Verizon says it is ‘improving the data crediting process’ to address NFL Mobile data-charge snafus

Verizon said it is “improving the data crediting process” for its popular NFL Mobile app, which has apparently caused many headaches this season with users who claimed the cell provider wasn’t following through with its promise to make watching live NFL action free from any data charges.

If comments on Mobile Sports Report blog posts are any indication of wider unrest, there are many NFL Mobile users who have been erreneously charged for wireless data used while watching the live NFL games provided by the NFL Mobile app. In our blog post announcing Verizon’s claim that all NFL Mobile live action this season would be free of data charges, we guessed that Verizon’s unclear answers about so-called “unlimited” versus metered plans meant that the provider hadn’t fully figured out how to correctly bill users of the app. Seems like we were more right than we wanted to be.

A quick scroll through any of the 20-plus comments our blog post received from frustrated users seems to show that on many levels, Verizon’s billing and customer service reps were on different pages when it came to NFL Mobile data use. After more than a month of inquiries to Verizon about the claims by our commenters, this week we finally received an official reply from a Verizon spokesperson. Here it is:

Verizon is committed to providing live games on NFL Mobile data free to our customers and resolving any related billing disputes. We have made recent adjustments improving the data crediting process to reduce usage alerts and to ensure our customers receive consistent answers when they contact our support organization.

Without actually admitting to any problems, Verizon’s statement about “improving the data crediting process” and other issues seems to be a tacit admission that not all was well, an issue that seems to affect NFL Mobile just about every year.

Football fans, however, may have another choice next season when it comes to watching live games on phones, with recent reports claiming that Verizon’s 4-year, $1 billion deal for exclusive rights won’t be renewed.

Verizon: Still no data charges for live NFL streaming via NFL Mobile app

There’s less fanfare around the decision this year (and no official press release we can find) but according to Verizon for the 2017 NFL season the wireless carrier will continue its plan from last year and won’t charge its metered-plan customers for data used while watching live NFL games via the NFL Mobile app.

UPDATE, Nov. 4: Please see this post with a Verizon response to NFL Mobile billing issues.

As we noted last year, some of the most-read stories in Mobile Sports Report history have been posts wondering about how much data customers might use watching a live football game on their phones. The answer now, for many Verizon customers, is easy: It’s still zero. You will still need to pay $1.99 a month again this fall to watch RedZone on your phone via NFL Mobile, but watching the live local and national-broadcast games (like Sunday night games and Monday Night Football) won’t chew up any of the gigabytes in your data plan. That is, if you have a data plan.

Where it may get tricky — and NFL Mobile and Verizon have a history of things not going quite as planned — is when it comes to customers on Verizon’s new “unlimited” plans. The first reply we got from our Verizon contact said, “Customers with metered plans will also enjoy games data free.”

But what about unlimited customers, we asked. Would NFL Mobile live-action data still be charged to them? This matters somewhat because the plans aren’t truly unlimited — some slowdowns to service can occur if you use more than 22 GB of data during a billing cycle. So it’s unclear to us what will happen if “unlimited” NFL Mobile users go past that number by say, watching every game possible over a cellular connection.

Does that mean that NFL Mobile junkies might actually do better with a metered plan than an unlimited plan? We have no clue. Here is the clarified second response to that question when we posed it to a Verizon spokesperson, so see if it makes sense to you:

Regarding unlimited; most of the time you’ll enjoy the same network experience after your line exceeds 22 GB during a billing cycle. If you exceed 22 GB…and you’re on a cell site that’s congested at that time, it may affect your streaming.

This may be just a small-potatoes quibble, but readers please let us know if things aren’t as free as they should be. What is helpful to know is this fact from the Verizon spokesperson: “Data usage from NFL Mobile may accrue real time when watching, but will be removed afterward in 24-48 hours.” Close watchers of data totals last year hit our comment boards with tales of being charged for NFL Mobile game-watching, but we believe it all turned out right in the end. But our comments space is always open if it doesn’t so please, NFL Mobile fans, keep letting us know what’s really happening out there.

As we also noted last year, many NFL Mobile veterans almost always seek a Wi-Fi connection when they are streaming NFL Mobile games, because better bandwidth and no data charges.

And remember: You can’t watch NFL Mobile live games on your tablet, because Verizon’s rights package only includes cellular phone-type devices.

Verizon correcting bills to make sure NFL streaming is really ‘free’

Screen Shot 2016-09-09 at 10.29.06 PMIf you are a Verizon Wireless customer who rejoiced at the announcement earlier this fall that the wireless carrier wouldn’t charge for data used for watching live NFL action via its NFL Mobile app, you can stay happy — even if you do initially see some data charges on your monthly bill.

After being alerted by a Mobile Sports Report reader that data charges were still showing up after a user watched some NFL games, we asked Verizon if their promotion was up and working. According to an email response from an unnamed Verizon authority, it appears that while Verizon was making the NFL action free, the streaming of ads was not — but never fear, Verizon said it is crediting users’ bills for any ads watched while watching football via the NFL Mobile app.

Here is the official response we got from Verizon’s PR company, attributed to “someone at Verizon” (seriously, that’s how it was worded to us):

“The NFL live games are automatically zero rated so they won’t count against customer’s data. Ads during the games are not, but we are issuing customers additional data (1GB or more depending on each customer’s NFL streaming) or post bill credits to cover the usage incurred from the ads. That process is disclosed in the disclaimers and the bonus data is issued automatically when a customer streams an NFL live game. We are monitoring this closely to make sure all customers do get a truly free NFL experience with a combination of automatic zero rating, additional data or bill credits as needed.”

As you continue to watch for free maybe give a shout out to Gary for spending 40 minutes on the phone with Verizon customer support, a painful experience we know well. Anyone else still seeing data charges for football with no refunds, let us know.

Twitter’s NFL streaming debut fails on Tweet front; will AT&T and Verizon eventually dominate mobile device NFL streaming?

Twitter’s debut in live-streaming NFL games had good video, but the accompanying Twitter feed — which users couldn’t configure — left many observers wanting more. Will Twitter ever be able to deliver, or will physics keep Twitter from being able to add anything special to mobile-device sports streaming? In the latest STADIUM TECH REPORT PODCAST, co-hosts Phil Harvey and Paul Kapustka dissect Twitter’s streaming issues, and wonder when people will realize that AT&T and Verizon may be the eventual winners in the NFL streaming battle with their Sunday Ticket and NFL Mobile platforms. Listen now!

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Here is the link to the podcast on iTunes!

Verizon drops data charges for live NFL streaming via NFL Mobile app

Screen Shot 2016-09-09 at 10.28.58 PMAre you ready for football? And are you ready for cellular company wars around viewing football on your phone? Verizon kicked off the 2016 NFL season with an announcement Friday that it would no longer charge its customers for data used while watching live NFL games via the NFL Mobile app, perhaps the biggest sign that the battle we predicted is now fully underway.

From our perspective, some of the most-read stories in Mobile Sports Report history have been posts wondering about how much data customers might use watching a live football game on their phones. The answer now, for Verizon LTE customers, is easy: It’s zero. You will still need to pay $1.99 a month this fall to watch RedZone on your phone (to us, RedZone is even better than specific live games), but watching the live local and national-broadcast games (like Sunday night games and Monday Night Football) won’t chew up any of the gigabytes in your data plan.

Whether or not this type of “free programming” will spark any net neutrality debate is best left for other outlets, though it’s hard to think of a type of programming more popular than live NFL action. In the meantime, our guess is that the wildly popular NFL Mobile app (Verizon never releases figures on how many users it has for NFL Mobile, but if you start your guessing between 5 and 10 million you might not be far off) will get even more popular, and the promotion should help sell a lot of fence-sitters this weekend on buying with Verizon, just to get even the app’s limited NFL schedule for basically free.

The promotion may not even cost Verizon much when it comes to minutes, since many NFL Mobile veterans I know (some of whom are already tweeting in agreement to the next statement) almost always seek a Wi-Fi connection when they are streaming NFL Mobile games, because better bandwidth and no data charges. But it’s a hell of a selling point and one we kind-of predicted when we foresaw cell-phone NFL battles between Verizon and its NFL Mobile deal and AT&T’s new ownership of Sunday Ticket thanks to its DirecTV purchase. Too bad the user numbers aren’t ever made public, because it’d be cool to see how many fans are streaming NFL action live on their phones.

We still haven’t been able to get an answer from the NFL or Verizon on another rumor we heard this summer, that RedZone action would be available for free to any fans inside NFL stadiums on game days. Many stadiums already have that ability via apps built by YinzCam, which has a rights agreement with the NFL to allow RedZone viewing in some stadiums. Maybe MSR readers across the country could chime in on whether or not they can see RedZone at their stadium, and we can crowd-source a list. Or we could all just watch more football. Stay tuned, because it’s our guess that this won’t be the last you hear on this front this season.

Remember: You can’t watch NFL Mobile live games on your tablet, because Verizon’s rights package only includes cellular phone-type devices. And be prepared for service to suck this Sunday, because these opening-day things never seem to work out for Verizon and the NFL. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

Stadium Tech Report: Wi-Fi arrives at the Green Bay Packers’ legendary Lambeau Field

Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, now has Wi-Fi for fans. All photos: Green Bay Packers (click on any photo for a larger image)

Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, now has Wi-Fi for fans. All photos: Green Bay Packers (click on any photo for a larger image)

When most NFL fans think of the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field, they think of frozen tundra – of Vince Lombardi roaming the sideline in his thick glasses and peaked hat, with visible breath coming through the face masks of behemoth linemen on the field. In the stands, they see the venerable fans braving the cold of northern Wisconsin in their snowmobile suits, with mittens wrapped around a bratwurst and a beer.

But do they think of those same Packers fans pulling out their iPhones and Samsungs to take selfies, and posting them to Instagram or Facebook? Maybe not so much.

The reality is, however, that in 2015, football fans in Green Bay are pretty much like fans anywhere else when it comes to wanting to use their mobile devices while at the game. So to make sure the Lambeau Field fan experience remains at the top of the league, the Packers teamed up with Extreme Networks and Verizon Wireless to bring a fan-facing Wi-Fi network to Lambeau this season, one that will likely be heavily used even at the risk of frostbitten fingers.

Editor’s note: The following profile is an excerpt from our most recent Stadium Tech Report, THE PRO FOOTBALL ISSUE. To get all the profiles in one place as well as our featured reports, interviews and analysis, download your free copy of the full report today.

Bringing the beast to the bowl

With more than 1,000 Wi-Fi access points installed throughout the stadium, the already-live network in Green Bay is the culmination of a 2-year project that started with an overhaul of the venue’s distributed antenna system (DAS), a task completed last year by Verizon, which acts as the DAS neutral host.

According to Wayne Wichlacz, director of information technology for the Packers, the second step of putting in and turning on a full-stadium Wi-Fi network required a lengthy search and qualification process, to ensure that the partners could deliver in the face of big challenges that exist in bringing wireless technology to a historic and legendary facility like Lambeau Field.

Wi-Fi APs visible on press box structure

Wi-Fi APs visible on press box structure

Even the most casual of NFL fans probably has some knowledge of Lambeau Field, which has known more than its share of history since opening in 1957. The glory years of the Packers of the 1960s, when coach Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr won the first two Super Bowls, helped cement the Green Bay “Titletown” lore, and the famous “Ice Bowl” game of Dec. 31, 1967, between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, gave birth to the “Frozen Tundra” nickname for the big concrete circle on Lombardi Avenue.

That big bowl, which has been added to significantly since its opening, now can seat 81,435 fans, making it the third-largest in NFL seating capacity, behind only AT&T Stadium in Dallas and MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Though Lambeau Field previously had Wi-Fi networks for internal business purposes as well as for some suite and premium seating, bringing Wi-Fi to the full stadium was a task of a different magnitude, Wichlacz said.

“It’s a different beast to bring [Wi-Fi] to the bowl,” Wichlacz said.

The two big challenges for Wi-Fi deployment at Lambeau revolved around aesthetics and placements; as a historic and legendary structure, extreme care needed to be taken to make sure Wi-Fi gear placements didn’t detract from the visual experience and old-time charm. And just to make that first task tougher was the challenge of finding enough places for Wi-Fi APs in a facility that is mainly a big open bowl, without much overhang space for mounting.

And don’t forget about the large amount of metal-bench seating, which took away the opportunity to install under-the-seat APs.

“There’s just not a lot of levels [in Lambeau] for us to do things,” Wichlacz said. “It was a real installation challenge.”

After putting out an RFP that took all the necessary considerations into play, Wichlacz said the Packers evaluated proposals from all the major players in the large public venue Wi-Fi gear market before finally settling on Extreme, which has a solid history of NFL stadium deployments. After picking Extreme in the middle of last year, construction got underway in early 2015, Wichlacz said.

On the Extreme side, the company knew it was deploying on the NFL equivalent of hallowed ground, said Norman Rice, executive vice president for marketing at Extreme.

“A lot of additional work went into the design, in part because Lambeau Field is a historical site and such an iconic part of the landscape in the NFL,” Rice said. “We did a lot of unique stuff to get to what a Packers fan expects.”

Yellow paint and handrail enclosures

If most NFL fans are familiar with the Packers’ traditional gold and green colors, so now are the Wi-Fi deployment teams from Extreme and the Packers, who spent a good part of the deployment time painting APs to blend in to the stadium scenery. That meant green for antennas mounted up against certain building sections, and the bright yellow for the handrail antennas that Extreme used to help bring signals down into the rows of the bowl.

“We did a lot of unique stuff,” said Extreme’s Rice. “There are some pretty cool enclosures, where the yellow blends right into the walls.”

“If you’re looking for it, you can probably find it,” said Wichlacz of the painted antennas. “But it blends in pretty good.”

Lambeau bench seating with railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs

Lambeau bench seating with railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs

To gain some important real estate for wireless components, the Packers and their partners actually relocated the team’s signage listing the names of Packers inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, raising it up one level and using it as a way to mask Wi-Fi and DAS gear.

“You can actually see the [names] better now, and we were able to put Wi-Fi and DAS antennas in there,” Rice said. “It’s a nice piece of work.”

All the aesthetic work had to also be blended with the technical requirements of antenna placement, to ensure good coverage without interference. Jacque Vallier, the Illinois/Wisconsin regional executive director of network for Verizon Wireless, compared Lambeau Field to the older college stadiums, the large concrete bowls that are among the hardest structures to bring services to.

“It definitely was an RF and engineering challenge,” said Vallier of the DAS design. Vallier said that AT&T is currently a client on the Verizon neutral DAS, which uses CommScope gear. The DAS also covers the parking lot areas outside Lambeau Field, where tailgating is a high art.

Separate SSID for Verizon Customers

Like other NFL deployments where Verizon is a major sponsor, the Lambeau Field Wi-Fi network will have two separate SSIDs, one reserved for Verizon Wireless customers, and the other for everyone else. According to Verizon’s Vallier, the Verizon subscribers will have access to about 40 percent of the Wi-Fi bandwidth, with some devices supporting automatic authentication to the service. Verizon and Extreme have a similar deployment at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

According to Extreme’s Rice, the mix of network usage is tuned to ensure that all fans who are seeking Wi-Fi connectivity will have more than enough bandwidth. Both the Verizon-specific network and the public network (which run off the same Wi-Fi gear) will meet or exceed the NFL’s Wi-Fi requirements, he said.

“It’s done to ensure Verizon customers have a good connection, but not at the expense of other users,” Rice said of the split SSIDs. Verizon, which is a big sponsor of the NFL in general (including its $1 billion payment for live-action rights on smartphones for its NFL Mobile app), is also a sponsor of Wi-Fi networks at NFL stadiums in Detroit and Denver.

As a final Green Bay touch, the Extreme “Wi-Fi coaches” program, which trains people who wander the stands on game days helping fans to get connected to the network, will use area high school students as “coaches,” fitting right in with the family-friendly atmosphere that the Packers are famous for.

“It’s really going to be cool to tie the coaches program to the community through the schools,” Extreme’s Rice said. “It’s great fun to be part of that.”

Can’t test the network until the stadium’s full

When it comes to large public venue deployments, there is the Wi-Fi network you design on paper, the network you build, and then the network that happens when the venue fills up with users. Thanks to the mid-year completion of the Lambeau Field network, Wichlacz and his IT team were able to test the Wi-Fi network in several “beta” situations, which included a Kenny Chesney concert and a Brett Favre celebration that filled the bowl.

Wave the flag, Wi-Fi has come to Lambeau Field! Photos: Green Bay Packers

Wave the flag, Wi-Fi has come to Lambeau Field! Photos: Green Bay Packers

“Testing network theory versus having people [using the network] is night and day,” Wichlacz said. Live tests, he said, “give the engineering folks the ability to test and tweak. It’s definitely helpful to have those events.”

And if there was any doubt that fans at Lambeau Field want to use their devices, Verizon’s Vallier can help end the debate.

“During the second preseason game we saw more than 500 gigabytes of traffic [on the DAS],” Vallier said, noting that totals so far are pointing to be one-and-a-half times bigger than in 2014.

And though Wichlacz is reticent to provide exact Wi-Fi data usage numbers, Extreme’s Rice said one of the Packers’ preseason games recorded “one of the highest [Wi-Fi usage] numbers we’ve ever seen.”

That figure seems to answer a question Rice said the team had asked itself earlier, about whether or not the Green Bay Packers and their fans needed stadium Wi-Fi. “There was a time when they [the Packers] had a big question, about if it mattered,” Rice said. Now that the Wi-Fi network is in, he said, “it’s amazing to see how much people use it.”

Wichlacz noted that Packers fans may not need to worry about frozen fingers, since the team has more home games earlier in the season this year. But he also remembers Verizon stats from the DAS last season that showed usage didn’t go down that much when the temperature got cold.

So – if you make it to Lambeau Field from now on, make sure you soak in the atmosphere and if you care to, share it with the world via Wi-Fi – something you can do now with ease thanks to the hard work from the Packers and their partners.

“For our whole team here, it’s been a labor of love,” Wichlacz said. “We spent a lot of hours working on this. We’re excited to launch it, and correct it as we go.”