Stadium Tech Report: DAS, Wi-Fi puts end to no-signal problem at Denver’s Sports Authority Field

PeytonThese days, Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High is the new home of the NFL’s most prolific signal-caller. With a record season for passing yards and passing touchdowns, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is recognizable for his animated pointing, shouting and line-of-scrimmage audibles, the ultimate practicioner of last-second communication.

Not too long ago, the fans at Mile High might have had to resort to the same tactics to communicate, using hand waving or shouting, since getting a cell signal was next to impossible. “Forget making a phone call, you couldn’t even send a text,” said Rick Seifert, communications manager for the Broncos’ stadium management company. “And it wasn’t just the fans. We [the staff] couldn’t make calls in the stadium to do our jobs.”

But in 2012, the Broncos changed all that with the installation of a full-featured distributed antenna system (DAS) deployed by TE Connectivity, and a fan-facing Wi-Fi network installed by Verizon Wireless.

Russ Trainor

Russ Trainor

The Broncos also put in a huge new digital scoreboard and robust back-end connectivity provided by Comcast as part of their blitz of networking improvements, and this past fall, AT&T joined in by upgrading its connection to the stadium’s DAS. By next year the Broncos hope to add AT&T and Sprint to its roster of Wi-Fi service providers, reflecting what vice president of information technology Russ Trainor sees as a “never ending growth” of wireless in-stadium consumption.

All carriers on board, slowly

One of the biggest problems with DAS deployments in stadiums is convincing major cellular carriers to work together. Since each carrier wants to deploy systems to do the best job for its customers, there is often a difference in opinion on strategy and operations, which is often followed by similar snags in contract negotiations. Trainor said that the stadium, built in 2001, presented unique RF challenges to wireless with its primarily exposed-steel construction. Verizon and Sprint were the first carriers to sign up for the neutral DAS, followed by AT&T this fall.

DAS equipment at Sports Authority Field. Credit: Denver Broncos

DAS equipment at Sports Authority Field. Credit: Denver Broncos

“It was tough to get them [all the major carriers] to agree on DAS, but we have good engineers on the back end and we came up with a nice solution for everybody,” said Trainor. While the antennas and stadium network are neutral, each carrier provides its own back-end gear, much of which at Mile High had to be placed in a building built outside the facility specifically to house telecom gear. In many stadium DAS deployments, the telecom gear can take up thousands of square feet, which can be challenging to find in facilities built before such needs were known.

“There’s no room inside for all the space they [the carriers] wanted,” Seifert said.

The Wi-Fi network, deployed by Verizon, uses Cisco equipment and is also a neutral host infrastructure, meaning that other carriers could use it to provide Wi-Fi connectivity to their clients if they so choose. According to Seifert, AT&T and Sprint will offer Wi-Fi services to customers next season, in part to answer the consistently growing demand. Like in other stadiums, fans at Sports Authority Field know what to do when they finally find bandwidth: Use more.

Steady growth in wireless use

When Sports Authority Field is at its listed capacity of 76,125 on game days, it becomes the 14th-largest city in Colorado, Trainor said. The team has already seen 525,000 downloads of its mobile application, which provides such in-stadium features as four different video replay angles, a connection to the NFL Network’s RedZone channel, and a direct link to the radio feed from hometown sports station KOA. The application is geo-fenced to ensure that the video rights are only used inside the stadium, and to give fans there a unique game-day experience.

Wi-Fi antennas on stadium overhang. Credit: Denver Broncos

Wi-Fi antennas on stadium overhang. Credit: Denver Broncos

According to Trainor, the team usually sees an average of 4,000 simultaneous connections on the Verizon Wi-Fi network on game days, though on colder days when fans need to wear gloves that number can drop in half. Trainor said the Cisco infrastructure is designed to accomodate 25,000 concurrent connections, a number the team hasn’t yet reached. However, the team did have to double the back-end capacity already for the Wi-Fi network, which is being used more as more fans find it.

“Word of mouth really gets [usage] going,” said Trainor, who noted that at a Kenny Chesney concert last year, the stadium crew saw data uploads outpace data downloads for the first time — a sure sign that fans in attendance were using the network to do things like share pictures and videos with their social-network connections.

“We haven’t seen any true bottlenecks yet, but usage is consistently rising, game after game, for concerts, soccer and football,” Trainor said.

Rick Seifert

Rick Seifert

A good sign from the Wi-Fi networking statistics is a shift in usage from the often crowded 2.4 GHz bands to the 5 GHz bands, which Trainor said is likely due to fans using the latest 5 series iPhones, which support the 5 GHz Wi-Fi frequency. And no matter what happens to the Broncos in the playoffs, Trainor and Seifert know what they will be doing this summer: Upgrading the network components, in the never-ending battle to provide bandwidth.

“Verizon and Sprint have already made significant upgrades to their DAS deployments because of demand and changes in technology, like LTE,” said Seifert. “And next year we’ll probably see AT&T circle back again. It’s very dynamic.”

“As smart phones get smarter it’s a never-ending challenge” to provide connectivity, Trainor said. “It’s a job that’s never finished.”

Wi-Fi News: Chiefs Announce New Wi-Fi Stadium Network and Mobile App; Enterasys Sold for $180M

Can they get another one? The Chiefs' trophy from Super Bowl IV is on display at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Can they get another one? The Chiefs’ trophy from Super Bowl IV is on display at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

For the attendees of the SEAT Conference in Kansas City last month one of the highlights was an evening tour of Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL Chiefs. The Chiefs have a very cool history/museum area in one part of the stadium, with lots of gear, programs and assorted memorabilia from the old AFL days.

And now, the Chiefs and Arrowhead have one of the newest toys, a brand-new Wi-Fi network that will officially go live this weekend along with a new Chiefs mobile app. At the SEAT Conference one of the more outspoken proponents of Wi-Fi in stadiums was Mark Donovan, president of the Chiefs. The Chiefs, he said, were moving to Wi-Fi now because they wanted to upgrade the in-stadium fan experience sooner rather than later — “We’ve got to challenge the HD experience fans get at home,” Donovan said at SEAT. “We need to make the stadium experience better.”

With a mobile app from YinzCam, the supplier to most of the NFL teams who have apps, Chiefs fans using the stadium Wi-Fi network will have access to a lot of live video, including the NFL Network’s popular RedZone channel. For Donovan this is only the beginning of what he sees as a host of possibilities to bring the game closer to fans via technology.

One idea Donovan talked about at SEAT was the idea of making the coach-to-quarterback radio conferences available to fans, much like NASCAR makes its crew-to-driver conversations public. Though NFL coaches are probably unanimous in their opposition to such moves, Donovan said “those questions need to be asked” if the NFL wants to make the stadium a special place to visit.

“Two years ago, we put the official replay videos on our [stadium] replay boards, and the positive response to that was overwhelming,” Donovan said at SEAT. Using Wi-Fi to make available features like RedZone or updated fantasy app stats are just recognition that fans in the stands are not only Chiefs fans, but “fans of the game,” Donovan said. Cheers to the Chiefs, the newest addition to the wired world of stadiums.

Enterasys Sold for $180 Million

We had no idea that stadium Wi-Fi provider Enterasys was on the block, but then in this world everything is for sale, and it makes sense that there would be some consolidation on the equipment provider market. That happened today with the news that Enterasys was being acquired by Extreme Networks. We’ll dig some more to find out what this means for Enterasys’ stadium network business but in the meantime read this post by ZK Research’s Zeus Kerravala, which nails down the whys and hows of the purchase.

NFL, Verizon Introduce New NFL Mobile App

New NFL Mobile app; photo courtesy of NFL.

New NFL Mobile app; photo courtesy of NFL.

If you, like me, enjoy watching live NFL action on your Verizon smartphone, things are probably going to be a lot better this season as the league and Verizon have teamed up for a full refresh of the NFL Mobile app, which will also be available to smartphone customers of other carriers, with the only catch being that those customers won’t have access to live game action.

In a phone interview with Manish Jha, General Manager of Mobile at the National Football League, we learned about a whole bunch of new bells and whistles, maybe things you won’t necessarily notice, like improved back-end design and more up-to-date score information. What hasn’t changed for the 2013 season is the $5 monthly fee Verizon will charge its smartphone customers to view live NFL games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights, along with NFL network coverage and (perhaps most important) live RedZone coverage on Sunday.

(Don’t dismiss the RedZone coverage. If you live in California, like we do, you can sometimes get a full extra live game or two on Sundays because they are the only ones still going on.)

If your phone is from AT&T, or Sprint, or T-Mobile, you won’t be able to watch live action but you also won’t have to fight to find an NFL app that works well to bring you things like video highlights, replays, scores, and fantasy stats. Jha said the NFL and Verizon teamed up to produce one app to rule them all, the new NFL Mobile app which you should be able to find in the operating system app store of your choice. Also built into the new version of the app are some of the features from last year’s experimental Thursday Night Xtra app, which we never felt was fully baked; hopefully some of its interesting social media ideas are better fleshed out this time around.

“We want to make this the definitive NFL experience for a smartphone,” said Jha. And well should the NFL pay a lot of attention to mobile access: According to Jha, during last season mobile traffic to all NFL Internet sites surpassed desktop Internet traffic, even as that latter figure also increased.

Read that again: Mobile traffic to NFL sites eclipsed desktop traffic last year, even as desktop traffic grew. So now you have an idea why Verizon paid $1 billion to keep the rights for 4 more years as the NFL’s exclusive mobile carrier.

The only thing we still argue about is the league and Verizon’s decision to keep live cellular action off tablets; the Verzion NFL Mobile live access only works for devices they consider “phones,” though Jha even admits that such a definition may be a short-time thing, given the trend of phones getting big phat screens.

“We’re staying on top of trends, watching what comes out of Silicon Valley,” Jha said. “Right now we’re being pragmatic, trying to strike the right balance between serving fans and creating value for our sponsor.”