Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan gets 1st look inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Oh sure, don’t let any of us who are part of the stadium technology world in for a peek, but give an inside pass to some guy named Matt Ryan? OK I guess we can forgive the Atlanta Falcons for snubbing us while catering to their MVP QB. At the very least go check out the post about the visit for the latest look inside the venue we’re all interested in.

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan visits Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Screen grabs from Atlanta Falcons website.

Matt looks around at his soon-to-open new home stadium.

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium nears the finish line

Sorry, this venue is not open yet! Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

If there’s a huge tease to the audience at this year’s SEAT Conference in Atlanta it’s that there is no official visit planned to the nearby stadium that is on everyone’s mind, the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Built right next door to the Georgia Dome, the new venue looks all finished from the outside, but there are still construction chain-link fences around it keeping anyone from getting too close to the building. A quick visit by yours truly Sunday afternoon got the pictures seen here, including the angular, glassy construction, the big metal falcon (caged for now) but no live look at the halo video board (though we thought we could see the curves inside).

Jared Miller, chief technology officer for AMB Sports & Entertainment, told us on the phone last week that Mercedes-Benz Stadium “is definitely in the final throes” of development, which is scheduled to end on Aug. 26 when the Falcons host their first NFL preseason game. There also may be an earlier public-unveiling event but the NFL date is the first scheduled full-scale opening of the Falcons’ new roost.

Miller spelled out a few previously unconfirmed facets of the technology deployment going on inside the stadium — the Wi-Fi gear is from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company; and lead contractor IBM will also be supplying the stadium’s mobile apps, with separate versions for the Falcons, the Atlanta United FC of the MLS, and one for the stadium itself (to be used for concerts, college football games and other non-NFL or non-MLS events).

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in all its glory

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will also have a neutral host DAS run by the Falcons using Corning ONE gear.

No in-seat delivery for concessions

Another interesting twist is that Miller said the while the Falcons’ apps will have the ability to allow fans to order food and drink, it will be for pickup at express windows only, and NOT for delivery to seats, a service seen at other venues like the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. Miller said the AMB team has taken a different approach and expects fans to roam about more inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which has many different “experiential” zones where fans can watch the action from someplace other than their seat.

But even with all the different technology and lower food prices, Miller is betting that the one thing that visitors will keep talking about is the halo video board, the main “big screen” that wraps around the inside of the roof in a full circle.

“When fans enter they’re going to look up and go, ‘Wow!’ and do it the first time, and the 10th time they visit,” Miller said. Miller said he was walking back to the stadium recently and saw the halo board in action, and stopped in awe. “I look up and am just blown away by it,” he said. Falcons fans and other interested visitors are looking forward to feeling that feeling soon. More photos below!

Anyone see a halo board in there?

Yes, it’s very close to the Georgia Dome.

Mr. Blank, uncage this bird!

Seen on the MARTA train in from the airport: Still time to get a gig at the stadium!

A better look at the big bird

New third-party wireless infrastructure company buys 5 Bars’ stadium business

NRG Stadium during Super Bowl LI. Credit: AP / Morry Gash/ Patriots.com

Neutral Connect Networks (NCN), a newly formed third-party operator of wireless systems for sports and entertainment venues, has purchased the stadium business part of 5 Bars as part of its inception, a transaction publicly announced last week.

As part of its rollup NCN also acquired DAS Communications, a third-party infrastructure provider with deployments in Boston and New York. The new company also received a $30 million funding round from M/C Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm.

Though 5 Bars recently basked in the successful glow of its biggest stadium project — building the Wi-Fi network at Houston’s NRG Stadium, home of the recent Super Bowl LI — the firm had faced challenges winning deals due to its smaller size, according to Paul McGinn, the CEO of NCN. With more personnel resources along with the $30 million war chest, McGinn said the 5 Bars sports business has a better chance to compete.

“We’re going to put tens of millions into 5 Bars,” said McGinn in a phone interview. “We’re looking forward to growing that business quickly.”

In addition to NRG Stadium, 5 Bars had built third-party networks at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Angels Stadium, and is constructing DAS and Wi-Fi networks at the new football stadium at Colorado State University, which is scheduled to be completed in time for this fall’s season.

McGinn, who was most recently at Vertical Bridge as director of business development, leads a team that includes Brian Porter, a former vice president of in-building operations at telecom gear provider Ericsson. Porter will be NCN’s senior vice president of sales and operations. Bruce Banigan, II, vice president of business development for 5 Bars’ sports operations, will continue in that role at NCN.

John Clarey, 5 Bars’ former CEO, who will continue as an investor in NCN, said in a prepared statement that “the financial commitment from NCN and M/C Partners provides 5 Bars the needed resources to continue to build and operate the large projects it has in its pipeline.” The terms of the all-cash deal for buying 5 Bars’ sports business were not revealed; 5 Bars has not yet announced whether or not its other main business line, a nascent operation looking to provide third-party wireless infrastructure for cities and communities, will continue to operate under the 5 Bars name or whether it will also undergo changes.

Though some recent comments by telco executives seem to be signaling a change in their companies’ willingness to participate in third-party DAS and Wi-Fi deployments may be waning, NCN’s McGinn said his new company will approach third-party deals with a different mindset, mainly one that looks longer into the future.

“We’re not going to be looking to recoup 100 percent of the cost of the system in one to three years,” said McGinn. Instead, McGinn said the new NCN/5 Bars approach will be one of looking for smaller cash contributions over a longer time frame.

AT&T to provide backbone bandwidth for Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wi-Fi

In a somewhat surprising announcement, AT&T said it will provide backbone bandwidth for the Wi-Fi network at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, as part of a partnership deal that makes the carrier the “Official Communications Provider” for the Atlanta Falcons’ new home.

Announced today, the deal calls for AT&T to provide twin redundant 40 Gbps pipes to power the 1,800 Wi-Fi APs that are inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. As reported earlier by MSR, the Mercedes-Benz Wi-Fi network will primarily use under-seat AP deployments in the seating bowl.

AT&T said it will also provide “monitoring and maintenance” for the stadium’s Wi-Fi network, and will also bring its DirecTV service to the venue’s IPTV system, making that content available to the more than 2,000 digital displays in the stadium. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is scheduled to formally open later this summer, for one of the Falcons’ preseason games.

What makes this announcement interesting to the stadium networking industry is the fact that there is no mention of any participation by AT&T on the venue’s DAS network, which will be running on Corning equipment. For most of the recent past, AT&T has been pulling away from stadium Wi-Fi deployments and concentrating on DAS funding in large public venues. Its main competitor Verizon Wireless has been much more active recently on the stadium Wi-Fi front, helping fund Wi-Fi deployments in a number of NFL stadiums, including those in Green Bay, Denver, Seattle, Houston and others. AT&T does continue to participate in network deployments at AT&T Park in San Francisco and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, among others.

The press release out today does not say whether or not AT&T customers will have their own SSID or network space reserved, a feature Verizon usually secures for its customers when it helps fund a stadium’s Wi-Fi network. The release did say that as part of the deal AT&T will also sponsor the “AT&T Perch,” which is described as “a permanent interactive gathering spot” located on the concourse above the stadium’s west end zone. According to the release the Perch will have multiple screens where fans can watch NFL content including DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket programming and the NFL Network’s RedZone channel.

Changes ahead for DAS industry business models, technology

JMA Wireless shows ‘smart’ trash bins at DAS and Small Cells Congress in Las Vegas. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

LAS VEGAS — New technologies combined with the need for new business models are driving imminent changes to the distributed antenna system (DAS) marketplace, according to industry representatives speaking Tuesday at this year’s DAS and Small Cells Congress here.

And while the end product of the market transformation is still uncertain, executives from DAS gear manufacturers, cellular carriers and other industry experts all agreed on one thing: In the near future, the DAS industry won’t look at all like it does today.

For large public venue owners specificially, the days of carrier-funded DAS deployments may already be at an end, unless your stadium is in line to host a Super Bowl. Tightening budgets due to economic pressures on the nation’s biggest cellular carriers means that the recent years of free spending by AT&T and Verizon Wireless may have already gone by, putting more pressure on venue owners to find different financial models to bring cellular signals inside their buildings.

Cathedral Consulting’s Seth Buechley

“There was never a problem I couldn’t throw more money at,” said Philip French, executive director for the West and North Central areas for Verizon, during a Tuesday keynote session at the Planet Hollywood hotel. “Those days are gone.”

Also putting pressure on traditional DAS designs are the emergence of small cells, basically smaller versions of carrier macro towers that, like DAS, are used primarily to bring connectivity inside buildings or to urban areas with RF challenges, like crowded city streets. Experiments with newer “5G” cellular technologies and trials of networks at newer slices of spectrum, like the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) at 3.5 GHz, may also impact the traditional DAS architectures as carriers and building owners look for ways to get more connectivity bang for the buck.

Getting more worth out of the network

Seth Buechley, chairman and CEO of business-advisory firm Cathedral Consulting (and former co-founder of DAS equipment provider SOLiD USA), said that the biggest cellular carriers are under increasing pressure to improve their bottom lines, a situation that could affect the DAS industry by drying up the funds previously used to bring DAS deployments to places like stadiums and arenas. AT&T, for example, has already disbanded the internal group that led an industry charge to bring DAS to many sports venues at no charge to teams or facility owners.

“Internal [carrier] competition for resources is the biggest threat to DAS,” Buechley said.

In his remarks, Verizon’s French noted that the “unlimited” data plans that have resurfaced for major carriers like Verizon are putting “a tremendous amount of pressure” on budgets. Another current popular DAS business model, where a third-party operator builds a stadium network and then signs up carriers on a subscription model, may also be in danger as carriers hold off on participating. At Texas A&M, T-Mobile recently signed a $3.5 million deal to get its signals on the DAS network at 102,512-seat Kyle Field, where AT&T and Verizon both paid in the neighborhood of $5 million for their access to the network.

Todd Landry, JMA Wireless

Unless your facility is that big or it’s getting ready to host a big event like WrestleMania or the Super Bowl, where DAS traffic is likely to be off the charts, the carriers may not be as ready to pay.

“We still love the NFL, but neutral host [participation] can be very expensive for Verizon,” French said.

More network intelligence = more revenue opportunity

Todd Landry, corporate vice president for product and market strategy at DAS supplier JMA Wireless, said the DAS industry needs to look at its own offerings to see how it can help its customers get more out of their networks.

“We’ve got to re-imagine what we’re trying to do,” said Landry. “What do we do with the network to get more out of it?”

Specifically, Landry sees advancements in DAS network intelligence as a prime opportunity to provide more value rather than simply cutting costs. At the conference, JMA was showing a prototype of a “DAS trash can,” a hardened waste bin (with solar power) that could also host a DAS antenna inside. Another attached bin was shown with a connected sensor that could tell operators whether the can was full or not, eliminating the need for multiple truck rolls just to check on whether the bin needed to be emptied.

DAS gear inside the ‘smart’ trash can

For stadiums and other public spaces like shopping malls, Landry said parking spots might have sensors that could indicate whether or not a spot was available — and then relay that information to a self-driving car, which could drop off its passengers at the venue, then proceed on to park itself. Such a service could be offered for a fee to game or mall attendees.

“As we go forward, we need be more clever,” Landry said. “We need to take more knowledge [from] the plumbing, and extract value from it.”

And even while technologies like “5G” and CBRS, which uses LTE technology to provide what proponents see as a sort of “private cellular” environment, may be a few years off from practical deployments, Landry said their presence is already being felt and absorbed by firms building current-day DAS gear. Elements of small cells and DAS, he said, “will come together,” as the equipment vendors “re-imagine what we’re doing for the industry.”

While there may be multiple paths forward for the DAS market, all in attendance seemed to agree with Landry’s final statement: “Things will be very different from what you know today.”

‘Right opportunity’ led Rushton from IBM to LA Chargers job

Jim Rushton

Jim Rushton, who held one of the most high-profile jobs in the sports network business market as leader of the stadium-technology group at IBM, said it was a “once in a lifetime chance” at the “right opportunity” that led him to leave Big Blue to become the new chief revenue officer for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Rushton, who started his new job this week, spoke with Mobile Sports Report last week on the phone after what he described was a “whirlwind” of activity, which ended up with him at one of the top-level business spots for the former San Diego Chargers, who are in the midst of a move up the coast.

“The chance to help rebuild and evolve an NFL franchise in a market like Los Angeles doesn’t come up very often,” said Rushton. “It really was a once in a lifetime career opportunity.”

Part of that opportunity will be to help figure out how to remake the Chargers franchise as part of a joint tenant agreement at the yet-to-be-built new Los Angeles NFL stadium, a venue being built by LA Rams owner Stan Kroenke. Rushton said that fan data and anayltics will me a “massive part” of his new purview, and that as a partner in the stadium operations the Chargers will be part of “joint decisions” on technology matters inside the new venue.

Rushton, who held a similar position with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins before moving to IBM, said his post with the Chargers will have more responsibilities.

On his short but productive IBM tenure — during which IBM came from pretty much nowhere to becoming one of the leaders in the stadium-networking integration space — Rushton said he felt he was leaving the operation improved from its initial inception.

With IBM-led deployments at Texas A&M, Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the forthcoming LA Football Club venue leading the way, Rushton said IBM’s tech-integration business now has a “signficiant [deal] pipeline across the world.”

One of the more interesting features of Rushton’s new job is the fact that the Chargers will play home games the next two seasons at the StubHub Center, a 27,000-seat soccer stadium in Carson, Calif., that will become the NFL’s smallest venue starting this fall. Though it’s not clear whether or not the stadium will improve its technology offerings before the Chargers play, Rushton was excited by the prospect of a scaled-down experience.

“It’s going to be terrific — it’s like having only premium seats, because everything will be lower bowl,” Rushton said.