Converged fiber network the hidden gem at Dickies Arena

Dickies Arena, now open in Fort Worth, Texas, has a single converged fiber backbone to bring order and efficiency to its networking needs. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

With its soaring roof and its high-end cosmetic finishes, Fort Worth’s new Dickies Arena will be a wonder to look at for fans of all events that will take place there.

But what may be even more impressive, certainly from an IT perspective, is something you can’t see: The single, converged fiber network that supports all network operations, including the cellular DAS, the arena Wi-Fi and the IPTV operations, in an orderly, future-proofed way.

Built by AmpThink for the arena, the network is a departure from what has long been the norm in venue IT deployments, where multiple service providers typically build their own networks, with multiple cabling systems competing for conduit space. At Dickies Arena, AmpThink was able to control the fiber systems to follow a single, specific path, allowing the company to save costs and space for the client while building out a system with enough extra capacity to handle future needs for bandwidth, according to AmpThink.

“This is really our master class [on stadium network design],” said AmpThink president Bill Anderson, during a September MSR visit and tour of the almost-ready arena. If you’re not familiar with the Dickies Arena story, the 14,000-seat arena is part of a public-private venture between the city of Fort Worth and a consortium of investors and donors led by local Fort Worth philanthropist Ed Bass. Though it doesn’t have a professional basketball or hockey tenant, the NBA-sized venue will fill an arena-sized need for events in the growing Fort Worth area, while also serving as the new home for the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.

Following the lead of AT&T Stadium, where high-end finishes were a hallmark of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ influence, Dickies Arena appears to take cosmetic matters a full step further, with intricate tile flooring and art-quality finishes on areas like stairway handrails and bar facades. In an early September walkaround while workers were still completing finishing touches like polishing concrete floors to make the surfaces shine, MSR also got to see the results of owners’ requests of “not having a single cellular or Wi-Fi antenna visible,” according to AmpThink’s Anderson.

No fiber allowed outside of the single path

Editor’s note: This report 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 the new Wi-Fi 6 network at Ohio Stadium, and an in-person research report on the new Wi-Fi network at Las Vegas Ballpark. You can either VIEW THE REPORT LIVE (no registration needed) or DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

In the suite and concourse areas, for example, Wi-Fi APs and DAS antennas are hidden behind ceiling panels, with no electronics in sight. But what’s even more impressive from an engineering and construction standpoint is what’s happening further down the network path from the endpoints, where all cable and fiber follows a structured pathway, first to an IDF and then back to the head end rooms in the arena’s basement.

Fiber cables head to the head end room in orderly fashion.

“No fiber is allowed to follow a path that doesn’t tie to an IDF, or directly to the head end,” said Anderson. “And we didn’t allow DAS vendors to be outside the closet. It’s the venue’s fiber network. Nobody else could come in and build their own.”

Looking from the end of the project back, it’s clear why you might want to pursue such a path: With a single, converged network, design and planning and eventually operations are streamlined, since there aren’t multiple infrastructures to deploy and maintain. The conditions also allowed AmpThink to fully pre-design and perform many construction techniques like splicing and cable measurement and cutting beforehand – according to Anderson, there was not a single fiber termination done in the field.

“For venues it used to be, use the ‘brute force’ method and just go figure it out in the field,” Anderson said.

At Dickies Arena, that method simply wasn’t the case. In addition to fiber cabling and splicing work, AmpThink also built many custom enclosures (the company has a large machine shop at its Dallas-area headquarters where it can design and manufacture parts like metal wiring boxes and the plastic enclosures it uses for stadium Wi-Fi and DAS deployments) to simplify installation while complying with the strict aesthetic requirements.

“AmpThink helped us think proactively so we are prepared to build on this solid foundation for the future,” said Matt Homan, president and general manager of Trail Drive Management Corp (TDMC), the not-for-profit operating entity for Dickies Arena. “This has allowed us to have a much more cost-effective approach, which is important for us as a 501c3 organization operating Dickies Arena. The AmpThink team has done a phenomenal job of assisting with the architectural integrity of the building to ensure that no Wi-Fi or DAS antennas were seen.”

High-end finishes are everywhere in Dickies Arena, even in the stairwells.

Jeff Alexander, senior vice president at ExteNet Systems, said Dickies Arena was the first time ExteNet ever participated in a converged network design for a large public venue. But Alexander also said ExteNet, which is responsible for the DAS design and 5G cellular installations at Dickies Arena, had years of experience in situations where service providers had to work together.

“Most [other] DAS deployments give no consideration for Wi-Fi, or anything else,” said Alexander in a phone interview. “Given ExteNet’s experience and our track record, these are things we were forced to think about 10 years ago.”

According to Alexander, the directive to work with a single converged fiber network wasn’t “harder” than a regular installation.

“It was unique,” Alexander said of the Dickies Arena installation experience. “It made us think of things we hadn’t thought about, and challenged us to consider other things than the typical DAS installation, which isn’t a bad thing. I consider it a success.”

At Dickies Arena, the DAS uses the Corning ONE DAS hardware system with approximately 500 active antennas in 12 zones for the DAS.

As future-proofed as possible

As part of the overall fiber network design, AmpThink’s Anderson said the company maximized capacity throughout the building, with hundreds of extra fiber strands available to support future capacity needs. By using optical fiber with hundreds of strands wound together – including some stretches with 864 different fiber strands inside a single cable – AmpThink actually saved time, money and space by preventing the need for additional infrastructure or future cable pulls.

The center-hung video board in testing mode

“The bulk of the cost [of fiber deployments] is the labor to pull the fiber,” Anderson said. By using large-bundle fiber, Anderson said AmpThink was able to drive the cost per strand to “a very low number,” while also clearing conduit space since a large-bundle fiber strand saves a huge amount of space when compared to multiple smaller-bundle strands which must each have their own insulation.

While ExteNet’s Alexander contends that no network design can ever be truly “future-proofed” – if you ask him he will tell you a story about a large sports venue where ExteNet is currently replacing 864-strand fiber put in 5 years ago with 1,728-strand fiber – he does agree that putting in as much fiber as the design and cost allows buys a venue time to support the always-growing demand for bandwidth.

“The industry is full of venues that didn’t do that, and 12 months later they’re expanding their fiber plant,” Alexander said. AmpThink’s Anderson noted that even during the arena’s construction, there were demands for additional fiber – such as for a densification in the LED ribbon boards – that were easily addressed.

“People came back to us, and said they needed more fiber, and we had it to give to them, no problem,” Anderson said. “It didn’t cost us a lot to do it [add in more fiber strands]. It’s a model everyone should look at.”

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The rodeo will be the main event at Dickies Arena every year

The soaring, open rooftop is meant to mimic the wide open skies of Texas

The AmpThink-designed and manufactured cabling cabinets helped complete the ‘master class’ installation

First Look: Milwaukee has a gem in Fiserv Forum

The front of Fiserv Forum, with the new Milwaukee Bucks logo ready for fan selfies. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

With its first event scheduled for next week, Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee’s shiny new basketball and concert arena, is definitely ready for the spotlight as a sneak-peek tour by Mobile Sports Report this past week revealed a state-of-the-art stadium with great technology and pleasing aesthetic touches that should wow fans of pro and college basketball, concerts and other events for years to come.

While MSR plans to circle back soon for some more in-depth reporting and live testing of the stadium’s Wi-Fi and DAS networks, and closer looks at the digital displays in action, our short tour of the Milwaukee Bucks’ new home made it clear that the designers and builders of Fiserv Forum definitely learned from what others had done before them, and then advanced things in many areas.

Smart touches on the networking side like small Wi-Fi antennas in the railings and clever use of overhead Wi-Fi enclosures as seating signage show a dual commitment to getting the tech right while also paying attention to aesthetics, sometimes a challenge that falls short on one side or the other. Other interesting twists include an array of TV screens and other displays underneath the main large video board, so that fans in courtside seats have their own comfortable way to view replays and other information.

Railing Wi-Fi antenna enclosure in the lower bowl

The visual fan experience at Fiserv Forum starts, of course, with the stadium’s unique outside design, which either looks like a breaking wave or part of a beer barrel, depending on your view and sense of artistic license. The venue also uses architectural twists to provide an assortment of exciting views, with the top-level Panorama Club giving any ticket holder an eagle’s-eye view of the court as well as a spectacular view to downtown Milwaukee, courtesy of an outside deck.

Stay tuned for more MSR reporting on Fiserv Forum’s technology later this fall, including the Cisco Wi-Fi network with its 577 APs (most of which are the two-radio version) and Cisco Vision digital display deployment; cellular infrastructure from ExteNet and JMA; the LED banners and the huge Daktronics display; and live testing of the across-the-street beer garden scheduled to be open in time for Oktoberfest. Prosit and congrats to the Bucks and Fiserv. Some selected photos from our visit below (watch for more photos and more info in our upcoming Fall issue of the STADIUM TECH REPORT).

Artsy panoramic view of the front of Fiserv Forum

Inside the front door, the atrium soars up on both sides of the building

A full-court view from the Panorama Club (Marquette University will also use the stadium)

Looking up at the Panorama Club

The north side of the stadium, as seen from the attached parking structure

The section number sign doubles as a Wi-Fi AP enclosure

Construction continues on the next-door beer garden and entertainment area

View of the beer garden and entertainment area from the Panorama Club outside deck. The front two structures will house a brewpub and a Punch Bowl Social outlet

A look at the display (and wireless) technology mounted underneath the main video board

Concession displays

The Bradley Center, left, will soon be demolished, ceding the stage to Fiserv Forum

Fear the deer, but enjoy the beer

JMA touts virtualized RAN for DAS with new XRAN platform

The marketplace for in-building distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments got an interesting jolt Monday with JMA Wireless’s announcement of its new XRAN software platform, which promises to bring the flexibility and cost savings of hardware virtualization to the world of Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment.

In a quick nutshell, the idea behind JMA’s XRAN is to use software and off-the-shelf Intel-based servers to replace the dedicated racks of equipment that are traditionally used to carry signals from celluar carrier lines to antenna infrastructure in a DAS. In addition to potential large savings in amounts of equipment needed, cooling and power costs, and sheer space, the XRAN also promises to allow cloud-based sharing and administration of systems, which could allow multiple buildings or a campus to share an integrated system for flexible capacity control.

A stadium with XRAN, in an example provided by JMA, could theoretically share its DAS deployment infrastructure with nearby office buildings, allowing for better use of resources. Though not yet deployed anywhere commercially, JMA also announced Monday that XRAN software is being used by Telecom Italia Mobile in a “live dense urban network application.” The announcements were officially made at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona.

Looking to cut costs for enterprise wireless deployments

The XRAN announcement may be of most immediate interest in the stadium wireless marketplace to third-party network operators, who typically build a DAS network for a stadium and rent space on it back to carriers. That model, employed by companies including Boingo, Mobilitie, ExteNet and 5 Bars, has come under pressure lately as carriers have voiced displeasure over having to pay what they sometimes consider exorbitant prices for access. If costs for DAS deployments and operations could be cut, third party operators might be able to offer more attractive rates to ensure carrier participation.

To be sure, virtualized RAN operations (also sometimes known as “C-RAN” for Cloud-based RAN) have been the focus of many companies inside the telecom services space, for the same cost-saving and feature flexibility promises made possible by switching from dedicated hardware to commodity platforms. In the press literature accompanying its announcement, JMA notes that while some “partially virtualized” RAN architecture equipment exists, JMA claims the XRAN platform is the first fully virtual RAN, software “that can process the full protocol stack” from Layer 1 through Layer 3.

If the cost savings and functional flexibility of RAN virtualization follow the curves seen by virtualization in the application world, XRAN or any similar platforms that may follow could also potentially hold interest for commercial real estate owners and operators. With most industry estimates showing that many large commercial buildings like office towers currently lack a comprehensive indoor wireless coverage solution, by eliminating a big chunk of the cost of a DAS — or by allowing campuses or multiple buildings to share the costs — a DAS could become a more attractive option.

“Cost, simplicity, footprint, power, and cooling changes dramatically with XRAN,” said Todd Landry, corporate vice president of product and market strategy at JMA Wireless, in a prepared statement. “XRAN is designed from its inception to close the gap between rapidly growing in-building mobile connectivity demands and today’s complex, proprietary hardware solutions unable to evolve and adapt for multi-operator services.”

More as we hear more from what is sure to be a talked-about subject in the big-building wireless world!

ExteNet Signs Wireless Deal with Minor Hockey League, Adds App Integration

Screenshot of Go Beyond Live app.

Screenshot of Go Beyond Live app.

Wireless infrastructure provider ExteNet Systems this week announced that it has been named the “Official Arena Wireless Network Provider” for the American Hockey League, a minor-league circuit with teams in 30 cities across the country. Though no specific deals have yet been inked for specific arenas, the Lisle, Ill.-based ExteNet said it will start announcing plans later this year or early next, after it evaluates facilities to see what technology is needed.

Known best for its deployments of Distributed Antenna Systems in sporting venues, ExteNet can also design and deploy stadium Wi-Fi, which it may need to do for some of the AHL arenas. “There are some things that can’t be done just by cellular alone,” said Jon Davis, vice president of business development at ExteNet, in a phone interview earlier this week.

While we’re always skeptical of such open-ended deals like ExteNet’s AHL agreement as well as the one it recently signed with AEG — we have seen too many such announcements in the tech world that end up being a lot of nothing — ExteNet’s track record of building networks for large institutions like the University of Michigan and the Miami Marlins seems to suggest that the company is capable of handling large-scale operations. If nothing else, maybe ExteNet will be hiring more engineers soon, so forward those resumes.

An interesting sideline to the AHL deal is ExteNet’s announcement that it will make available to AHL teams an in-stadium app, developed by the Wireless Fan Network. Called Go Beyond Live, the app has various features designed for use in sports arenas, like concession ordering and replay video services. According to ExteNet the Go Beyond Live app is not exclusive, meaning that teams can add their own apps to whatever infrastructure is built. But the partnership highlights what we here at MSR see as a big potential future for app developers, namely building apps for the thousands of teams and leagues that aren’t in the top pro tiers.

Big DAS Deals: AT&T Bringing DAS to Pac-12, Extenet Scores with AEG

Though no specific stadium installation plans have yet been made public, two big DAS deals were announced in the past week, with AT&T on track to bring DAS deployments to the Pac-12 conference, while ExteNet scored an exclusive DAS deal with entertainment giant AEG.

I don’t have confirmation but I do believe that AT&T’s agreement to be the exclusive wireless sponsor for the Pac-12 is the first such deal signed with one of the top collegiate conferences. Though agreements and details will have to be worked out on a stadium-by-stadium basis, the opportunity to be the exclusive provider of DAS infrastructure for all big facilities at the 12 major universities is a big win for AT&T. Jon Wilner over at the Mercury News has a good explanation of the full deal, which also includes content agreements for carrying Pac-12 broadcasts on AT&T U-Verse.

After deploying DAS (Distributed Antenna System) networks to all stadiums by next year, it will be interesting to see if AT&T helps the schools financially with any corresponding Wi-Fi network buildouts. AT&T has gone on the record publicly to say that it doesn’t want to help fund Wi-Fi, but that stance might be different if AT&T has exclusive deals like this one. In other DAS news AT&T also was announced as the supplier of new DAS deployments at CenturyLink Field in Seattle; you have to believe that when it comes to stadium DAS AT&T is the market leader, all part of a big push toward the small cellular antenna systems started a few years ago by CTO John Donovan.

ExteNet and AEG

But even with AT&T’s big wins, that doesn’t mean there isn’t DAS opportunity for multiple players. Infrastructure experts ExteNet proved that with the announcement of its exclusive-rights deal to build DAS and other wireless infrastructure for AEG facilities. In terms of venues, AEG owns or is affiliated with a long list of big facilites, like the Staples Center in LA, the Sprint Center in Kansas City, O2 in London, and more.

With no announced specific plans yet a deal like this is what we call “a work in progress.” And some of the AEG facilities already have networks, so it’s unclear what the total opportunity is. Still, not a bad win for ExteNet, which has put networks in places for customers like the University of Michigan and the Miami Marlins and the Barclays Center.

“We are working with individual [AEG] venues to understand the level of coverage, if any, in their venues,” said ExteNet VP Jon Davis in an email reply to our questions. “The specific venues we are engaged with have limited, if any, in-building coverage. There is a mix of sports and music concerts in these venues and the demand is for high bandwidth mobile connectivity to cater to the coverage and, increasingly more important, capacity needs for these venues.”

Wi-Fi Whispers: Giants Double Wi-Fi Access Points, Add Charging Stations at AT&T Park

SFG_ATT_parkThe San Francisco Giants are making a case for keeping thier unofficial title of having the best wireless networked ballpark by doubling the number of wireless access points and adding mobile-device charging stations at AT&T Park for the 2013 season.

Already easily one of the best un-wired sporting arenas, the home field for the 2012 World Series champs isn’t resting on its tech laurels. According to an email from Giants CIO Bill Schlough, “the Giants and AT&T Wi-Fi Services are more than doubling the number of access points at the ballpark (760) to stay ahead of demand from our increasingly connected fan base.” Schlough said the Wi-Fi network at AT&T Park hosted 980,000 gameday connections during the 2012 season, up 90% from 2011. Total data usage, Schlouh said, increased by 140 percent over the previous year, with more than 16 million megabytes sent over the AT&T Wi-Fi network during the Giants’ regular and playoff seasons.

To better serve fans who probably burn out batteries sending tweets and Vine videos, the Giants and AT&T are helping make sure nobody has to crouch down by a concourse wall, looking for an outlet mid-game. According to Schlough, fans at AT&T Park will have access to more than 400 mobile device chargers throughout the stadium, with 10 mobile kiosks capable of charging 16 devices each. And perhaps most importantly, the Giants will keep their highest-paying customers well-charged, with four device chargers in each suite.

Schlough also gave us a Giants’ point of view on the announcement last week about Qualcomm and Major League Baseball “working together” to bring more Wi-Fi networks to MLB parks. While we cynically tweeted that such deals don’t mean much without monetary figures attached (I mean, the best way to bring Wi-Fi to the ballparks that don’t have them is to BUILD NETWORKS), Schlough said the Qualcomm deal would only help build better networks.

In an email reply to a question about how the Qualcomm-MLBAM deal might affect the Giants, Schlough responded: “We’ve actually been working with Qualcomm and MLB Advanced Media to benchmark the work that AT&T has done here with our Wi-Fi and 3G/LTE DAS networks, in hopes that this we can A) identify specific areas within the ballpark to be targeted for continued improvement and B) potentially serve as the model that other ballparks can follow.”

Charging stations sound like another good step in the fans’ direction. Now if only airports and convention centers would follow suit.

Xirrus Brings Wi-Fi to Liverpool FC

Our friends at Xirrus scored another big stadium deal for their new-era Wi-Fi networking gear, bringing wireless services to Anfield Stadium, the home of the club since its formation in 1892. Here’s a good writeup on the deal from TechWorld. We are guessing the ability for Xirrus’s antennas to cover more space and provide more capacity per access point was a selling plus for the ancient Anfield Stadium; here’s the official press release about the win.

ExteNet Bags Four Major Carriers for Barclays Center DAS

On the DAS (distributed antenna system) front the folks at ExteNet Systems scored a major win for their network at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. ExteNet, which builds DAS networks to improve in-building cellular connections, signed agreements with the big 4 U.S. wireless carriers — AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and MetroPCS — for the Barclays DAS, meaning that all the carriers will pay ExteNet to help bring better signals to their customers inside the arena.

Signing all four is a huge win for ExteNet, whose strategy of building “neutral DAS” networks and then acting as the middleman seems to be paying off not just for ExteNet, but also for cellular customers. By picking ExteNet, Barclays is putting the fan experience above the potential income of a single-carrier “exclusive” deal. Let’s hope more stadiums think of ExteNet and other neutral DAS players first, instead of deals that leave two thirds of the cellular users without better connections.