Wireless connectivity strong at Colorado Rockies’ ‘old’ Coors Field

The main gate at Coors Field, the third-oldest ballpark in the NL. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

For someone who covered the origin of major league baseball in Denver, it somehow doesn’t seem possible that Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, is the third-oldest stadium in the National League. But after venerable venues Wrigley Field and Dodgers Stadium, there sits Coors as the next-oldest in line.

Opened in 1995, the brick-and-steel venue in Denver’s lower downtown has another oldest-type attribute, in the fact that Coors was one of the first MLB stadiums to get a Wi-Fi network built for it by MLB’s Advanced Media arm, a deployment that went fully live in time for the 2015 season. Like its bricks-and-mortar host, the “old” network is still doing fine, even if it was built without some of the newer technology and techniques that have appeared in stadium networking in the lifetime of the past couple years.

With an opening-day Wi-Fi data total of 2.2 terabytes used, Coors Field’s Wi-Fi network is more than ready and able to handle any increases in activity that may or may not be related to the Rockies’ resurgence on the field, where the purple players have spent most of the season so far in playoff contention.

During an early May visit, Mobile Sports Report found the network performing strong throughout the venue, with many 60+ Mbps readings for Wi-Fi download speeds in all seating areas as well as on heavy-traffic concourses. What follows here is some history of the park and its role in the MLBAM Wi-Fi rollout, as well as our random speedtests from a visit during a doubleheader with the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, whose well-traveled fans add to the capacity in any ballpark where the team happens to be playing.

One of the earliest in ‘downtown parks’ resurgence

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, new Wi-Fi for Westfield’s Century City Mall in Los Angeles, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

The green box at the bottom of the aisle is a Wi-Fi antenna pointing up the rows.

A little personal history for yours truly intersects with the origin of Coors Field — way back in 1991, I was one of the lead baseball writers for the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera, and our main story that spring was the question of whether or not Denver would land one of the two NL expansion franchises soon to be awarded. Like many other cities and regions hopeful for pro sports, Denver and Colorado voted for a tax that would help build a new baseball-only park, which looked great in those artist-concept sketches that are always floated around.

But for me what really hit home was when the team behind Denver’s bid actually went out and chalked out a baseball field in the vacant lots where Coors Field would actually sit, among the old brick warehouses in the city’s lower downtown neighborhood. On the day of the official National League visit, there was even a group of kids playing baseball on that field — whether it was staged or not, the presentation was cool, and it probably stuck in the minds of many others like it did in mine, that a downtown park would be a great thing in Denver.

After being awarded the franchise and playing a couple years in the old Mile High football stadium, the Rockies finally moved into their new home for the 1995 season, in a building inspired by Orioles Park at Camden Yards, the downtown venue built for the Baltimore Orioles a few years earlier. My first impressions at the time were favorable, noting the wider concourses and seats tilted to the action on the field, along with a ballpark brewpub as being good trends for others to imitate.

Fast forward 20 years, and at Coors Field, lots has changed from the fan perspective. With personal digital devices everywhere, and fans wanting to use social media to share experiences, the home of the Rockies is no different from any other large sports or entertainment venue in needing solid connectivity. As perhaps befits the pro sport with the best digital league-wide plan, MLB’s advanced media arm (MLBAM) in 2014 embarked on a program to make Wi-Fi and DAS deployments happen in every stadium that didn’t have them (or had older. underperforming networks). By cutting deals with carriers and equipment suppliers and teams. MLBAM put together $300 million in the kitty for a buildout that reached 23 stadiums by this year’s ASG.

Some orderly DAS wiring coming out of the head end room.

(Some teams, like the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park and the Atlanta Braves at new SunTrust Park, have opted to build their own physical networks, even while working closely with MLBAM on matters like the league-wide Ballpark app.)

Coors Field was among the very first in the MLBAM buildout efforts, with fan-facing Wi-Fi available in time for the 2015 season. Though its buildout predated some of the newer techniques and technologies used for stadium Wi-Fi deployments — like under-seat or handrail-mounted Wi-Fi APs — our tests showed the Coors Field Wi-Fi network, which now has approximately 550 APs, to be as strong as any we’ve tested, with signals in the 60 Mbps download range throughout most of the park. We didn’t test all the DAS carrriers but from all appearances, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are well represented on the AT&T-built cellular network. According to AT&T there are 322 antennas in the newer version of the DAS, also built in 2015, which AT&T said has roughly six times the capacity of the previous network.

As the Rockies enjoy an on-field resurgence (Colorado was in or near first place in its division through most of the spring and remain in the wild-card hunt as of this writing), fans should be happy to know their connectivity is competitive as well, with both team IT types and MLBAM keeping an eye on keeping customers connected.

Deck locations help ‘front to back’ work well at Coors Field

With three main tiers of seating, the 50,398-seat Coors Field has plenty of overhangs to work with as antenna mounts, making the so-called “front to back” design philosophy work well. Michael Bush, senior director of information systems for the Rockies, led us on a tour of the stadium, noting that at the tops of most seating areas there were two antennas, one pointing straight down and a “Gillaroo” panel antenna pointing down the rows of seats.

Good camoflauge on antennas serving the left field bleachers area.

At the bottom of most seating areas, including close to field level, there are Wi-Fi APs mounted either on the playing-field walls, or on the railings in the upper decks, pointing back up the rows of seats. In section 131, right behind home plate, we got readings as high as 63.10 Mbps on download and 48.75 Mbps for upload, almost exactly halfway between field level and the concourse at the top of the lower bowl.

In row 16 of section 138, behind the Rockies’ dugout, we got a speedtest reading of 63.32 / 41.63 Mbps, and in the outfield seats behind the left-field foul pole we saw speeds of 68.29 / 49.66 Mbps. Up in the “Rockpile” seats, way up top in straightaway center, we still got a Wi-Fi mark of 66.69 / 41.44 Mbps, probably from one of the four antennas we saw mounted on the back-side railings.

In the back of the walk-around “Rooftop” club and bar area in the upper deck of right field we got speeds of 61.21 / 28.86 Mbps, and then marks of 61.52 / 40.53 Mbps when we moved around to the front of the Rooftop, where you can lean on a railing while watching the game below. The lowest marks we got were in the upper deck of section 317 along the first-base line, where the speeds were 42.16 / 25.33.

All of these tests came during a break between games during a doubleheader versus the Cubs, when the stadium was cleared between games. The marks also varied between being on the main Rockies fan Wi-Fi SSID, and one reserved for Verizon Wireless customers, which our device kept autoconnecting to. But even as the stadium filled up for the nightcap, our signals stayed strong, including a 67.62 / 29.78 Mbps mark up in section 342, in the upper deck along the third-base line.

On Verizon’s LTE network we got a reading in the left-field bleachers of 14.99 / 15.19 Mbps, and a reading of 11.26 / 7.69 Mbps up in front of “The Tavern,” one of the bars in the Rooftop area. We did not have devices to test cellular signals for AT&T or T-Mobile, both of which like Verizon are also on the stadium DAS. Sprint, according to Bush, serves its Coors Field customers with a macro antenna deployment on a rooftop across the street from the stadium along the first-base side.

Wi-Fi antennas in the back of the ‘Rockpile’ centerfield bleacher area.

In our tour of the venue, Bush led us down to the head end rooms, where the DAS deployment looked military in its precision and organization. He also pointed out the cooling vents, which went from field level through the ceilings to finally pop out above the concession stands on the main concourse level, out of view for anyone who wasn’t trying to look down to see them.

Though Coors Field’s lower level seemed to have more than enough room for head end rooms, Bush did show us the parking lot “shed” that MLBAM built to house its video operations, including the on-field replay system that shuttles signals back to league headquarters. There is also some Wi-Fi coverage outside the building, mainly in the north parking lot which doubles as an area for media tenting for large events like postseason games. But for the most part Bush said Coors Field is careful to limit its Wi-Fi footprint to the facility’s walls, so there isn’t any bleed-over use by the residential and commercial buildings that are just across the street from three sides of the stadium.

Making sure the tech fits the park

As one of the first MLBAM deployments, the Coors Field network might have been excused for being more functional than aesthetic, but as our visit showed the opposite is true. Unless you are explicitly looking for Wi-Fi and other networking gear, it’s hard to see with the naked eye. In our unofficial wanderings we’d put Coors Field among the best in terms of hiding things in plain sight, with exact paint color matches as well as finding locations for mounting where gear doesn’t stick out. Helping out with this task is Coors Field’s overall embrace of brick and exposed steel beams, a sort of benign camoflauge that the network deployment team made good use of.

“A huge part of the fight” was making the antennas and other gear disappear, Bush said, pointing out several deployment spots we otherwise might have missed (including a huge bank of DAS gear right above a concession stand, perfectly painted to blend in with the green structural steel right above).

“The owners wanted to make it look like it [the network] was always there from the start,” said Bush.

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, new Wi-Fi for Westfield’s Century City Mall in Los Angeles, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

DAS gear hidden in plain sight above a concession stand

Cubs fans invaded the Rooftop, among other areas

A good look at the Rooftop area, with its open gathering spaces

A Wi-Fi AP pointing back up toward the seats from the field level wall

The view from center field

Coors Field’s beer stands were playing to the Cubs visitors with this offering

Let’s play two!

The pro pick for your after-Coors Field jazz consumption

Stadium Tech Report: DAS, Wi-Fi puts end to no-signal problem at Denver’s Sports Authority Field

PeytonThese days, Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High is the new home of the NFL’s most prolific signal-caller. With a record season for passing yards and passing touchdowns, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is recognizable for his animated pointing, shouting and line-of-scrimmage audibles, the ultimate practicioner of last-second communication.

Not too long ago, the fans at Mile High might have had to resort to the same tactics to communicate, using hand waving or shouting, since getting a cell signal was next to impossible. “Forget making a phone call, you couldn’t even send a text,” said Rick Seifert, communications manager for the Broncos’ stadium management company. “And it wasn’t just the fans. We [the staff] couldn’t make calls in the stadium to do our jobs.”

But in 2012, the Broncos changed all that with the installation of a full-featured distributed antenna system (DAS) deployed by TE Connectivity, and a fan-facing Wi-Fi network installed by Verizon Wireless.

Russ Trainor

Russ Trainor

The Broncos also put in a huge new digital scoreboard and robust back-end connectivity provided by Comcast as part of their blitz of networking improvements, and this past fall, AT&T joined in by upgrading its connection to the stadium’s DAS. By next year the Broncos hope to add AT&T and Sprint to its roster of Wi-Fi service providers, reflecting what vice president of information technology Russ Trainor sees as a “never ending growth” of wireless in-stadium consumption.

All carriers on board, slowly

One of the biggest problems with DAS deployments in stadiums is convincing major cellular carriers to work together. Since each carrier wants to deploy systems to do the best job for its customers, there is often a difference in opinion on strategy and operations, which is often followed by similar snags in contract negotiations. Trainor said that the stadium, built in 2001, presented unique RF challenges to wireless with its primarily exposed-steel construction. Verizon and Sprint were the first carriers to sign up for the neutral DAS, followed by AT&T this fall.

DAS equipment at Sports Authority Field. Credit: Denver Broncos

DAS equipment at Sports Authority Field. Credit: Denver Broncos

“It was tough to get them [all the major carriers] to agree on DAS, but we have good engineers on the back end and we came up with a nice solution for everybody,” said Trainor. While the antennas and stadium network are neutral, each carrier provides its own back-end gear, much of which at Mile High had to be placed in a building built outside the facility specifically to house telecom gear. In many stadium DAS deployments, the telecom gear can take up thousands of square feet, which can be challenging to find in facilities built before such needs were known.

“There’s no room inside for all the space they [the carriers] wanted,” Seifert said.

The Wi-Fi network, deployed by Verizon, uses Cisco equipment and is also a neutral host infrastructure, meaning that other carriers could use it to provide Wi-Fi connectivity to their clients if they so choose. According to Seifert, AT&T and Sprint will offer Wi-Fi services to customers next season, in part to answer the consistently growing demand. Like in other stadiums, fans at Sports Authority Field know what to do when they finally find bandwidth: Use more.

Steady growth in wireless use

When Sports Authority Field is at its listed capacity of 76,125 on game days, it becomes the 14th-largest city in Colorado, Trainor said. The team has already seen 525,000 downloads of its mobile application, which provides such in-stadium features as four different video replay angles, a connection to the NFL Network’s RedZone channel, and a direct link to the radio feed from hometown sports station KOA. The application is geo-fenced to ensure that the video rights are only used inside the stadium, and to give fans there a unique game-day experience.

Wi-Fi antennas on stadium overhang. Credit: Denver Broncos

Wi-Fi antennas on stadium overhang. Credit: Denver Broncos

According to Trainor, the team usually sees an average of 4,000 simultaneous connections on the Verizon Wi-Fi network on game days, though on colder days when fans need to wear gloves that number can drop in half. Trainor said the Cisco infrastructure is designed to accomodate 25,000 concurrent connections, a number the team hasn’t yet reached. However, the team did have to double the back-end capacity already for the Wi-Fi network, which is being used more as more fans find it.

“Word of mouth really gets [usage] going,” said Trainor, who noted that at a Kenny Chesney concert last year, the stadium crew saw data uploads outpace data downloads for the first time — a sure sign that fans in attendance were using the network to do things like share pictures and videos with their social-network connections.

“We haven’t seen any true bottlenecks yet, but usage is consistently rising, game after game, for concerts, soccer and football,” Trainor said.

Rick Seifert

Rick Seifert

A good sign from the Wi-Fi networking statistics is a shift in usage from the often crowded 2.4 GHz bands to the 5 GHz bands, which Trainor said is likely due to fans using the latest 5 series iPhones, which support the 5 GHz Wi-Fi frequency. And no matter what happens to the Broncos in the playoffs, Trainor and Seifert know what they will be doing this summer: Upgrading the network components, in the never-ending battle to provide bandwidth.

“Verizon and Sprint have already made significant upgrades to their DAS deployments because of demand and changes in technology, like LTE,” said Seifert. “And next year we’ll probably see AT&T circle back again. It’s very dynamic.”

“As smart phones get smarter it’s a never-ending challenge” to provide connectivity, Trainor said. “It’s a job that’s never finished.”