DGP gets deal to extend DAS outside Levi’s Stadium

Franks and DAS: DGP DAS antennas above food station at Levi's Stadium. Photo credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Franks and DAS: DGP DAS antennas above food station at Levi’s Stadium. Photo credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

DAS Group Professionals, the company that installed the neutral-host DAS inside Levi’s Stadium, now has a deal to extend the DAS outside the Levi’s walls, covering parts of the city of Santa Clara, Calif., that surround the stadium.

With next year’s Super Bowl set to take place at Levi’s Stadium, it makes sense that city officials would want to make sure the parking lots and other pre-game gathering areas outside the venue had good cellular connectivity. At the most recent Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., neutral host provider Crown Castle did an extensive job of building the “oDAS” or outside DAS in the spaces surrounding the University of Phoenix Stadium.

According to DGP, it will design, build and maintain an oDAS for the City of Santa Clara, initially targeting the area around the Great America theme park and the Santa Clara Convention Center, which sit on the other side of the main Levi’s Stadium parking lots. Like the DAS inside the stadium, access to the network outside the stadium will be offered to all major wireless carriers, who must pay DGP and the city for access to the network.

While the network will definitely come in handy for pre- and post-game connectivity following Levi’s Stadium events, it will also improve overall cellular performance in the area, which is also the home to several large corporate office buildings as well as the busy convention center.

Stadium Tech Report: An MSR Geek Sneak Peek finds fast Wi-Fi, lots of cell antennas at Levi’s Stadium

A Wi-Fi access point near a section sign.

A Wi-Fi access point near a section sign.

The historic idea that big, open-air stadiums are bad places for wireless connectivity may have finally met its match. Though it still needs a test when it’s full of fans, a sneak peek at the incredibly robust Wi-Fi and distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments in the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium should mean, at least for Niners fans, that poor connections at football games are a thing of the past.

Granted, our tour of the new stadium during its ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday wasn’t any kind of official unveiling of the much-hyped Wi-Fi and cellular networks inside. There weren’t any tech reps on hand, and there were many places throughout the building where it was clear that parts of the network weren’t yet turned on (along with many flat-screen TV mounts still waiting for their electronics). But just walking around inside the concourses and clubs, a trained eye could see Wi-Fi access points and DAS antennas just about everywhere you looked. And, wow — in areas where the network was live, the download speeds were off the charts — we recorded several readings of 60 Mbps or higher, including on the Levi’s sustainable-garden rooftop court.

On one hand, it’s fair to say that our walk-around tests don’t mean a thing, because the real chore for the Levi’s network is not to impress a few random guests, but instead to handle the huge loads brought on by a sellout crowd of 68,500 iPhone-toting football fans. Over the next month or so we’ll get some more chances for proof points, especially at the Niners’ preseason games, when we hope to see the ambitious on-demand instant replay app being put through its paces, while at the same time Niners fans use their phones to order food delivered to their seats. That’s a lot of potential bandwidth and interactions. But after our tour Thursday, we’re perhaps a bit less cynical than we were before about the network’s ability to handle such loads.

SpeedTest results from Wi-Fi network inside Levi's Stadium.

SpeedTest results from Wi-Fi network inside Levi’s Stadium.

Designed for networking from the ground up

Why? Mainly, it’s the fact that Levi’s looks like the proof of what is possible when you design a stadium from the ground up with connectivity in mind. Though we could in fact see many, many exposed APs and DAS antennas, none were overly obtrusive — in fact, they all looked like they had been mounted somewhere that was expressly designed for them to be there. I’m no network engineer, but the simple lack of a lot of exposed cabling around those antennas and APs says to me that the guts of the building may be as smart as the network. Under one overhang I did see a cable run that reminded me of a data center — a wire basket carrying fiber, with plenty of room for expansion, leading into holes in the concrete that weren’t close to being filled. Again: I carry no union card. But if I can see such things and figure them out, it seems like a lot of thought went into the Levi’s network that’s perhaps not as obvious as the APs and antennas. Which, of course, is a great thing for administrators and even better for users.

Watching the British Open live on a TV inside an elevator at Levi's Stadium.

Watching the British Open live on a TV inside an elevator at Levi’s Stadium.

What else did we see that was amazing, technology-wise? The sheer number of flat screen digital displays, especially when combined with the numerous large, comfortable lounge and club areas says to us that fans won’t miss much action even if they’re not in their seats. In the plush big-bucks clubs and even in the proletariat concrete concourses there was flat screen after flat screen (or at least the mounts where more TVs will be). It’s a simple but profound way to improve the fan experience, maybe a lesson learned from Candlestick, where fans congregated outside the few concession stands with TVs just to watch replays. Sure, the phone app may be one way to get there but my take from walking through Levi’s is that if you want to stand around and enjoy a beverage with friends you will still be kept up on the action even if your phone’s in your pocket.

Like we said — there is certainly more detailed information to come, and we are betting that the folks at Aruba Networks (the Wi-Fi gear supplier) and DAS Group Professionals (the neutral third-party DAS host) are chomping at the bit to talk about their deployments… let the free advertising of the antenna pictures below suffice for now. Though it’s just the start of our planned Levi’s Stadium network coverage, it was an impressive one, right down to the glasses of Iron Horse bubbly served at the post-ribbon-cutting reception. Salut, Levi’s and Niners!

(All photos credit Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report. Copyright 2014, Mobile Sports Report. Please do not use without permission.)

Wi-Fi access points visible on outside concourse structure

Wi-Fi access points visible on outside concourse structure

Two DAS antennas above a concession stand

Two DAS antennas above a concession stand

DAS antennas mounted under overhang.

DAS antennas mounted under overhang.

A guess, but looks to us like directional Wi-Fi AP (on the solar panel roof of the rooftop garden court)

A guess, but looks to us like directional Wi-Fi AP (on the solar panel roof of the rooftop garden court)

A Wi-Fi AP mounting location that says "Death Star" to us

A Wi-Fi AP mounting location that says “Death Star” to us

Just some of the flat-panel displays in the United Lounge.

Just some of the flat-panel displays in the United Lounge.

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi's

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi’s

Rooftop garden view. Butterflies and 60+ Mbps Wi-Fi!

Rooftop garden view. Butterflies and 60+ Mbps Wi-Fi!

Cool/scary view of the field from behind the lights, again on the rooftop garden area

Cool/scary view of the field from behind the lights, again on the rooftop garden area

What's behind the red DAS head end door? First rule of head end rooms, don't ask about head end rooms

What’s behind the red DAS head end door? First rule of head end rooms, don’t ask about head end rooms

Stadium Tech Report: Niners President Marathe confident that Levi’s Stadium network, apps will deliver as promised

Niners president Paraag Marathe (center) at Intersport Activation Summit panel.

Niners president Paraag Marathe (center) at Intersport Activation Summit panel.

So, Paraag Marathe — will the network at Levi’s Stadium live up to its considerable pre-launch billing and be ready to go when the stadium opens later this year?

“It better work, since we’ve been talking about it,” said Marathe Friday, during a panel discussion at the Intersport Activation Summit presented by SportsBusiness Journal/Daily in San Francisco. “We better be right.”

Even though the short history of in-stadium networks suggests that any new endeavor be launched with words of caution, Marathe and the San Francisco 49ers are instead confident — very confident — that their new stadium will launch with a network second to none, and have game-changing services like food and beverage delivery to seats and on-demand instant replay that will redefine the game-day experience.

Paraag Marathe, president, San Francisco 49ers

Paraag Marathe, president, San Francisco 49ers

In both his panel discussion at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and in an additional interview afterward, Marathe provided some additional details about plans the Niners have talked about previously for the technology features at the new stadium, which is located in Santa Clara, Calif., smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley. Though Marathe said the stadium’s location — quite literally next door to several high-tech company campuses — made technology “part of the DNA,” he stressed Friday that the Niners are seeking to use technology to improve the fan experience, and not just to have cool stuff.

“It’s not technology for technology’s sake,” Marathe said. “It’s to enhance being at the game.”

But he did add that the stadium’s Wi-Fi network will be the base for much of the innovation.

Wi-Fi is ‘the master key’

An under-the-seat access point. Credit: Aruba Networks

An under-the-seat access point. Credit: Aruba Networks

The Wi-Fi network, which Marathe said “will absolutely be working” when the park opens, is “the master key that unlocks everything,” he said. Currently being built with Wi-Fi access point gear from Aruba Networks and back-end network equipment from Brocade Networks, the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network will also have twin 10-Gigabit broadband pipes provided by Comcast to provide what Marathe said will be throughput “30 times more than any other stadium.”

Marathe said the Wi-Fi network is being built with what he calls a “spider web” of access points, though neither the Niners nor Aruba have yet said just how many access points will be used to create the network. There will also be a neutral-host cellular DAS at the stadium, built by DAS Group Professionals (DGP). Already, DGP has signed up the “big four” carriers of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, to use the DAS at the stadium.

What will the networks be used for? Marathe outlined four main points of technology innovation during his talk, including high-definition, on-demand replays via the new Niners stadium app; in-seat delivery of food and beverages to every seat; way-finding features to perform tasks like locating friends, finding parking spots, and to tell which bathroom lines are shortest; and paperless tickets, based on RFID and near-field communication to fans’ devices. Of the four, the replay idea and the food-delivery service stand out as massive technical and industrial challenges.

Promised: Better replays than those on TV

If there is one promise that has many in the stadium technology industry shaking their heads, it’s Marathe’s pledge of Levi’s being able to deliver “better replays than what the coaches are seeing,” since team coaches only get to see replays provided by the network broadcasts. The Niners, Marathe said, will have “a massive [internal] production crew” working on the replay feature, since replays not only need to be picked out of the video stream, they also need to be coded to work over the Internet and to be delivered to handsets. Though Marathe admitted that the video quality may dip a bit below true HD if a lot of fans try to watch replays at once, he told the conference crowd that the Niners’ stadium app is going to deliver “HD, slo-mo [replays] within seconds after a big play.”

While other stadiums, like Barclays Center in the NBA, use technologies like Cisco’s StadiumVision Mobile to deliver separate “channels” of live video and replays, Marathe said the Niners’ app will allow fans to choose their own replays and when they want to watch them. “If you have a [replay] channel, you’re subject to whatever is on that channel,” Marathe said.

The food-delivery feature, Marathe said, is more than putting a menu in an app — “it’s an immense industrial engineering exercise,” he said, to figure out things like how many runners are needed and when and how food needs to be prepared. In addition to food delivery — an option he said will be available to every seat in the 68,500-seat stadium — the Niners will also have “express pickup” lanes for digitally placed orders at concession stands, an idea that Marathe said helps eliminate or significantly reduce two of the three things that make concession interactions a time-consuming act.

“There’s decision time, transaction time, and preparation time,” Marathe said. “If you can eliminate two of three variables, that’s a few more minutes fans have to watch the game.” Waiting until fans show up at a stand to prepare the food will help keep the order fresh, he added.

Wayfinding, paperless tickets and the 9-Nerds

If there’s one idea that’s already gotten a lot of press, it’s the plan to have wayfinding technology assist features like the one that will let fans know how long the bathroom lines are. Marathe said the idea was to make it simple — “red light, yellow light, green light” — to let fans know that if they have to go, it might be faster to try the bathroom one section over.

“We’re really just trying to be smart,” said Marathe. Other wayfinding apps might include a parking-spot locator, or a friend-finder feature.

The fourth area where Marathe wants Levi’s to innovate in is paperless ticketing, which he said wouldn’t be 100 percent this year but it will eventually get there. A future scenario described by Marathe might use RFID or near-field communications to let fans simply walk through a gate without having to show a ticket or even a bar code to be scanned. Some ski areas, like Aspen and Vail in Colorado, already use such technology to let skiers get on lifts without having to show anyone their RFID-equipped lift tickets.

“The idea is to have greeters who can actually greet you” when you walk in, and perhaps extend a personal offer for discount goods purchases or seat upgrades, Marathe said. “It’s a more human interaction,” fueled by technology.

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Extreme Networks

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Extreme Networks

Finally, to help fans figure out how to use the new network and apps, Marathe confirmed plans previously reported by Mobile Sports Report to hire a crew of “network coaches” to roam the stands. According to Marathe the coaches will be called “9 Nerds” (say it quickly) and will likely be college students, dressed in what Marathe called “Poindexter outfits.” The Niners are looking to hire 150 such network helpers, which would be the largest such crew we’ve heard of in the stadium networking marketplace.

“They’ll stand out,” Marathe promised.

Lots of network use — and a team ready for its launch

With all the hype about the network, Marathe expects that Levi’s Stadium wireless usage will far eclipse that at other stadiums, where often far fewer than half of the fans in attendance actually ever use things like Wi-Fi or stadium apps.

“Forget 10 percent [fan network use], we’re going to see something higher,” Marathe said. Even people who don’t have digital devices, he said, will probably borrow one “just to bring it to Levi’s to test it out.”

When asked why his team was so confident — in an industry where under-promising seems to be a sensible way to go — Marathe said that both the Silicon Valley heritage and the greenfield nature of the building gives the Niners and Levi’s a technological edge.

“Five years ago, we put together a kind of think tank with VCs and design people, and thought about what would be useful [at a new stadium], well before we ever put a shovel in the ground,” Marathe said. And even though the Niners’ CTO left the team earlier this year, Marathe is confident that his crew of 25 engineers (which he said also still gets some consulting help from the departed CTO, Kunal Malik) will deliver the network and apps as promised.

Having advanced technology in the new stadium, Marathe said, “was our mandate — the DNA of the building is all these tech companies that are around us. It’s who we are.”

Niners’ new network team loses its CTO

Kunal Malik, once a very public spokesperson for the new network being built at Levi’s Stadium, is no longer the chief technology officer for the San Francisco 49ers, according to team executives and Malik’s own LinkedIn profile.

Once the former director of IT at Facebook, Malik was seen as one of the masterminds behind the wireless network being put in at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, which is scheduled to open later this year. In public speaking appearances as well as in a long article in Ars Technica last year, Malik talked often about the team’s desire to build the best stadium wireless network, and how the team was adamant about providing robust Wi-Fi services to every seat in the 68,500-seat stadium.

Now that job will be finished without Malik, whose LinkedIn profile leads off with the line “Former Chief Technology Officer, 49ers.” Malik did not respond to emails or phone messages inquiring about his departure, which apparently happened sometime last month.

Niners vice president for technology Dan Williams, who followed Malik over to the Niners from Facebook, confirmed via email that Malik was no longer the team’s CTO. When asked if Malik’s departure could threaten the network’s buildout, Williams said that Malik had been primarily concerned with the applications to be used at the stadium, while Williams was in charge of network deployment.

“Kunal leaving has little to no impact on the project,” Williams said in an email.

Stadium Tech Report: Comcast says Niners planning for 100 percent fan usage of Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 4.16.18 PMEven as some other sports teams across the country are facing lower than expected usage of their in-stadium wireless networks, the San Francisco 49ers are planning for full capacity use of the Wi-Fi in their new Levi’s Stadium, according to the company supplying the back-end bandwidth.

“Many stadiums plan for 10 to 15 percent [of fans] using the network,” said Mike Tighe, executive director of data services at Comcast Business, in a recent phone interview following the announcement that Comcast would provide some huge pipes — twin 10 Gbps Ethernet fiber lines — as part of its Wi-Fi sponsorship deal with the Niners and Levi’s Stadium. But the Niners, Tighe said, know that their new stadium is a different beast, located smack dab in the middle of super-connected Silicon Valley. As such, Tighe said the team is building a network designed to support a connection from each and every one of the 68,500 possible fans who can fit in the new facility.

“The Niners know the Valley is a tech center, and they are planning for 100 percent of users [on the network],” Tighe said. The new stadium is located south of San Francisco in the city of Santa Clara, the headquarters location of many high-tech companies, whose always-connected workers are expected to be a huge part of the new stadium fan base. Though the team may never truly see 100 percent network use, it is a good bet that Niners’ crowds will be significantly heavier wireless users than the norm. That’s why Comcast is providing the twin 10-gig connections, which Tighe calls “the fattest pipes we offer.”

Comcast’s stadium expertise expanding

Over the last year or so, Comcast has built up an impressive resume of stadium-backhaul deals, with contracts that include bringing business-class services to the stadiums of the Denver Broncos, the Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics, the Washington Nationals and the Oakland Athletics. Comcast, with headquarters in Philadelphia, also supplies bandwidth and Wi-Fi to the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Arena and to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

As providers of the service that eventually connects fans to the Internet, Tighe and Comcast have a front-row seat to the ever-expanding use of mobile devices at stadiums and arenas. One of the selling points of an Ethernet connection is its ability to rapidly scale upward, something Tighe said sports teams are rapidly learning about, especially if the team does well on the playing surface.

The Boston Red Sox, for instance, had a 100 Mbps Comcast connection, but then the team made the playoffs and network demand surged, Tighe said. “The good thing was, we were able to upgrade [the link] to 1 Gig in a week,” he said.

One new twist to wireless networking in stadiums is the need to equally support upload and download traffic, something Tighe said is much different than traditional cellular or wireless deployments, where download traffic was typically as much as five times as big as upload traffic. In stadiums it’s much different as fans spend a lot of time snapping pictures and videos and uploading them to friends or to social media websites.

“People in the stadium are content publishers,” Tighe said.

More stadiums are learning about networking demands

While some stadium tech representatives are still underestimating their potential network capacity needs, Tighe sees a general uptick in the technical knowledge base as more fans arrive with big-screen smartphones and tablets on game days.

“Everyone [in the stadium tech business] is learning and becoming more and more tech-savvy,” Tighe said. “They know people are coming to the stadium with phones and tablets, and expect to view plays from different angles and see replays.”

And when it comes to stadium networks, there may not be a more-anticipated opening than Levi’s, which is scheduled to open its doors to soccer games this summer ahead of the Niners’ season this fall. Tighe is confident that the network — and its backhaul — will change minds as to what is possible in the stadium networking market.

“When people see what the Niners have done it’s going to cause a lot of teams to rethink the fan experience,” Tighe said.