularly where people are using SeatGeek and wireless/paperless ticketing at the gates,” she explained. “We needed optimum coverage that could handle the stadium under load.”

Mobilitie brought engineering know-how to deal with the inevitable onsite quirks unique to every venue. In the case of BofC Stadium, the overall design aesthetic is modern and slick. The ceiling materials in many parts of the stadium – clubs, suites and some concession areas — are sheathed in metal, which presents an RF propagation challenge for RF, reducing signal strength.

On-field DAS coverage was also challenging, according to Jamie Witherspoon, director, technical solutions, for Mobilitie. Antennas had to be mounted on stadium trusses before the trusses were craned into place, an unusual technical cart-before-the-horse process. The reason? Cherry-picker equipment couldn’t be on the field or its freshly laid sod to adjust DAS antennas. In addition, Witherspoon reported lots of negotiations with the architecture firm, Gensler, to ensure the DAS antennas were as unobtrusive as possible and to preserve the stadium’s design aesthetic.

“With DAS, we’re more accustomed to building out a pre-existing venue, coming in after the fact,” Witherspoon explained. “This was brand new construction, so we had to work around multiple construction teams.”

Bandwidth snapshots

Mobile Sports Report put the fan-facing Wi-Fi and DAS to the test at BofC Stadium’s opening day, a match between LAFC and the Seattle Sounders. We sampled upload and download speeds around the stadium using the Speedtest app to measure performance. All our tests are only from Verizon’s services inside the venue.

Underseat mounts for Wi-Fi

In general, the BofC wireless services appear well engineered and cover the stadium’s common areas effectively. As to be expected, bandwidth performance was higher in the areas around the suites and clubs, where Wi-Fi downloads clocked in anywhere from 12.38 Mbps in the Sunset Loge on the west side of the stadium to 15.26 Mbps in the Founder’s Club. Wi-Fi upload speeds came in at 63.92 Mbps and 71.94 Mbps, respectively, the highest speeds measured in our tests at BofC Stadium.

Verizon’s DAS wasn’t as fast as the guest Wi-Fi. Highest DAS download speed at the south concessions was 37.67 Mbps; Section 123 on the southern side of the bowl came in at 35.43 Mbps. Highest upload speed for DAS service was 21.42 Mbps in the southeast concession area, followed by 20.92 Mbps around the southwest concessions.

A couple areas were less robust from a wireless bandwidth perspective. The DAS performance in the concession area outside the Figueroa Club on the east side of the stadium measured 9.4 Mbps download/10.97 Mbps upload; guest Wi-Fi in the west concessions area came in at 8.58 Mbps/1.93 Mbps, while Wi-Fi in the south concession wasn’t much better at 8.27 Mbps/1.98 Mbps. But generally, the guest Wi-Fi outperformed Verizon’s DAS and most Wi-Fi download/upload speeds were in the double-digits of megabits per second.

Prepping the LAFC app

LAFC worked with mobile integrator Venuetize to build out the team’s app, using the MLS team app template as its foundation. As a new team and one that started its season with a succession of away games, there was no reason to have stadium-based features in the app’s first iteration, said Lou Fontana, vice president of project management for Venuetize. The earliest iteration of the LAFC app concentrated more on content pieces, followed by the BofC Stadium-specific features.

LAFC’s app features both mobile ticketing and a sophisticated digital wallet for making onsite purchases for food or team merchandise. LAFC’s Lau volunteered that the organization is looking to have totally digital ticketing by 2019 – no paper, no PDFs to print out. Venuetize did some backend integration with payment processing partner Vantive; the ticketing part of the app works with ticket marketplace and aggregator SeatGeek.

Wi-Fi APs point down from the rafters

The LAFC app also uses and artificial intelligence-powered chatbot named Otto to help with stadium info, developed by Satis.fy. A future iteration of Otto will take it out of the Web’s view and make it a native view, incorporating elastic search. “That will enable fans to ask about players and the team schedule, and will replace search function in the app,” Fontana said, adding the upgrade could come sometime this summer.

The current version of the app has video, served up from MLS’s site. Immediate replay is something Venuetize will work on with LAFC. “When is the video content source available? That’s an issue,” Fontana said, adding that scoring plays make it out of the MLS server within about 25 minutes. While Venuetize could take that content and make it native, it’s not a top priority for the team at the moment.

BofC Stadium has installed Bluetooth beacon technology. “We haven’t gone through process of dialing in beacons, but wayfinding and navigation are on the list” for the LAFC app, Fontana said.

The integrator is also looking at GameChanger MVP, an augmented reality game developer, for a scoreboard game to fold in. “AR gaming will be the next interesting thing” for sports apps generally, according to Fontana.

First Look: Shining start for Notre Dame’s stadium renovations, new Wi-Fi network

Notre Dame logo on Wi-Fi railing enclosure at Notre Dame Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

How do you bring new technology into a building and institution that embraces history as an integral part of its brand? There may be many answers but in the sports stadium world, Notre Dame’s renovation of its hallowed football field and the addition of high-speed Wi-Fi look like a good example for any other venues trying to solve the same issues.

At this past Sunday’s “New and Gold” game, a sort of glorified scrimmage, the public (including Mobile Sports Report) got its first look at the University of Notre Dame’s Campus Crossroads project, a $400-million plus effort to bring premium seating, a large video board and high-density Wi-Fi to a venue that came to life in 1930, according to university history.

While we will have a full report on our visit to Notre Dame Stadium in our upcoming Fall STADIUM TECH REPORT issue, we wanted to give you a “first look” at the new facilities, which basically include three new large buildings built into the sides of the existing structure, to provide support for the video board as well as two expanded premium-seating and press box areas on either side of the field.

Wi-Fi AP overlooks a concession stand

One of the coolest parts we saw were the new rooftop premium seating areas, where you can sit on a couch and see the full field while also peering out over the edge of the stadium to see Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome, and the rest of the world (well, OK, mostly South Bend, Indiana) while enjoying your favorite beverage and speedy Wi-Fi.

The new Wi-Fi network design using Cisco gear was led by AmpThink, and includes custom-designed enclosures for railing-mounted APs that feature a sharp version of the “ND” logo known to any football fan. Though the network hasn’t yet been optimized or tested with a full house of fans, we were still getting solid up/down signals in the 60-70 Mbps range throughout the building, even in low and high bowl seating areas. There is also a new neutral-host DAS in the stadium, built by Crown Castle. According to Notre Dame, Verizon Wireless and AT&T will be live on the cellular network by the start of the season, with T-Mobile to follow soon.

Like we said, look for more details in our upcoming report… but for now enjoy some scenes from Sunday’s game!

A good look across the main east seating section, with Wi-Fi handrail enclosures visible

DAS in the grass: A DAS antenna finds a home in the grassy strip separating seats from the field

The new big screen video board now dominates the south end zone

A good look at how the new structures bookend up to the stadium on its sides

Now that’s a premium suite: Rooftop couch area provides full view of field, plus scenic views over campus and beyond

Additional seating Wi-Fi coverage from small antennas over VOMs

Painted Wi-Fi AP blends in to column in main concourse outside seating area

The view of ‘Touchdown Jesus’ remains unobstructed

Inside look at the swanky, wood-paneled club for premium seatholders in west building

Scoreboard plug for the Wi-Fi

Notre Dame fans already figuring out how to use social media to get on the big screen

Smart fans at Notre Dame — early arrivers went right for the new, padded premium seats

How do you get bandwidth to APs located below grade level? By being clever and using routing down the side of stairways… more details on this trick coming soon!

Stadium Tech Report: Blazing a Trail to Connectivity at Portland’s Moda Center

Portland's Moda Center, home of the NBA Trail Blazers. Credit all photos: Moda Center (click on any photo for a larger image)

Portland’s Moda Center, home of the NBA Trail Blazers. Credit all photos: Moda Center (click on any photo for a larger image)

When it comes time to build a stadium network there are two obvious choices of how to get it done: You let someone else build and run it, or do it yourself.

When neither of these options appealed to the Portland Trail Blazers and their planned networking upgrade at the Moda Center, they went with a third option: Using a neutral host provider for both DAS and Wi-Fi.

After turning to neutral host provider Crown Castle to build out the enhanced cellular DAS (distributed antenna system) network as well as a fan-facing Wi-Fi network, Portland’s home at the Moda Center now has a level of wireless connectivity that mirrors the team’s excellent on-court performance — challenging for the NBA lead and looking to keep improving.

With Wi-Fi gear from Aruba Networks and an app developed by YinzCam, fans at Trail Blazers games can use the stadium Wi-Fi to gain access to live-action video streams, player stats and even a radio broadcast of the game. The app also supports seat upgrades, a feature powered by Experience.

Now in its second year of existence, the network and all its attributes are a big hit with Portland fans, according to Vincent Ircandia, vice president for business analytics and ticket operations for the Trail Blazers, and Mike Janes, vice president of engineering and technology for the Trail Blazers.

“We do a lot of fan surveys, and the approval [for the network] continues to go up,” said Janes. “We want to figure out what we can do next.”

Third-party the third and correct choice

Editor’s note: This profile is part of our new Stadium Tech Report HOOPS AND HOCKEY ISSUE, available for free download. In addition to this story it contains additional profiles and team-by-team tech capsules for all 30 NBA teams. Download your copy today!

Aruba Wi-FI AP in the rafters at Moda Center

Aruba Wi-FI AP in the rafters at Moda Center

If you dial the clock hands back a few years you would find an arena in Portland with not much connectivity at all, and fans who made their displeasure over the situation known, loud and clearly.

“Trail Blazers fans are not shy about letting us know how they feel,” Ircandia said. “Two years ago we learned that fans didn’t have much connectivity here [at the Moda Center]. That was a real gap in the customer experience.”

Janes said the top two methods of bringing a network in — allowing a carrier to build and operate it, or to build and run it themselves — both had significant drawbacks.

“You could hand it over to a carrier [to be a neutral host] but I’ve seen that before, where one carrier has to ride on another carrier’s DAS,” Janes said. “That’s not a good solution.”

The DIY option, Janes said, would mean that the Trail Blazers team would have to build the networks themselves, and hire someone to manage it.

“That would mean we would have to deal with the [multiple] carriers directly, and we didn’t want to do that,” Janes said.

In the end, Portland went with the neutral host option, with Crown Castle building and running the DAS and installing a Wi-Fi network as well. With its wide experience in building and managing DAS deployments, Crown Castle already has AT&T and Verizon as tenants on the Moda Center DAS, with Sprint coming on soon and possibly T-Mobile joining in the near future.

And on the Wi-Fi side, the team itself “owns” the network and the associated data — “and that’s good, because we are starting to take deeper dives into that,” Janes said.

And how’s it all operating?

“No complaints [recently],” Janes said. “The fans are pretty quiet when it’s just working.”

User numbers flat, data use doubles

Maybe those users are quiet because they are busy posting pictures to Instagram or posts to Facebook, two of the leading applications being used at the Moda Center, according to the Trail Blazers. According to Ircandia, what’s interesting about the usage patterns from last year to this year is that while the number of fans using the network has remained fairly stable (at about 25 percent of attendees), the amount of wireless data consumed has just about doubled from last season to this season, meaning that people are doing more things on the network.

Toyota pregame show on the Moda Center concourse

Toyota pregame show on the Moda Center concourse

Some of that may have to do with a redesigned app, which added four live streams of video action, as well as live radio broadcast coverage.

“We didn’t leave [interaction] to chance,” Janes said. “We spent a lot of effort improving the app and redesigning the web presence to make it more enticing and robust.”

While having more features is always a good step, a big part of the challenge for any team is just getting fans to use the network and the team app. At Moda Center, there is a unique method of network promotion, which also directly benefits the team: By selling the “sponsorship” of the network to local-area Toyota dealers, the stadium operators now have a partner who actively promotes the network to fans walking into the building.

According to Ircandia, the Toyota dealers also sponsor a pregame show, set on the arena concourse with the team’s dancers in attendance to help attract attention. “They [Toyota] want to sell cars, so they have a lot of signage [about the network],” in addition to the show, Incardia said.

If there is such a thing as a good problem, there is one involving the ticket upgrade feature: Since the Trail Blazers have such passionate fans and are doing so well, there aren’t many available seats to offer for upgrades. “It’s a bit of a constrained inventory,” Janes said. Still, the team is using the Experience feature to offer last-minute ticket deals to students in the area, alerting them that there are seats available that may have a chance to be upgraded.

“They [students] have the time to drop whatever they’re doing to come over to the game,” Janes said.

Retrofitting an old flower

Previously known as the Rose Garden, the arena, which was built in 1995, clearly wasn’t initially designed with wireless connectivity in mind.

“We were retrofitting for technology that didn’t exist [when the building was built],” Ircandia said. “That’s where creativity comes in.”

DAS headend gear

DAS headend gear

Some of the creativity in network design included separate Wi-Fi antennas for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz transmissions, so that older devices didn’t have to compete with newer devices for the best Wi-Fi connection. Ircandia also said that the Moda Center “created” some new DAS headend space up in the highest reaches of the building.

“We built catwalks above the catwalks,” Ircandia said.

Looking ahead to what’s next, Janes said the network team is looking to use wireless to connect to food and beverage carts, so that point of sale operations don’t need to be tied to a plug in the wall.

“If we go wireless we can move the carts around, even put them outside, which gives us a business case improvement with no impact to the fans,” Janes said.

And now that those fans know what is possible, they will want what they have now, and more.

“That’s their expectation now,” Janes said, “that it will work when they walk in the building.”

Sonim’s rugged LTE phones get public-safety trials at Super Bowl, World Ski Championships

Sonim XP7 handset

Sonim XP7 handset

The new XP7 ruggedized LTE smartphone from Sonim Technologies will get some on-the-scene testing by public safety professionals at both the Super Bowl as well as the upcoming World Ski Championships in Vail, Colo., according to Sonim, a San Mateo, Calif.-based maker of ruggedized devices.

Expected to be publicly announced Friday, the news that Sonim’s newest ruggedized LTE handset will be tested by firefighters from the Phoenix Fire Department during their Super Bowl deployments is significant for those concerned with public-safety operations around large public venues, since it offers a new way for industry-standard applications to be shared in a potentially “extreme” environment. With support for both standard wireless-carrier LTE networks as well as the emerging “FirstNet” public safety LTE frequency, the Sonim XP7 also offers one potential path toward the long-desired goal of having communication devices that can allow different first-responder agencies to communicate with each other, or to more simply share information from different devices, applications or networks.

While the Phoenix test deployment of XP7 handsets will use AT&T LTE airwaves, a similar test process scheduled to take place in Vail and Beaver Creek at the Feb. 2-15 FIS World Ski Championships will use a demonstration version of the Band Class 14 LTE public safety broadband network, according to a release from FirstNet Colorado.

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 3.15.18 PMThe Vail demonstration will make use of a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) that was built for the town of Vail by neutral host provider Crown Castle, as well as the Sonim phones, among other devices and services.

While it has the first-glance look of a regular smartphone, the Sonim XP7 has a host of ruggedized features including long battery life, an extra-loud speaker, protection against drops and weather, a touchscreen accessible with gloves, and a screen viewable in bright sunlight. In a recent interview with Sonim CEO Bob Plaschke, MSR got to see and hold Plashcke’s XP7, a bulky device that certainly feels like it could stand up to extreme weather and rough handling. In addition to its obvious target market of first responders and other extreme-condition businesses, the XP7 is also being targeted at extreme athletes and outdoor-lifestyle customers, who should be able to purchase the device from major U.S. wireless carriers later this year.

In Phoenix, the Sonim phone will be compared to consumer-grade smartphones in a test using a custom-built firehouse alert app, according to Sonim. The Phoenix firefighters will also test the XP7’s ability to act as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and will also test its compatibility and interoperability with other mobile devices.

Super DAS, Part 2: Super Bowl stadium DAS expands to address increased demand for cellular connectivity

Editor’s note: This story is part 2 of a series of profiles of the providers of the extensive Distributed Antenna System (DAS) deployment for Super Bowl XLIX at and around the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. and other parts of the Phoenix city area as well. Stay tuned all week as we highlight how DAS will keep Super Bowl fans connected, no matter where they roam in and around Phoenix and Glendale this week and weekend.

DAS antenna inside the University of Phoenix Stadium. Credit all photos: TE Connectivity

DAS antenna inside the University of Phoenix Stadium. Credit all photos: TE Connectivity

Two years ago, the University of Phoenix Stadium had a pretty good distributed antenna system (DAS) network to handle cellular communications inside the building. But with Super Bowl XLIX coming to the Glendale, Ariz., facility this year, pretty good wouldn’t be good enough — so the stadium’s network operators expanded the DAS by almost 50 percent in preparation for the game-day network surge expected on Feb. 1.

For fans attending the big game with cellular devices in hand that information may be comforting enough; thanks to a bigger, better DAS that is built to service all the major U.S. wireless carriers, they should have no problem getting a signal. Stadium technology professionals, however, usually want to know more about such expansion plans: What does it really mean to increase DAS capacity? How does that new DAS stack up to others in different stadiums and arenas?

More sectors means more capacity

For the Crown Castle neutral-host DAS at the University of Phoenix Stadium, there is one quick measure of how much the DAS expanded: More sectors. In DAS parlance, a “sector” is an area that has a dedicated amount of base station capacity; for the University of Phoenix Stadium DAS, the number of sectors increased from 33 two years ago to 48 sectors now, according to John Spindler, director for product management at DAS gear maker TE Connectivity. TE’s FlexWave Prism and FlexWave Spectrum DAS gear are part of the infrastructure deployed by neutral host Crown Castle in the UoP network.

John Spindler, TE Connectivity

John Spindler, TE Connectivity

Without getting too deep into telecom physics, more sectors in the same amount of space means more capacity. And when it comes to all the different flavors of phones and carrier spectrum, there’s a lot that goes into a DAS to use up that capacity. With all four major U.S. carriers (AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile) using the DAS, the infrastructure must support a full range of cellular spectrum, from 700 MHz LTE signals to LTE, CDMA, UMTS and EVDO signals in the 800 MHz, 850 MHz, 1900 MHz and 2100 MHz bands. The DAS inside the stadium will use 228 remote antenna units, according to Crown Castle.

“More frequencies, more MIMO [multiple-in, multiple-out antenna-enhancement technology] and heavier sectoring,” is how Spindler described the general needs for most DAS upgrades, and for the UoP DAS, where Spindler foresees another big number for Super Bowl stadium DAS traffic on Feb. 1.

“I would expect to see record [DAS] numbers,” Spindler said.

One DAS to rule them all

DAS active integration panel

DAS active integration panel

Last year, the DAS situation at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey was especially tough to explain, since both AT&T and Verizon built their own separate infrastructures. According to AT&T its DAS customers at Super Bowl XLVIII used 624 gigabytes of traffic, a record then but a figure that has been surpassed many times this past football season at both college and pro football venues (the recent College Football Playoff championship game, for instance, saw 1.4 TB of DAS traffic for AT&T customers at AT&T Stadium). Verizon claimed last year that its customers used 1.9 TB of wireless data during the Super Bowl, but Verizon never provided specifics whether that number represented just DAS traffic, or Verizon customer usage of the MetLife Wi-Fi network as well.

Either way, the guess is that the DAS at the University of Phoenix Stadium will set new Super Bowl traffic records on Feb. 1, and by all accounts the infrastructure seems ready to handle it. Spindler, for one, said the Crown Castle DAS is “definitely well designed.” And Travis Bugh, senior wireless consultant for CDW (which installed the new Wi-Fi system at UoP), said he was also impressed by the performance of the Crown Castle DAS, which he said seems more than ready for the coming Super Bowl crush.

NEXT: What are the carriers doing to supplement the DAS coverage?

Super DAS: Crown Castle’s neutral host infrastructure aims to keep Super Bowl XLIX fans connected, inside and outside the stadium

Editor’s note: This story is part 1 of a series of profiles of the providers of the extensive Distributed Antenna System (DAS) deployment for Super Bowl XLIX at and around the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. and other parts of the Phoenix city area as well. Stay tuned all week as we highlight how DAS will keep Super Bowl fans connected, no matter where they roam in and around Phoenix and Glendale this week and weekend.

University of Phoenix Stadium getting its Super Bowl on. (Click any photo for a larger image) Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

University of Phoenix Stadium getting its Super Bowl on. (Click any photo for a larger image) Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

When is a big air-fan vent not an air-fan vent? When it’s a fake vent covering a hidden cellular antenna, put there to keep people from noticing the technology that’s keeping their cell phones connected. Before kickoff at Super Bowl XLIX Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz., many fans outside the University of Phoenix Stadium will walk right by a faux vent and its sheltered equipment, never knowing the attention to detail that goes into a major-venue Distributed Antenna System (DAS) deployment.

But to stadium technology connectivity professionals, such leaps of aesthetic deception are just part of a day’s, or perhaps month’s, DAS deployment work. For neutral host DAS provider Crown Castle, the fake vents on the shell of the University of Phoenix Stadium — and the powerful antennas behind — are just one part of a massive project to ensure there is excellent mobile-device connectivity both inside and outside the Super Bowl stadium, so that fans never get a dropped signal anywhere between the parking lot and their prized seat.

During a recent press tour, a small team of Crown Castle employees showed off some of the upgraded DAS network deployed at the University of Phoenix Stadium as well as in the surrounding Westgate Sports and Entertainment District, a sort of open-air mall that stretches from the UoP Stadium past numerous attached restaurants and stores, also encompassing the Gila River Arena, home of the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL. Over the past year or so, Crown Castle has been upgrading the DAS inside and outside the arena, throughout the mall areas as well as into the huge parking lots that surround it and the football stadium, bringing connectivity to phones being used by customers from all the four major U.S. wireless carriers.

Since the mall and all its food outlets are conveniently located a short stroll from the stadium, it’s a good bet that a large portion of the Super Bowl crowd will spend time wandering around the Westgate area before and after the big game. Thanks to Crown Castle’s efforts, there shouldn’t be many connectivity problems, as antenna deployments on light poles, building rooftops and — yes, even behind fake vents — should be able to keep devices on the cellular networks without a glitch.

Game day connectivity starts in the parking lot

Since we couldn’t actually spend much time wandering around the stadium itself — even three weeks before the big game, the facility was already on NFL security lockdown — most of the Crown Castle tour consisted of walking around the Westgate mall/neighborhood, hearing about the various methods Crown Castle used to locate the necessary DAS antennas. In all, there are five separate DAS networks Crown Castle is responsible for in the area around the stadium: The football stadium itself; the Gila River Arena (which we will profile in an upcoming feature on hockey stadiums); the Westgate shops and restaurants; the nearby Renaissance Hotel; and the surrounding parking lots.

Parking lot light poles, Westgate entertainment district. Can you spot the DAS?

Parking lot light poles, Westgate entertainment district. Can you spot the DAS?

The curious start of the tour in a far-flung parking lot made sense when we found ourselves next to a small DAS equipment box and a light pole with multiple antennas (which had not yet been covered with their final aesthetic sheaths). Aaron Lamoureux, program manager for Crown Castle’s small cell solutions, served as tour guide, and said that for the Westgate area alone there were 18 individual node locations, with about 52 antennas total. Some were located on light poles, some on rooftops, and some along walkways between buildings, to conquer the unique RF characteristics of the open-air/large building outdoor mallish area that is Westgate. (See photos for DAS geek views)

For the University of Phoenix Stadium itself, Crown Castle deployed 228 DAS antennas inside (more on this in an upcoming profile) and at 21 different locations outside the stadium, 13 of those on parking lot poles and 8 mounted on the building itself. Why building-mounted antennas? If you’ve never been there, the University of Phoenix Stadium has a large plaza area on one side, which is used for pre-game activities like rallies, bands and other walk-up amenities where fans gather before entering. The challenge for Crown Castle was finding places to deploy antennas at a low enough height to cover crowds of people standing in one location. While some parts of the building allowed for regular antenna placements, a big part of the plaza faces part of the stadium wall that is a sheer sheet, with no aesthetic place to mount a DAS antenna — unless you add a fake vent or two to the existing design, that is.

Keeping everyone happy is part of the neutral host job

See the big air vents? Nobody would tell us which ones were 'faux vents,' there to hide DAS antennas

See the big air vents? Nobody would tell us which ones were ‘faux vents,’ there to hide DAS antennas

To people outside the industry it might seem silly to go to such lengths just to keep folks from noticing antennas, but anyone who’s deployed a network for a detail-oriented building owner knows why aesthetics are important. That’s why you paint antenna enclosures to match the surrounding walls, or build sheaths to keep wires and other obvious gear out of main sight. It’s part of the art of wireless network deployment, and not as simple as it sounds. Experience counts.

The complex owner and operator relationships involved in the stadium and surrounding-area DAS also seem tailor-made for a big, experienced provider like Crown Castle, which has a long history of deploying and operating multiple-tenant networks. With five different landlords and four different carriers, being the neutral DAS host for this year’s Super Bowl is a task with many moving parts; but, as Mike Kavanagh, president of sales for Crown Castle’s small cell solutions, said, “We understand how to run networks, how to manage them and deal with carriers. It’s high touch and very fluid. But we know that business.”

COMING UP NEXT: What’s inside the network inside the stadium.

MORE PICTURES BELOW! (Click on any picture for a larger image.)

Sky Harbor Airport: Ready for Super XLIX

Sky Harbor Airport: Ready for Super XLIX

Verizon's NFL Mobile ads were in airport walkways well before the Big Game

Verizon’s NFL Mobile ads were in airport walkways well before the Big Game

If you stumble off the escalator, Bud Light is there to catch you

If you stumble off the escalator, Bud Light is there to catch you

The Westgate uber-mall should see a lot of fan activity (and connectivity) on game day

The Westgate uber-mall should see a lot of fan activity (and connectivity) on game day

Here's the official Super Bowl replay HQ (actually a place with DAS antennas on the roof that you can't see)

Here’s the official Super Bowl replay HQ (actually a place with DAS antennas on the roof that you can’t see)

Mama Gina's will offer you pizza and DAS on the roof

Mama Gina’s will offer you pizza and DAS on the roof

More DAS antennas, on a Westgate walkway

More DAS antennas, on a Westgate walkway

Outside UoP Stadium, where the architecture allows for DAS antenna placement

Outside UoP Stadium, where the architecture allows for DAS antenna placement

Close-up of that placement. Still pretty well hidden.

Close-up of that placement. Still pretty well hidden.

Parking lot light mounts. These will have sheaths by Super Sunday.

Parking lot light mounts. These will have sheaths by Super Sunday.

Here's the remote equipment box that powers the light pole antennas. Also scheduled for more concealment.

Here’s the remote equipment box that powers the light pole antennas. Also scheduled for more concealment.

Every artist leaves a signature...

Every artist leaves a signature…