Can virtualization help venues meet growing mobile capacity demands?

By Josh Adelson, director, Portfolio Marketing, CommScope

U.S. mobile operators reported a combined 50 terabytes of cellular traffic during the 2018 Super Bowl, nearly doubling over the previous year. In fact, Super Bowl data consumption has doubled every year for at least the past 6 years and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Clearly, fans love their LTE connections almost as much as they love their local team. Fans have the option for cellular or Wi-Fi, but cellular is the default connection whereas Wi-Fi requires a manual connection step that many users may not bother with.[1] The same dynamic is playing out on a smaller scale in every event venue and commercial building.

Whether you are a venue owner, part of the team organization or in the media, this heightened connectivity represents an opportunity to connect more with fans, and to expand your audience to the fans’ own social connections beyond the venue walls.

But keeping up with the demand is also a challenge. High capacity can come at a high cost, and these systems also require significant real estate for head-end equipment. Can you please your fans and leverage their connectedness while keeping equipment and deployment costs from breaking the capex scoreboard?

Virtualization and C-RAN to the rescue?

Editor’s note: This post is part of Mobile Sports Report’s new Voices of the Industry feature, in which industry representatives submit articles, commentary or other information to share with the greater stadium technology marketplace. These are NOT paid advertisements, or infomercials. See our explanation of the feature to understand how it works.

Enterprise IT departments have long since learned that centralizing and virtualizing their computing infrastructures has been a way to grow capacity while reducing equipment cost and space requirements. Can sports and entertainment venues achieve the same by virtualizing their in-building wireless infrastructures? To answer this question, let’s first review the concepts and how they apply to wireless infrastructure.

In the IT domain, virtualization refers to replacing multiple task-specific servers with a centralized resource pool that can be dynamically assigned to a given task on demand. Underlying this concept is the premise that, while each application has its own resource needs, at any given time only a subset will be active, so the total shared resource can be less than the sum of the individual requirements.

How does this translate to in-building wireless? Centralizing the base station function is known as C-RAN, which stands for centralized (or cloud) radio access network. C-RAN involves not only the physical pooling of the base stations into a single location — which is already the practice in most venues — but also digital architecture and software intelligence to allocate baseband capacity to different parts of the building in response to shifting demand.

C-RAN brings immediate benefits to a large venue in-building wireless deployment. The ability to allocate capacity across the venue via software rather than hardware adds flexibility and ease of operation. This is especially important in multi-building venues that include not only a stadium or arena but also surrounding administrative buildings, retail spaces, restaurants, hotels and transportation hubs. As capacity needs shift between the spaces by time of day or day of week, you need a system that can “point” the capacity to the necessary hot spots.

C-RAN can even go a step further to remove the head-end from the building campus altogether. Mobile network operators are increasingly deploying base stations in distributed locations known as C-RAN hubs. If there is a C-RAN hub close to the target building, then the in-building system can take a signal directly from the hub, via a fiber connection. Even if the operator needs to add capacity to the hub for this building, this arrangement gives them the flexibility to use that capacity in other parts of their network when it’s not needed at the building. It also simplifies maintenance and support as it keeps the base station equipment within the operator’s facilities.

For the building owner, this architecture can reduce the footprint of the on-campus head-end by as much as 90 percent. Once the baseband resources are centralized, the next logical step is to virtualize them into software running on PC server platforms. As it turns out, this is not so simple. Mobile baseband processing is a real-time, compute-intensive function that today runs on embedded processors in specialized hardware platforms. A lot of progress is being made toward virtualization onto more standard computers, but as of today, most mobile base stations are still purpose-built.

Perhaps more important for stadium owners is the fact that the base station (also called the signal source) is selected and usually owned by the mobile network operator. Therefore the form it takes has at most only an indirect effect on the economics for the venue. And whether the signal source is virtual or physical, the signal still must be distributed by a physical network of cables, radios and antennas.

The interface between the signal source and the distribution network provides another opportunity for savings. The Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) establishes a digital interface that reduces space and power requirements while allowing the distribution network — the DAS — to take advantage of the intelligence in the base station. To leverage these advantages, the DAS also needs to be digital.

To illustrate this, consider the head-end for a 12 MIMO sector configuration with 4 MIMO bands per sector, as shown below. In this configuration a typical analog DAS is compared with a digital C-RAN antenna system, with and without a CPRI baseband interface. In the analog systems, points of interface (POIs) are needed to condition the signals from the different sources to an equal level before they are combined and converted to optical signals via an e/o (electric to optical) transceiver. In a digital system, signal conditioning and conversion from electric to digital is integrated into a single card, providing significant space saving.

* A typical analog system will require 8 POIs (4 MIMO bands per sector) and 2 o/e transceivers per sector resulting in 10 cards per sector. A typical subrack (chassis) supports up 10-12 cards, so a subrack will support 1 MIMO sector. For 12 MIMO sectors, 12 subracks are needed and each is typically 4 rack unit height. This results in a total space of 48 rack units.

* For a digital system[2] without CPRI, each subrack supports 32 SISO ports. Each MIMO sector with 4 MIMO bands will require 8 ports resulting in supporting 4 MIMO sectors per subrack. For 12 MIMO sectors, 3 subracks of 5 rack unit height each are needed resulting in total space of 15 rack units.

* For a digital system with CPRI, each subrack supports 48 MIMO ports. Each MIMO sector with 4 MIMO bands will require 4 ports resulting in 12 MIMO sectors per subrack. For 12 MIMO sectors, only 1 subrack of 5 rack unit height is needed resulting in total space of 5 rack units.

One commercial example of this is Nokia’s collaboration with CommScope to offer a CPRI interface between Nokia’s AirScale base station and CommScope’s Era C-RAN antenna system. With this technology, a small interface card replaces an array of remote radio units, reducing space and power consumption in the C-RAN hub by up to 90 percent. This also provides a stepping-stone to future Open RAN interfaces when they become standardized and commercialized.

The Benefits in Action — A Case Study

Even without virtualization, the savings of digitization, C-RAN and CPRI at stadium scale are significant. The table below shows a recent design that CommScope created for a large stadium complex in the U.S. For this, we compared 3 alternatives: traditional analog DAS, a digital C-RAN antenna system with RF base station interfaces, and a C-RAN antenna system with CPRI interfaces. Digital C-RAN and CPRI produce a dramatic reduction in the space requirements, as the table below illustrates.

The amount of equipment is reduced because a digital system does in software what analog systems must do in hardware, and CPRI even further eliminates hardware. Energy savings are roughly proportional to the space savings, since both are a function of the amount of equipment required for the solution.

Fiber savings, shown in the table below, are similarly significant.

The amount of fiber is reduced because digitized signals can be encoded and transmitted more efficiently.

But these savings are only part of the story. This venue, like most, is used for different types of events — football games, concerts, trade shows and even monster truck rallies. Each type of event has its own unique traffic pattern and timing. With analog systems, re-sectoring to accommodate these changes literally requires on-site physical re-wiring of head-end units. But with a digital C-RAN based system it’s possible to re-sectorize from anywhere through a browser-based, drag and drop interface.

The Bottom Line

It’s a safe bet that mobile data demand will continue to grow. But the tools now exist to let you control whether this will be a burden, or an opportunity to realize new potential. C-RAN, virtualization and open RAN interfaces all have a role to play in making venue networks more deployable, flexible and affordable. By understanding what each one offers, you can make the best decisions for your network.

Josh Adelson is director of portfolio marketing at CommScope, where he is responsible for marketing the award-winning OneCell Cloud RAN small cell, Era C-RAN antenna system and ION-E distributed antenna system. He has over 20 years experience in mobile communications, content delivery and networking. Prior to joining CommScope, Josh has held product marketing and management positions with Airvana (acquired by CommScope in 2015) PeerApp, Brooktrout Technology and Motorola. He holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a BA from Brown University.

1: 59 percent of users at the 2018 Super Bowl attached to the stadium Wi-Fi network.
2: Dimensioning for digital systems is based on CommScope Era.

AT&T beefs up ski resort reception with stealthy DAS

AT&T DAS antenna stand (right) near the American Eagle lift at Copper Mountain. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

In order to improve cellular reception at the Copper Mountain ski area, AT&T this winter installed a stealthy seven-antenna DAS in several base-area locations, including inside ski-lodge buildings and inside a rooftop cupola.

According to Quin Gelfand, a senior real estate and construction manager for AT&T’s Antenna Solutions Group, the mountain had previously been served only by a single macro tower located up near the slopes of the popular Colorado resort, which is located just off the I-70 Interstate between Frisco and Vail.

On heavy skier-visit days, Gelfand said, the macro tower recently caused some “capacity concerns,” leading AT&T to design a DAS solution for the several base areas at Copper Mountain. In addition to just being saturated by demand, Gelfand said the single macro antennas often didn’t provide strong signals inside buildings at the base areas.

“In a lot of areas around the resort, there were low bars for LTE,” Gelfand said.

AT&T’s Quin Gelfand shows off the main head end DAS gear rack.

But on Feb. 23 this year, that situation changed for AT&T cellular customers, as the DAS went live and immediately started moving lots of cellular traffic. By the time of our visit in early April, Gelfand said the DAS installation (which has the capacity equivalent of a single large macro tower) had already seen more than 7 terabytes of data moved, averaging about 175 GB per day. Like at many Colorado ski areas, March is a busy month at Copper with lots of spring break skiers and locals driving up on weekends from Denver.

Hiding antennas in a cupola

Brad Grohusky, senior IT manager for Copper Mountain, said AT&T approached the resort a couple of years ago to discuss the idea of a DAS. “When we had a dense population of guests, it was pretty easy to saturate a signal,” Grohusky said.

On weekends, Grohusky said Copper could often see as many as 10,000 guests, and might even see as many as 14,000 visitors on popular days or holidays. Wireless communications, he said, could get even more stress if the weather turned nasty or cold, driving more people inside buildings.

DAS antenna (upper top left) in Copper Station lodge

Starting from an existing telecom service room located in an underground garage, AT&T ran fiber this past offseason to three different antenna locations. The closest and most obvious is a three-antenna stand near the “Burning Stones” gathering area and the American Eagle chairlift base. As one of the resort’s main first chairs the American Eagle often has crowds at its base, and the Burning Stones area is a small clearing between the slopes and the base area buildings that is used often for concerts and other public gatherings.

“There was lots of digging last summer,” said Grohusky of the fiber-trenching effort, which gained some extra time thanks to a warmer-than-usual fall that kept the snow at bay. “We took advantage of that extra week,” Grohusky said.

If the American Eagle-area antennas are in plain sight, the two antennas at the Union Creek Schoolhouse base area to the west would be impossible to find if you didn’t know where they were; on the roof of a building AT&T built custom-designed baffling for a rooftop cupola that completely hides the antennas while allowing cellular signals to pass through.

“You would never know the antennas were up there,” Grohusky said. “AT&T really accomodated our architecture there.”

Closer look at DAS tower near American Eagle lift

Back farther to the east, two more antennas were located at the top windows of the Copper Station lodge building, pointed outward to cover the lift base areas and the condos and other buildings in that area. According to Gelfand AT&T used Nokia RAN gear as well as Corning fiber equipment, CommScope cabling components and antennas from JMA Wireless in the deployment. The DAS is powered by a 100 Mbps fiber link from CenturyLink, and supports three cellular bands — 700 MHz, AWS and PCS, according to Gelfand.

Even though ski season is all but over, the network will still get use in the non-snowy months as Copper Mountain, like many Colorado resorts, has an active summer schedule of on-mountain activities. The resort also has a limited free public Wi-Fi network in certain base area buildings, including in and around the Starbucks location right next to the Burning Stones area. Gohusky said there are no current plans to expand the Wi-Fi, and also said that none of the other major cellular carriers are planning to add any of their own DAS deployments.

But for AT&T customers, Grohusky said connectivity is vastly improved. “The feedback has been great,” he said. “Connectivity used to be poor inside buildings, but now it’s great.”

Look back toward the Burning Stones gathering area, near American Eagle lift

Union Creek Schoolhouse building — cupola with AT&T antennas is the one closest to ski hill

JMA Wireless antenna mounted high up inside Copper Station lodge

CommScope gear inside the Copper Station node equipment room

Corning optical gear inside the Copper Station node equipment room

Copper Station lodge building (with DAS antennas) on far right, showing proximity to eastern base area

Nokia deal part of new wholesale/white-label strategy for Artemis Networks

Artemis Networks founder Steve Perlman. Credit all photos: Artemis Networks

Artemis Networks founder Steve Perlman. Credit all photos: Artemis Networks

A deal by startup Artemis Networks to provide test deployments of its pCell wireless networking technology to select Tier 1 phone-network customers of telecom equipment giant Nokia Networks is both a “coming out party” as well as a significant shift in the Artemis business strategy, from a consumer and end-user focus to a wholesale, business-to-business plan.

Though no actual customers, users or live pCell networks have yet been announced, Artemis founder and CEO Steve Perlman said he can see the end to the “long and winding road” toward real-world deployments that officially started when Artemis went public with its ideas back in February of 2014. “We look at this [the Nokia announcement] as our coming-out party,” said Perlman in a phone interview with Mobile Sports Report. “You’ll be seeing [customer] announcements soon.”

In addition to the Nokia “memorandum of understanding,” which says that Nokia and Artemis will “jointly test Artemis pCell wireless technology in 2016 with wireless operators, initially in large indoor venues and other high density areas,” Artemis also announced a shift in its plans for its expected commercial network in its home town of San Francisco, which was originally supposed to launch this past summer. (For a detailed explanation of Artemis technology, scroll to the end of this post and its links.)

From consumer network to wholesale provider

Instead of operating its own network as originally planned and selling access to consumers, Perlman said Artemis will sell LTE capacity wholesale to any interested network provider as soon as the now-approved network is completed. Artemis, which obtained a lease of spectrum from satellite provider DISH, is now setting up antennas on 58 rooftops in San Francisco, Perlman said, after finally getting FCC approval for its plans a little later than expected.

pCell antenna from Artemis Networking

pCell antenna from Artemis Networking

And instead of having to outsource or build its own customer-facing signup, billing and other back-end systems, the 12-person Artemis will instead sell capacity on its San Francisco network to any interested provider. According to Perlman, there are customers ready to buy, even though none are yet named. Potential customers could include MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) like TracPhone, who don’t own their own networks, or other larger providers looking for roaming capacity or cheap LTE in the crowded city by the Bay.

While it’s less cool than having its own branded devices and network, being a wholesale provider makes sense for the small-size Artemis, instead of trying to compete with wireless giants like Verizon Wireless and AT&T. “Wholesale [capacity] was a market we really didn’t know existed,” said Perlman. “And when they [potential customers] told us what they would pay, it was easy to see B2B as being the way for us.”

Big customers more comfortable with big suppliers

On the networking gear sales side, Perlman said that teaming up with a big equipment provider like Nokia was a necessity to get any traction in the world of LTE cellular networks. As we said before, though pCell’s projected promise of using cellular interference to produce targeted, powerful cellular connectivity could be a boon to builders of large public-venue networks like those found in sports stadiums, owners and operators of those venues are loath to build expensive networks on untested, unproven technology. And big metro wireless providers are even more so.

“We had a lot of Tier 1 operators tell us ‘we love this [pCell technology], we really need this, but we’re not buying from a 12-person startup,’ ” said Perlman. So even while Artemis’ radio technology — which promises huge leaps in performance compared to current gear — was attractive, the company’s lack of any kind of integration with the boring but necessary part of telecom infrastructure, including billing and authentication systems, held it back, Perlman said.

“We were told we could get things done more instantly if we partnered with a large infrastructure company,” Perlman said.

And while real customers from the Nokia deal will probably surface first in a stadium or other large public venue — since such a deployment would be easier to test and install than a new metro network — one team that won’t be using pCell technology any time soon is VenueNext, the app provider for the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. Though VenueNext was publicly listed as a testing partner last spring, VenueNext has not commented on any results of any testing, and according to multiple sources there was no testing of Artemis equipment at Levi’s Stadium this summer. Though it develops the application and backend systems only, VenueNext does need to work closely with equipment providers, like Aruba Networks at Levi’s Stadium, to integrate its app functionality with the network.

Perlman, who also confirmed there was nothing brewing anymore with VenueNext (“but we’re still friends with VenueNext”), said the app developer also preferred to work with a larger-size developer than the short-bench Artemis. VenueNext, which recently announced the NBA’s Orlando Magic as its second stadium-app customer, has said publicly it would announce an additional 29 new customers before the end of the calendar year.

“We [Artemis] could probably go and do one stadium,” said Perlman about his company’s deployment abilities.

Wi-Fi thrown in for free

And while the main business for Artemis out of the gate will probably be in adding capacity to LTE networks that are running out of spectrum, Perlman said that having Wi-Fi support built into the pCell equipment could make the technology attractive to venues who need or want to bring Wi-Fi services to fans. The Wi-Fi version of pCell technology was also an after-the-fact idea that surfaced after the original pCell announcements.

“The pWave radio heads have [support for] all LTE bands and both Wi-Fi bands,” Perlman said. “So everything that Nokia does [with pCell deployments] can also do Wi-Fi. That’s pretty exciting.”

What’s yet unknown is how the ongoing acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent by Nokia may affect any potential pCell deployments. In the best possible scenario for Artemis, the acquisition could provide more entry points if the pCell technology gets integrated with Alcatel-Lucent telecom gear.

Nokia delivers tablet as market continues to diversify


Nokia has introduced its Lumia 2520 tablet, a $499 offering that will run Microsoft’s Windows RT 8.1 operating system and is destined for the consumer marketplace, a space that is already saturated by the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple and Samsung.

The Lumia 2520 futures a 10-inch 192 x 1080 display and is powered by Qualcomm’s 2.2GHz Snapdragon 80 processor, 2GB RAM, 32GB of internal storage with an expansion slot that enables the addition of 32GB more.

The tablet has a 6.7 megapixel rear-facing camera ad a 2 MP front-facing camera and an app that it has included called Storyteller that enables users to plot their photos on a map. The tablet is expected to be available later this quarter.

The company has included other technology brought over from its handset division and with that and its use of a different processor is differentiating its offering from the Microsoft Surface 2 that was also introduced this week.

That is an interesting move by the company since Microsoft is in the process of buying Nokia’s handset business for $7.2B and will get the tablet business as well, if and when the deal closes next year. So now it will have two similar, yet slightly different offerings for the same market segment.

I can understand Nokia wanted a product that helps generate revenue in the time between now and the closing of its sale but it seems that both parties would have benefited if it had focused elsewhere, no matter how nice the Lumia 2520 is.

The move by Nokia comes as tablet prices continue to drop and the number of players continues to grow. One of the surprising moments in Apple’s rollout of its new iPads this week was that one of them was actually more expensive than the last generation.

According to market research firm ABI, as reported in Mobile Marketer, tablet prices have been dropping and will continue to do so. Apple had been falling from its premium priced spot and its recent move was an attempt to move back into that space.

The report went on and discussed how the high end is pretty well saturated by existing manufacturers and that most new products in that space simply enhance existing features rather than add bold new capabilities. However it pointed out that there are several market segments that are currently underserved by developers.

Those spaces include the educational and business markets. The business segment is one of the last strongholds of the PC but that dominance is slowly changing, mostly driven initially by the BYOD (bring your own device) movement.

So with these large and relatively unexploited markets available why did the company make a “me too” offering that will compete with Microsoft and others in the heavily competitive consumer space? It will also be competing with them in the business and education markets but since those spaces appear to have the most room for growth it seems that they present the best opportunity for Nokia to establish itself.

Friday Grab Bag: Fenway Boots, Fox vs. ESPN

Nokia is starting to sound like a punch line from a Monty Python movie “I’m not dead yet.” While many have given up on the company it is still churning out products and is expected to unveil its first tablet later this month.

According to Yahoo a Nokia tablet has passed FCC approval and the company, soon to be owned my Microsoft, plans to show a tablet that will run a version of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system at an event in Abu Dhabi.

The difference between ESPN and Fox Sports Live
The good folks at the Sports Business Daily have broken down the difference between the two sports broadcasters, looking at how each o them present the biggest sporting events of the day, using last Monday night as the benchmark.

Not surprisingly ESPN led off with the NFL Monday night game that it had just concluded broadcasting while Fox focused on the MLB playoffs. As usual ESPN pretty much ignored hockey.

L.L. Bean makes Fenway Park boots
LL Bean now has something that only a die hard Red Sox fan could want, boots that are made, in part, from the tarp that was used to cover the field at Fenway Park during the 2012 season. 100 pairs are expected to be produced.

However the made to order boots are not available on a first come/first serve basis. The company is having fans visit Facebook/LL Bean site and share their favorite moments for a chance to win with 50 selected at random. There are additional avenues a fan can enter, to be announced at a later date.

Nike sets date for NikeFuel Forum
If you are an athlete, or maybe not one, but use the NikeFuel band to track you exercise and caloric output you will be happy to know that the company will be hosting an event in New York City that will discuss how it sees the digital world and physical activity merging.

This market, slow to emerge over the last few years has really jump-started with the news of wearable appliances such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear and rumored other smartwatches as well as the Google Glass and rival efforts. It will be interesting to see how the company plans to compete going forward.

McAfee to deliver device that thwarts NSA?
Antivirus developer John McAfee has a new target in sight, preventing the NSA or any agency from snooping on your online activities. He has developed a product that he calls “Decentral” to do this.

The small device can be used with smartphones and other mobile devices to create a type of mobile network that cannot be penetrated by government surveillance. He said it will cost around $100.

New iPad to outsell last edition?

With Apple’s newest iPads expected to be unveiled in the near future analysts are back predicting how sales will be and KGI is saying that the new iPad 5 will far out pace the new iPad Minis, at least initially.

Market research firm KGI has said that it expects about 10 million iPad 5s sold in the fourth quarter compared to 2 million Minis. There has been a great deal of speculation that the Mini production is slow getting going and that supplies will be limited.

Friday Grab Bag: A Wave of Phablets in the Future?

Is Windows 8 driving Mac sales?
You have probably looked at a Surface tablet by now and pondered how the new operating system, Windows 8, actually works, since it is very different than previous incarnations of the OS. Now people are coming out and claiming that the remade operating system is driving customers to rival platforms.

ZDNet is reporting that two of Microsoft’s OEMs have reported that they believe that the new operating system is to blame for the decline in PC sales and that it has actually driven users to buy systems from rival Apple. Microsoft does have a major update to the OS in the works and it will be interesting to see if it is a major update or a turn back the clock move.

Analyst expect lower cost iPhone to sell like hot cakes.
C/Net is reporting that Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray is predicting that a low cost iPhone, widely expected to be available later this year, will cause iPhone sales to explode going forward and into next year.

He predicts the low cost phone will be available in September in the $300 range, unsubsidized, and that while it would cannibalize sales of the higher end, more expensive phones the volume would be worth it. He projects that the company could sell as many as 75 million iPhones in 2014 and start to dominate in the mid-range section of the smartphone market.

Samsung to face increased competition in phablet space

Does BlackBerry have a phablet in the works?

BlackBerry is the latest to have a phablet, which is a smartphone with a large display, rumored to be in the works. The company has been on a more positive road this year with growing acceptance of its BlackBerry 10 and increased sales.

Now analysts expect the company to expand the handset lineup later this year with at least two possible additional models, according to Digital Trends. One of the rumored devices would be a hybrid that would have a 5-inch display while another would be a mid-range version of the existing model.

Nokia also about to toss hat into phablet space?
Nokia is another smartphone developer that is now being reported as preparing to enter the large form factor smartphone space according to Tech Radar via the Financial Times. While the report clams that the forthcoming device will be technically superior to the Samsung Galaxy Note it did not include any features to use for comparison.

Microsoft hints at 7-inch tablet
The rumor mill continues to heat up with reports that Microsoft is planning on a 7-inch tablet later this week. According to Business Insider outgoing Microsoft CFO Peter Klein said that the company has a small touch device that it will be releasing soon. Of course this could be another smartwatch as well, something that the company is also rumored to be working on.