Commentary: Cheer, Cheer for old Wi-Fi

A hoops fan records action during the FInal Four at U.S. Bank Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

News item: Super Bowl 53 sees 24 terabytes of Wi-Fi data used.

Second news item: Final Four weekend sees 31.2 terabytes of Wi-Fi data used.

Even as people across the wireless industry seem ready to dig Wi-Fi’s grave, the view from here is not only is Wi-Fi’s imminent death greatly exaggerated, things may actually be heading in the other direction — Wi-Fi’s last-mile and in-building dominance may just be getting started.

The latest ironic put-down of Wi-Fi came in a recent Wall Street Journal article with the headline of “Cellphone Carriers Envision World Without Wi-Fi,” in which a Verizon executive calls Wi-Fi “rubbish.” While the article itself presents a great amount of facts about why Wi-Fi is already the dominant last-mile wireless carrier (and may just get stronger going forward) the article doesn’t talk at all about the Super Bowl, where Verizon itself basically turned to Wi-Fi to make sure fans at the big game who were Verizon customers could stay connected.

Wi-Fi speedtest from U.S. Bank Stadium during the Final Four championship game.

As readers of MSR know, the performance of the cellular DAS at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta has been a question mark since its inception, and the emergence of competing lawsuits between lead contractor IBM and supplier Corning over its implementation means we may never learn publicly what really happened, and whether or not it was ever fixed. Though stadium tech execs and the NFL said publicly that the DAS was fine for the Super Bowl, Verizon’s actions perhaps spoke much louder — the carrier basically paid extra to secure part of the Wi-Fi network bandwidth for its own customers, and used autoconnect to get as many of its subscribers as it could onto the Wi-Fi network.

While we did learn the Wi-Fi statistics in detail — thanks to the fact that Wi-Fi numbers are controlled by the venue, not the carriers — it’s interesting to note that none of the four top cellular providers in the U.S. would give MSR a figure of how much cellular traffic they each saw in the stadium on Super Sunday. For the record, stadium officials said they saw 12.1 TB of data used on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium DAS on Super Bowl Sunday, a figure that represents the total traffic from all four carriers combined. But how that pie was split up will likely forever remain a mystery.

AT&T did provide a figure of 23.5 TB for Super Bowl traffic inside the venue as well as in a 2-mile radius around the stadium, and Sprint provided a figure (25 TB) but put even a less-measurable geographic boundary on it, meaning Sprint could have basically been reporting all traffic it saw anywhere inside the greater Atlanta city limits. Verizon and T-Mobile, meanwhile, both refused to report any Super Bowl cellular statistics at all.

An under-seat Wi-Fi AP placement in the end zone seating at the Final Four.

Verizon also did not reply to a question about how much traffic it saw on the Verizon-specific Wi-Fi SSID inside the venue. While we get the marketing reasons for not reporting disappointing stats (why willingly report numbers that make you look bad?), it seems disingenious at best for one Verizon executive (Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and president of Verizon Wireless) to call Wi-Fi “rubbish” when another part of the company is relying heavily on that same rubbish technology to make sure its customers can stay connected when the cellular network can’t keep up. One man’s trash, I guess, is another division’s treasure.

Wi-Fi 6 and more spectrum on the way

For venue owners and operators, the next few years are likely going to be filled with plenty of misinformation regarding the future of wireless. The big carriers, who pull in billions each quarter in revenue, are staking their near-term future on 5G, a label for a confusing mix of technologies and spectrum chunks that is unlikely to be cleared up anytime soon. Unlike the celluar industry change from 3G to 4G — a relatively straightforward progression to a new and unified type of technology — the change to 5G has already seen carriers willing to slap the marketing label on a different number of implementations, which bodes many headaches ahead for those in the venue space who have to figure out what will work best for their buildings and open spaces.

There’s also the imminent emergence of networks that will use the CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz, which will support communications using the same LTE technology used for 4G cellular. Though CBRS has its own challenges and hurdles to implementation, because it is backed by carriers and the carrier equipment-supply ecosystem, you can expect a blitz of 5G-type marketing to fuel its hype, with poor old Wi-Fi often the target for replacement.

While the Wi-Fi Alliance and other industry groups rallying around Wi-Fi might seem like the Rebel Alliance against a First Order dreadnought, if I’ve learned anything in my career of technology reporting it’s that you should never bet against open standards. I’ve been around long enough to see seemingly invincible empires based on proprietary schemes collapse and disappear under the relentless power of open systems and standards — like Ethernet vs. DEC or IBM networking protocols, and TCP/IP vs. Novell — to count out Wi-Fi in a battle, even against the cellular giants. In fact, with the improvements that are part of Wi-Fi 6 — known also as 802.11ax in the former parlance — Wi-Fi is supposed to eventually become more like LTE, with more secure connections and a better ability to support a roaming connection and the ability to connect more clients per access point. What happens then if LTE’s advantages go away?

With Wi-Fi 6 gear only now starting to arrive in the marketplace, proof still needs to be found that such claims can work in the real world, especially in the demanding and special-case world of wireless inside venues. But the same hurdles (and maybe even more) exist for CBRS and 5G technologies, with big unanswered questions about device support and the need for numerous amounts of antennas that are usually ignored in the “5G will take over the world soon” hype stories. I’d also add to that mix my wonder about where the time and talent will come from to install a whole bunch of new technologies that will require new learning curves; meanwhile, as far as I can tell the companies supporting Wi-Fi continue to add technology pros at ever-growing user and education conferences.

So as we ready for the inevitable challenge of sifting through cellular FUD and hype let’s have a cheer for good old Wi-Fi — for now the champion of the biggest data-demand days in venues, and maybe the leader for years to come.

New Report: Wi-Fi scores at Final Four, Vegas Knights get more Wi-Fi, and more!

A live in-person report of the Wi-Fi network performance at this year’s Final Four is just the beginning of our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, the ONLY in-depth publication created specifically for the stadium technology professional and the stadium technology marketplace.

Mobile Sports Report traveled this spring to San Antonio, Texas, to get a firsthand look at the new networks installed at the venerable Alamodome, including one new permanent Wi-Fi deployment and another specifically tailored for the temporary courtside seats the NCAA brings in for its crown jewel event of the men’s basketball season.

Download our free report to get the details on how this network was able to deliver a superb wireless experience to the almost 70,000 fans in attendance.

The report from San Antonio, however, is just the beginning of our content-rich Spring 2018 issue, which also contains another in-person review, this one of the updated Wi-Fi network at T-Mobile Arena, the home-ice castle for the NHL’s newest sensation, the Vegas Golden Knights. Prompted by the team’s somewhat unexpected on-ice success, the quick network upgrade is a great lesson on how to respond to fan-experience demands. And it’s all explained in the STADIUM TECH REPORT.

More Wi-Fi for Vegas Knights, new construction in LA

There’s also a profile of the new network that was part of the refurbishment of Minneapolis’ Target Center, home of the NBA’s Timberwolves, as well as a look at some innovative marketing programs combining digital signage and Wi-Fi for greater fan engagement. Our Terry Sweeney also provides a look at new venue construction and old venue remodels in Los Angeles, and we also have a full recap of the record-breaking Wi-Fi and DAS traffic at this year’s Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis — all available for free download from our site!

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Mobilitie, JMA Wireless, Corning, Huber+Suhner, Cox Business, Boingo, Oberon and Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers.

March Madness viewing: More digital options, plus some virtual reality

MML_iPhone_01-WatchRemember when college basketball tournament season only had a small slice of games available online? Or when you had to pay extra to watch online? It wasn’t that long ago. Thankfully though the future is here now and for 2016 the college hoops postseason has even more ways to watch games mobile or online, including one option to watch games via virtual reality programming.

Like last year, if you have a qualifying cable contract, you are basically covered and should be able to watch all the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games live, on whichever platform you want. The best way to start is to head to the NCAA’s March Madness home page, where you should be able to find any and all information on devices, apps and other avenues to streaming coverage. According to Turner Sports, the NCAA and CBS Sports the games will be available live on 12 different platforms, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku players and Roku TV models. The new March Madness Live app isn’t avalable until Thursday, so check back soon for the go-to app for everything March Madness.

Also like last year, you should be able to watch a few minutes of the first game you see without having to log in — great if you are just trying to catch a buzzer beater. The games of course will be available on regular TV, and the March Madness home page has what may be a great time saver, a widget that helps you find those obscure cable channels other than CBS or TNT where the games might be on. Since we’ve just moved, MSR’s NCAA viewing team might make good use of the Zip Code-powered channel finder.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 12.14.34 PMEven if you don’t have a cable contract you can still watch a lot of games that are streamed online; games broadcast on CBS will be available for no charge on desktop, mobile and tablet platforms, while games broadcast on the other channels (TNT, TBS, truTV and local channels) should be available on those providers’ websites. Again, if you get stuck or lost just defaulting back to the March Madness home page should give you a path to whatever game it is you’re looking for.

Big East tourney available in VR

If you have a NextVR platform you will be able to watch the 2016 Big East tournament (it starts Thursday, March 10) thanks to a partnership between FOX Sports and NextVR. We’re not VR-savvy here at MSR headquarters yet but with seven games and 15 hours of programming scheduled this might be a cool treat for VR fans. NextVR has an instruction page on how to watch the games in VR; if anyone tries this out, send us an email with a report on how it worked (or didn’t) and we’ll let everyone else know.

Also, don’t forget — this year for the first time the NCAA Men’s Championship game, scheduled for Monday, April 4, will be on TBS, NOT on CBS, the first time the champs game has been only on cable. And, there will be streaming options as well during Final Four weekend, according to the official announcement:

For the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals on Saturday, April 2, from Houston, NCAA March Madness Live will provide three distinct live video streams of both games to provide unprecedented viewing options for fans – live streaming of the traditional game coverage provided on TBS, along with “Team Stream by Bleacher Report” coverage or team-specific presentations offered via TNT and truTV. This year’s NCAA Tournament will include the National Championship airing on TBS, the first time the championship has ever been televised on cable television.