State of the Stadium Network, 2018: Smooth sailing right now but rough waters ahead?

Here at Mobile Sports Report we used to have a yearly survey (called “State of the Stadium”) which we used mainly to see if and when wireless networks were being deployed in large sports venues. After just a few years, it quickly became apparent that for almost all the respondents we heard from, the question was no longer “if” networks would be deployed, but just “when.” And for more than most, the “when” was happening already.

Looking back over the past year or so of our stadium profile visits, it’s clear that the still-young market of large-venue wireless connectivity has reached a certain level of maturity, especially when it comes to well-funded deployments of Wi-Fi and cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) networks. Where in the recent past the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium was a groundbreaker with its extensive wireless coverage when it opened in 2014, such networks have now become the standard expectation for new venues like the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and even in many “Tier 2” stadiums like Colorado State University’s new football stadium.

Similar high-quality networks are also finding their way into older stadiums as those venues get networking for the first time or revamp their initial outlays. Over the past couple years we’ve seen new networks appear in old venues like Notre Dame Stadium, SAP Center in San Jose and more recently, the Alamodome. Other venues that led the initial charge toward wireless networks for fans, like the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, all had recent upgrades to their wireless infrastructures as the venues smartly stayed in tune with the ever-increasing demands of fans and their mobile devices. And then there are pioneers like AT&T Park and AT&T Stadium, which have always managed to lead the way in finding new ways to keep their connectivity at state of the art levels.

What really helps point to a certain level of maturity is the different methods and manufacturers who all have figured out their own ways to get things done. Wi-Fi antenna deployments placed under seats, in railing mounts or overhead have all proven themselves in numerous live tests; DAS deployments have shown similar successes in a somewhat corresponding number of techniques and equipment usages; in all, there seems to be well more than one path to a successful wireless infrastructure. But before we start taking networking for granted as a commodity like electricity or plumbing, it’s a good time to remember that unlike those two services, networking doesn’t stand still. As new end-user devices and the apps they run continue to drive growth in demand, the question now is whether current Wi-Fi and DAS networks for venues will be able to keep up, or whether new technology is needed.

The need for more wireless spectrum

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT issue for Spring 2018, which includes a look at Wi-Fi performance during the Final Four, a recap of wireless performance at Super Bowl 52, a profile of new venue construction in Los Angeles and more! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY right now from our site!

In a previous lifetime as a cellular systems analyst, yours truly wrote a long research paper about the importance of spectrum, predicting that at some point the leading wireless carriers, namely AT&T and Verizon Wireless, were going to need new bands to expand their services. While there have been some technological tweaks to find more capacity than originally thought in the 4G LTE space, on the cellular front the march to so-called “5G” systems is well underway, with the predictable problem of marketing promises being far out ahead of usable reality.

While we’ll save an in-depth look at 5G for another point in time, it’s useful to notice that all the large wireless carriers are already making 5G announcements, of 5G trials, of 5G local networks and other assorted claims of leadership. While nobody really knows exactly what 5G is for sure, what is known is that to get to the faster/better claims being staked there is going to be new spectrum in play for 5G services, and some of it may work better than others for use inside venues.

What’s clearly not known at all is how 5G services will arrive for sports stadiums, as in whether or not they will fit inside the current DAS model. Will carriers be able to share 5G systems like they do now on neutral-host DAS deployments? Right now that’s doubtful given that carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile are already talking about 5G deployments on much different spectrum spaces — and if the proposed merger between the two carriers becomes reality, how does that further change the 5G planning landscape? Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is a lot of mixed messages in the near future about the best way to move forward from a cellular perspective.

Will carriers take over unlicensed bands?

On the Wi-Fi side of things, a smart friend of ours once claimed that when it came to Wi-Fi network deployments, “real estate is the new spectrum” since building owners could pretty much stake a free claim to the unlicensed spectrum spaces within their walls.

But now, there may be some storm clouds brewing as carriers seek to implement systems that let them use some of the 5 GHz unlicensed channels for LTE networks, an idea with possible consequences for current venue networks.

Aruba’s Chuck Lukaszewski wrote about this issue for Mobile Sports Report last summer, and some of his points bear repeating and remembering, especially these two: One, most Wi-Fi networks in large stadiums are already “spectrum constrained,” meaning that they need all the channels in the unlicensed band to ensure good service across an entire venue; Two, by introducing a system where cellular providers would use a chunk of that spectrum for LTE networks, the effects are as yet unknown — and venue operators would most likely be at the mercy of carriers to both acknowledge and comply with any possible conflicts that might arise.

As we here at Mobile Sports Report are cynics of the first order, our first question in this matter is about whether or not there are any clauses in those contracts venues have signed with carriers that will allow the cellular providers to “share” spectrum in the Wi-Fi space as well. While Verizon, AT&T and other service providers have paid quite a few dollars to support many stadium systems, it’s worth it to wonder if some of those deals may not look so good going forward if they include the legal ability for carriers to poach spectrum currently used only by Wi-Fi.

CBRS to the rescue?

Another technology/spectrum space we’ll be looking at more closely in the near future is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which sits at the 3.5 GHz space in the electromagnetic spectrum roster. Though new FCC rules on the use of this spectrum (currently used primarily by the U.S. Navy) haven’t yet been solidified, it seems from all signals that eventually what will emerge is a kind of tiered licensing type of situation with licenses that cover large, small or even local geographic areas, which may allow for building owners to set up private networks that work sort of like Wi-Fi does now.

One attractive option being touted is “private” LTE networks, where venue or building owners could build their own DAS-like LTE network infrastructure for CBRS spectrum, then rent out space to carriers or run their own networks like Wi-Fi but with LTE technology instead.

What’s unknown is exactly how the licensing scheme will shake out and whether or not big carriers will be able to dominate the space; here it’s helpful to remember that big wireless carriers typically spend millions in lobbying fees to influence decisions in places like the FCC, and venue owners spend… nothing. Verizon recently announced it expects to have CBRS-ready devices working before the end of this calendar year, so it’s likely that CBRS systems may be more of an immediate concern (or opportunity) for venues than 5G. And the marketing folks behind CBRS are on full speed ahead hype mode, even crafting a marketing name called “OnGo” as an easier-to-sell label than the geeky “CBRS.” So buyer beware.

Already, Mobile Sports Report has heard chatter from folks who are helping design networks for greenfield operations that the choices simply aren’t as clear as they were recently, when you could pretty much count on Wi-Fi and DAS to meet whatever wireless needs there were. While that duo may still be able to get the job done for the near future, looking farther ahead the direction is much less clear and the sailing no doubt much less smooth. Here at MSR, we’ll do our best to help batten the hatches and give as much clear guidance as we can. At the very least, it should be an interesting trip.

Taylor Swift show sets Wi-Fi record at Mile High with 8.1 TB used

Taylor Swift Reputation Tour show at Mile High Stadium, May 25, 2018. Credit: Taylor Swift Instagram

From the reviews we’ve seen lately the Taylor Swift Reputation tour is a great show — and last week in Denver it set a stadium record for Wi-Fi network use, with 8.1 terabytes used, according to the Denver Broncos’ IT team.

Formerly known as Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the now-unsponsored stadium that is the home of the NFL’s Denver Broncos got a significant upgrade to its Wi-Fi network throughout last season, mainly via new APs installed in under-seat and handrail deployments. Even with the network now fully installed but not yet completely tuned or optimized, the stadium saw approximately 30,000 unique clients connected to Wi-Fi for the Swift show on May 25, out of about 50,000 total attendees. Some of the seats in the stadium were not used due to stage configuration.

Russ Trainor, vice president for IT for the Broncos, said the 8.1 TB mark was the highest yet for Wi-Fi at the stadium, a mark that may be challenged this football season with more fans in the stands and perhaps a playoff season from the Broncos. Anyone else out there with Taylor Swift Wi-Fi numbers to share, let us know. Seattle? Levi’s Stadium? C’mon — it’s not too soon to share all that. And just FYI — the concert checks in at No. 5 on our unofficial all-time Wi-Fi list! Not bad!

THE LATEST TOP 10 FOR WI-FI

1. Super Bowl 52, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn., Feb. 4, 2018: Wi-Fi: 16.31 TB
2. Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium, Houston, Feb. 5, 2017: Wi-Fi: 11.8 TB
3. Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 7, 2016: Wi-Fi: 10.1 TB
4. Minnesota Vikings vs. Philadelphia Eagles, NFC Championship Game, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa., Jan. 21, 2018: Wi-Fi: 8.76 TB
5. Taylor Swift Reputation Tour, Mile High Stadium, Denver, May 25, 2018: Wi-Fi: 8.1 TB
6. Kansas City Chiefs vs. New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Sept. 7, 2017: Wi-Fi: 8.08 TB
7. Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys, Divisional Playoffs, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, Jan. 15, 2017: Wi-Fi: 7.25 TB
8. Southern California vs. Notre Dame, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., Oct. 21, 2017: 7.0 TB
9. WrestleMania 32, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, April 3, 2016: Wi-Fi: 6.77 TB
10. NCAA Men’s Final Four, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., April 1, 2017: Wi-Fi: 6.3 TB

Wrigley DAS using low-profile omni antennas; plus, stadium gets new moveable stands for football

New flat-panel omnidirectional DAS antenna seen in upper right. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

We have a longer, more detailed profile of the new DAS deployment at Wrigley Field in the works (look for it in our next Stadium Tech Report issue in June) but I did want to provide a quick look at a neat new omnidirectional DAS antenna from Laird Technologies that was used by DAS Group Professionals in their Wrigley layout.

The thin, flat disc antenna looks great in an indoor deployment, with it barely visible in some situations when it is matched with the ceiling paint. Derek Cotton, vice president of engineering for DGP, said DGP is “very pleased” with the performance of the flat-panel antennas. Among other places we saw them during our Wrigley tour in April was in the new underground club, in back of house locations, and also outdoors, above a concessions stand in the bleachers.

Movable stands bring more space for football

It has nothing to do with wireless technology, but another new thing we saw at Wrigley was a section of box seats along the third-base foul lines that are now removable, to allow more space for end zones when Wrigley is used for football games.

Though the Chicago Bears played football at Wrigley back in the Gale Sayers days, there haven’t been many football games there since. And at the latest one played, a college game between Illinois and Northwestern in 2010, the teams were only allowed to use one end zone for safety reasons. According to this New York Times story from 2010 (which has great pictures that show the problem) the additional box seats added since the old days had cramped the space needed for safe end zone activities.

This past offseason, the Cubs dug out almost the entire lower box-seat section (down 40 to 60 feet) to allow for the construction of underground club spaces, one of which is already open. As part of the reconstruction some of the third-base line box seats are now removable so there can be more room for football games.

Watch for our next Stadium Tech Report for a full in-depth look at the new Wrigley DAS! Some more pix below.

Flat-panel DAS antenna blends nicely with ceiling paint job

Flat-panel DAS above concession stand behind Wrigley’s bleachers

Third-base line removable seats have metal flooring (you can see line between metal and concrete in upper right)

Closer look at division between permanent seats on concrete and movable ones on metal

Preakness gets Aruba Wi-Fi network just in time for Saturday’s race

Selfies should be easier to share this year at the Preakness, thanks to a new Wi-Fi network at Pimlico Race Course. Credit: Preakness Instagram (click on any photo for a larger image)

Talk about a photo finish: According to executives at the Pimlico Race Course, a new Wi-Fi network using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, will be ready to greet fans who arrive for Saturday’s 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes.

Thanks to some hard work from network construction teams who are good mudders, the new network and its 330-plus APs for both the main buildings and the infield at the Baltimore, Maryland track that hosts the second stop of the Triple Crown got finished at the wire, according to Joe Blaylock, director of IT for Pimlico.

“We took a 4-to-6 month project and did it in 3 weeks,” said Blaylock in a phone interview, chuckling as he recalled the challenges of deploying a network around bad weather and tight deadlines.

“We weren’t laughing three weeks ago,” Blaylock said. “But we’re at 99 point 5 percent. Anyone at the property [Saturday] will get on Wi-Fi.”

Improving the fan experience

Though Pimlico had some limited Wi-Fi prior to this year, Blaylock said Belinda Stronach, the chairman and president of track owners the Stronach Group, gave his group a goal to bring more extensive connectivity to the venue so fans could use mobile devices however they wanted. With a history of using Hewlett Packard technology in its back end networks the track’s IT team found what they needed in the Aruba Wi-Fi offerings and with the help of deployers MS Benbow, got the network installed just before post time.

Two hundred-plus new APs will serve the infield crowd at the Preakness

According to Blaylock the new network increased the AP count for the infield (where 60,000 or more of the expected Preakness crowd of 140,000 congregates) to 200 APs, up from about 38 last year; in the main seating structures, there are now 130 Wi-Fi APs, up from 40 in 2017.

“Last year we could barely support 4,000 or 5,000 fans [on the network],” Blaylock said. “Now we can handle 50,000 concurrent users.”

One thing the new network will enable is mobile betting for the entire facility, through the Xpressbet service also owned and run by the Stronach Group. While the venue does not have a distributed antenna system (DAS) for enhanced cellular service, Blaylock said both AT&T and Verizon Wireless have brought in Matsing Ball antennas for temporary coverage, especially for the infield crowds. There is also a new 10 Gbps backbone pipe to support the new Wi-Fi network, Blaylock said.

And thanks to his crew’s ability to conquer a construction “trifecta” of “no time, bad weather and tired humans,” fans at this year’s race who don’t cash in at the betting window should still find the Wi-Fi connectivity a winning bet, Blaylock said.

(Thanks to the Pimlico folks, Aruba and MS Benbow for sending along the following photos.)

We are guessing on these photos, but some like this one are pretty self-explanatory.

Guessing again but most likely an infield AP deployment.

That’s one way to get an AP out over the overhang to cover seats below.

AP in upper right corner to serve what looks like betting/hospitality area.

If you look closely there are APs on larger front stanchions serving this premium seating area.

Intel True View coming to Niners, Vikings apps; but will anyone watch?

Screen shot of an Intel-powered 3D view of an NFL game.

From a sports viewing standpoint, there may not be a more compelling new technology lately than Intel’s True View platform, which can provide 360-degree 5K-resolution looks at a sporting event that are equally stunning and informative, a true leap in performance for TV-watching fans. Last week, a move by Intel to provide venture funding for app development firm VenueNext seemed like a great deal for fans of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings, whose stadium apps are slated to get the Intel technology to support 3D replay views, perhaps as early as next season.

While both the funding and the replay plans are positive moves for sports fans, our question is, will anyone really watch? While VenueNext’s app platform seems to be gaining momentum with pro teams from all the major U.S. sports leagues, the instant replay function — which was part of VenueNext’s first platform, the app for the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium — has never really caught on, peaking at the start and slowly dwindling thereafter. Replays on other mobile platforms, however — like Twitter — are enormously popular, with one Vikings video alone earning more than 4 million views.

VenueNext CEO John Paul at last week’s Intel event.

Though the Intel/VenueNext announcement garnered a lot of headlines last week, none of the other stories mentioned how little-used the instant replay function is. In fact, almost every team or stadium that has instant-replay functionality in its app declines to provide any statistics for the feature, a shyness we can only attribute to the fact that the numbers are embarrassingly low. The only one VenueNext was able to tell us about was the Niners’ app, which according to VenueNext generated approximately 1,000 views per game last season.

During 2014, the first season Levi’s Stadium was open, the app peaked early with 7,800 replays during that year’s home opener; by the end of the season that number was down to fewer than 4,000 replays per game, which prompted Niners CEO Jed York to label the service’s low uptake a surprising disappointment. Now it’s even used far less often. (VenueNext competitor YinzCam also has instant replay available for many of its team apps, but also does not provide team-by-team viewing stats.)

One reason York cited for the low replay use was the quality and frequency of replays shown on the Levi’s Stadium large video boards; while in the past many pro teams kept replays to a minimum (especially if they were unflattering to the home team) the acceptance of replay review in many leagues and a general change of behavior now sees almost constant replay showing, as well as live action on in-stadium video boards. And while the process to produce in-app video replays is stunningly quick, even the fastest replay functionality combined with the need to navigate a device screen is usually well behind live play.

Screen shot of instant replay service inside Levi’s Stadium app.

Since the amount of funding Intel is providing VenueNext was not announced, it’s hard to tell whether or not either company will consider the transaction worthwhile if the replay viewing numbers remain low. Another problem with the app replays is that many are confined to in-stadium views only due to broadcast rights restrictions; compare that handcuff to the openness of Twitter, where a video of the “Minnesota Miracle” walkoff TD shot by a quick-thinking Minnesota Vikings employee (Scott Kegley, the team’s executive director of digital media & innovation) during last year’s playoffs garnered more than 4 million views and recently won a Webby award.

If there’s a dirty not-so-secret about stadium wireless connectivity, it’s that almost every report we’ve ever seen about app and service usage inside venues puts use of open social media platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook far, far above team and stadium app usage. Though stadium and team apps are gaining more traction recently due to their embrace of service functionality for things like parking, concession transactions and digital ticketing, we still haven’t seen any reports or evidence that in-stadium instant replays are gaining in use.

Will Intel’s revolutionary technology change the game for in-app replays? We’ll track the developments and keep asking for stats, so stay tuned.

Successful opener for LAFC at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles

Banc of California Stadium looks over downtown Los Angeles on its opening game day. Credit all photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

First you heard the booming bass of drums, then came the chanting of thousands (“FC!…LA!…FC!”). You may not see the Banc of California Stadium at first, but this aural GPS guides fans toward Major League Soccer’s newest venue, which opened April 29 with expansion team Los Angeles Football Club. With a final price tag of $350 million (~$100 million over its original budget), the stadium is the most expensive for a soccer-specific venue.

First things first: The Ruckus-based Wi-Fi and its 500 access points functioned beautifully, as did the DAS network that Mobilitie helped engineer – more on that in our upcoming summer STADIUM TECH REPORT issue next month.

The freshly minted wireless infrastructure ensured attendees on opening day could Instagram the U.S. Navy paratroopers landing center field, trailing colored smoke out of their heels (black and yellow/gold, LAFC’s colors, of course). Or the surprise appearance of comedian Will Ferrell (who also owns part of LAFC), balancing a hooded bird of prey on his wrist. Olly, LAFC’s mascot, then hopped to the arm of its usual handler who released the falcon, thrilling the crowd with its gliding and swooping, completely unfazed by 22,000 fans and their cheers.

But for sheer endurance, raucous fans in the north stands put on the biggest show, beating drums, waving flags (Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, to name a few), and singing fight songs. The drummers kept things lively throughout the game, even if they were occasionally obscured by the yellow/gold smoke bombs set off at strategic moments.

A blazing open to the LAFC’s new home.

At regular intervals throughout the inaugural game against the Seattle Sounders, the feeling was less southern California and more like one of South America’s soccer stadiums.

The stadium is well named, if only because it has the sound and spirit of a giant cash register. Multiple establishments – Founders Club, Sunset Deck, Field Level Club, Figueroa Club, Directors Lounge – ensure no one goes hungry or thirsty. Luxury suites fill in the gaps. Down on the main level, LA’s tastiest eateries (tacos, barbecue, Korean, shawarma, coffee, craft beers) have outlets and the lines were long on opening day. There are also the obligatory team merchandise and souvenir stands and season ticket vendors.

Making money is one goal for LAFC, but so is winning games. LAFC triumphed in its debut home game 1-0, thanks to a free kick by team captain Laurent Ciman. That’s an auspicious start for MLS’s newest franchise and its shiny newest stadium.

Video boards are big at Banc of California Stadium

Steep seating pitches and sun screens make this stadium fan-friendly

The entry to the newest stadium in the MLS