Commentary: Cheer, Cheer for old Wi-Fi

A hoops fan records action during the FInal Four at U.S. Bank Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

News item: Super Bowl 53 sees 24 terabytes of Wi-Fi data used.

Second news item: Final Four weekend sees 31.2 terabytes of Wi-Fi data used.

Even as people across the wireless industry seem ready to dig Wi-Fi’s grave, the view from here is not only is Wi-Fi’s imminent death greatly exaggerated, things may actually be heading in the other direction — Wi-Fi’s last-mile and in-building dominance may just be getting started.

The latest ironic put-down of Wi-Fi came in a recent Wall Street Journal article with the headline of “Cellphone Carriers Envision World Without Wi-Fi,” in which a Verizon executive calls Wi-Fi “rubbish.” While the article itself presents a great amount of facts about why Wi-Fi is already the dominant last-mile wireless carrier (and may just get stronger going forward) the article doesn’t talk at all about the Super Bowl, where Verizon itself basically turned to Wi-Fi to make sure fans at the big game who were Verizon customers could stay connected.

Wi-Fi speedtest from U.S. Bank Stadium during the Final Four championship game.

As readers of MSR know, the performance of the cellular DAS at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta has been a question mark since its inception, and the emergence of competing lawsuits between lead contractor IBM and supplier Corning over its implementation means we may never learn publicly what really happened, and whether or not it was ever fixed. Though stadium tech execs and the NFL said publicly that the DAS was fine for the Super Bowl, Verizon’s actions perhaps spoke much louder — the carrier basically paid extra to secure part of the Wi-Fi network bandwidth for its own customers, and used autoconnect to get as many of its subscribers as it could onto the Wi-Fi network.

While we did learn the Wi-Fi statistics in detail — thanks to the fact that Wi-Fi numbers are controlled by the venue, not the carriers — it’s interesting to note that none of the four top cellular providers in the U.S. would give MSR a figure of how much cellular traffic they each saw in the stadium on Super Sunday. For the record, stadium officials said they saw 12.1 TB of data used on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium DAS on Super Bowl Sunday, a figure that represents the total traffic from all four carriers combined. But how that pie was split up will likely forever remain a mystery.

AT&T did provide a figure of 23.5 TB for Super Bowl traffic inside the venue as well as in a 2-mile radius around the stadium, and Sprint provided a figure (25 TB) but put even a less-measurable geographic boundary on it, meaning Sprint could have basically been reporting all traffic it saw anywhere inside the greater Atlanta city limits. Verizon and T-Mobile, meanwhile, both refused to report any Super Bowl cellular statistics at all.

An under-seat Wi-Fi AP placement in the end zone seating at the Final Four.

Verizon also did not reply to a question about how much traffic it saw on the Verizon-specific Wi-Fi SSID inside the venue. While we get the marketing reasons for not reporting disappointing stats (why willingly report numbers that make you look bad?), it seems disingenious at best for one Verizon executive (Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and president of Verizon Wireless) to call Wi-Fi “rubbish” when another part of the company is relying heavily on that same rubbish technology to make sure its customers can stay connected when the cellular network can’t keep up. One man’s trash, I guess, is another division’s treasure.

Wi-Fi 6 and more spectrum on the way

For venue owners and operators, the next few years are likely going to be filled with plenty of misinformation regarding the future of wireless. The big carriers, who pull in billions each quarter in revenue, are staking their near-term future on 5G, a label for a confusing mix of technologies and spectrum chunks that is unlikely to be cleared up anytime soon. Unlike the celluar industry change from 3G to 4G — a relatively straightforward progression to a new and unified type of technology — the change to 5G has already seen carriers willing to slap the marketing label on a different number of implementations, which bodes many headaches ahead for those in the venue space who have to figure out what will work best for their buildings and open spaces.

There’s also the imminent emergence of networks that will use the CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz, which will support communications using the same LTE technology used for 4G cellular. Though CBRS has its own challenges and hurdles to implementation, because it is backed by carriers and the carrier equipment-supply ecosystem, you can expect a blitz of 5G-type marketing to fuel its hype, with poor old Wi-Fi often the target for replacement.

While the Wi-Fi Alliance and other industry groups rallying around Wi-Fi might seem like the Rebel Alliance against a First Order dreadnought, if I’ve learned anything in my career of technology reporting it’s that you should never bet against open standards. I’ve been around long enough to see seemingly invincible empires based on proprietary schemes collapse and disappear under the relentless power of open systems and standards — like Ethernet vs. DEC or IBM networking protocols, and TCP/IP vs. Novell — to count out Wi-Fi in a battle, even against the cellular giants. In fact, with the improvements that are part of Wi-Fi 6 — known also as 802.11ax in the former parlance — Wi-Fi is supposed to eventually become more like LTE, with more secure connections and a better ability to support a roaming connection and the ability to connect more clients per access point. What happens then if LTE’s advantages go away?

With Wi-Fi 6 gear only now starting to arrive in the marketplace, proof still needs to be found that such claims can work in the real world, especially in the demanding and special-case world of wireless inside venues. But the same hurdles (and maybe even more) exist for CBRS and 5G technologies, with big unanswered questions about device support and the need for numerous amounts of antennas that are usually ignored in the “5G will take over the world soon” hype stories. I’d also add to that mix my wonder about where the time and talent will come from to install a whole bunch of new technologies that will require new learning curves; meanwhile, as far as I can tell the companies supporting Wi-Fi continue to add technology pros at ever-growing user and education conferences.

So as we ready for the inevitable challenge of sifting through cellular FUD and hype let’s have a cheer for good old Wi-Fi — for now the champion of the biggest data-demand days in venues, and maybe the leader for years to come.

New Report: Record Wi-Fi at Super Bowl 53, and Wi-Fi and DAS for Colorado’s Folsom Field

MOBILE SPORTS REPORT is pleased to announce the Spring 2019 issue of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series, the ONLY in-depth publication created specifically for the stadium technology professional and the stadium technology marketplace.

Our string of historical in-depth profiles of successful stadium technology deployments continues with reports from the record-setting Wi-Fi day at Super Bowl 53, a look at the network performance at Little Caesars Arena, plans for Wi-Fi and DAS at the University of Colorado and more! Download your FREE copy today!

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Mobilitie, JMA Wireless, Corning, Boingo, MatSing, and Cox Business/Hospitality Network. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our ongoing partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank the SEAT community for your continued interest and support.

Mercedes-Benz Wi-Fi (and DAS) ready for Super Bowl LIII

Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s Wi-Fi network is ready for its moment in the Super Bowl sun. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

With less than two weeks to go before Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosts Super Bowl LIII, there’s no longer any doubt that the venue’s Wi-Fi network should be ready for what is historically the biggest Wi-Fi traffic day of the year.

Oh, and that DAS network you were wondering about? It should be fine too, but more on that later. On a recent game-day visit to the still-new roost of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons (and the latest MLS champions, Atlanta United), Mobile Sports Report found that the stadium’s Wi-Fi network, using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise company, in a design by AmpThink for lead technology provider IBM, was strong on all levels of the venue, including some hard-to-reach spots in the building’s unique layout.

And in our game-day interview with Danny Branch, chief information officer for AMB Sports & Entertainment, we also finally got some statistics about Wi-Fi performance that should put any Super Bowl capacity fears to rest. According to Branch, Mercedes-Benz Stadium saw 12 terabytes of Wi-Fi used during the College Football Playoff Championship Game on Jan. 8, 2018, the second-highest single-game Wi-Fi total we’ve seen, beaten only by the 16.31 TB recorded at Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“We’re confident, and we’re ready for the Super Bowl,” said Branch about his stadium’s network preparedness, during an interview before the Dec. 2 Falcons home game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens. The night before our talk, Mercedes-Benz Stadium had hosted the SEC Championship Game, where a classic comeback by Alabama netted the Tide a 35-28 win over Georgia, while fans packing the stadium used another 8.06 TB of Wi-Fi data, according to Branch.

Along with lawsuit, DAS gets 700 new antennas

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the new game-day digital fan engagement strategy at Texas A&M, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at the renovated State Farm Arena in Atlanta! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

An under-seat DAS antenna in the 300 seating section at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The Wi-Fi totals revealed by Branch were the first such statistics reported by Mercedes-Benz Stadium since its opening in August of 2017. While initially the lack of reports of any kind last fall were thought to have been just some kind of Southern modesty, MSR had been hearing back-channel industry questions about the wireless coverage in the venue since its opening, particularly with the performance of the DAS network.

Those whispers finally became public when IBM filed a lawsuit on Oct. 31 in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, alleging that subcontractor Corning had failed to deliver a working DAS. In its lawsuit complaints IBM said that the DAS had not worked correctly throughout 2017, and that IBM had to spend large amounts of money to fix it. Corning has since countered with its own legal claims, asking IBM’s claims to be dismissed.

While that battle is now left to the lawyers, inside the stadium, Branch said in December that the DAS was getting its final tuning ahead of the Super Bowl. In addition to (or as part of) the IBM DAS improvements, Branch said that an additional 700 under-seat DAS antennas have been installed in the seating bowl. In our walk-around review during the Falcons’ game, MSR noticed multiple DAS antenna placements that seemed to be new since our last visit in August of 2017, during the stadium’s press day.

“IBM addressed the DAS issues, and we’re in a good place,” said Branch. The NFL’s CIO, Michelle McKenna, also gave her office’s approval of the readiness of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium networks in a separate phone interview. And MSR even got to witness a live opening of the stadium’s unique camera-shutter roof, another technology that ran into some bugs during football season last year but now appears to be solved.

Selfies and speedtests

So how do the networks perform at a live event? The short answer is, on the Wi-Fi side we saw steady speeds wherever we tested, typically in a range between 20 Mbps on the low side to 60+ Mbps on the high side, for both download and upload speeds. On the DAS side, our Verizon network phone saw a wide range of speed results, from some single-digit marks all the way up to 99 Mbps in one location; so perhaps the best answer is that on cellular, your speedtest may vary, but you will most likely always have a strong enough signal to do just about any task you might want to at a stadium, even on Super Sunday. All four major wireless carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, use the Mercedes-Benz Stadium DAS. And you can also expect all the major carriers to beef up local bandwidth with a combination of permanent and temporary upgrades, to ensure good connectivity throughout downtown Atlanta during Super Bowl week. Sprint and AT&T have already made announcements about their local upgrades, and we are sure Verizon and T-Mobile will follow suit with announcements soon.

The iconic ‘halo board’ video screen below the unique roof opening at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Though we didn’t get any tests during the brief on-field part of our tour, Branch did point out some Wi-Fi APs on the sidelines for media access. Mercedes-Benz Stadium also now has a pair of MatSing ball antennas perched way up near the roof openings, to help with cellular coverage down to the sidelines.

MSR started our speedtest tour in the place where most Falcons fans probably pull out their phones, in front of the metal falcon structure outside the main entry gate. Even with digital ticketing activities taking place close by and groups of fans taking selfies in front of the bird, we still got a high Wi-Fi test of 35.8 Mbps on the download side and 41.6 Mbps on the upload. On cellular our top speeds in the same area were 3.94 Mbps / 17.2 Mbps.

Just inside the stadium doors from the Falcon is what the team calls the stadium’s “front porch,” an extended concourse with a clear view down to the field. On the Sunday we visited there was a stage with a DJ and rapping crew providing pregame entertainment, in front of two of the stadium’s more distinctive Daktronics digital displays, the 101-foot-tall “Mega Column” and the 26-foot-tall (at its highest point) triangular “Feather Wall” display, which frame part of the porch.

In the middle of a slowly moving crowd that was taking selfies in multiple directions, MSR still got good connectivity, with Wi-Fi speeds of 22.4 Mbps / 12.3 Mbps, and a cellular mark of 5.38 Mbps / 12.0 Mbps. As far as we could see, the wide-open space was being served by antennas mounted on walls on two sides of the opening.

Bridges, nosebleeds and concourses

Looking for some tough-to-cover spots, we next headed to one of the two “sky bridges,” narrow walkways that connect over the main entry on both the 200 and 300 seating levels. Out in the exact middle of the 200-level sky bridge we still got a Wi-Fi test of 14.6 Mbps / 8.19 Mbps; celluar checked in at 4.07 Mbps / 4.59 Mbps.

For some more fan-friendly speeds we wandered in front of the nearby concourse watering hole, the Cutwater Spirits bar, where our Wi-Fi signal tested at 35.8 Mbps / 42.4 Mbps, and the DAS signal (directly in front of an antenna mounted above the concourse) reached 99.2 Mbps / 25.4 Mbps even with heavy foot traffic coming by.

The roof opens at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Right before kickoff, we wandered into the top sections of the Falcons’ new roost, where about halfway up in section 310 (near the 50-yard line) we got Wi-Fi speeds of 11.6 Mbps / 1.86 Mbps, and cellular speeds of 13.1 Mbps / 2.50 Mbps, during the height of the on-field pregame festivities. In that section and in others we walked around to, many fans were busy with phones during pregame, with many watching live video.

One interesting technology note: The stadium’s unique Daktronics halo video board, a 58-foot-high screen that circles around underneath the roof, is partially obscured in the uppermost sideline seats. But that’s pretty much the only place you aren’t wowed by the screen’s spectacle, which from most of the rest of the stadium offers multiple-screen views no matter where you are looking up from.

One final speedtest on the 300-level concourse saw the Wi-Fi speeds at 35.8 Mbps / 38.2 Mbps, while another one of those new-looking DAS antennas gave us a speed test of 77.0 Mbps / 21.4 Mbps. During the third quarter we visited the AT&T Perch, a section above the end zone area opposite of the entry porch where there are large displays with multiple TV screens and even some recliner-type chairs where fans can get their other-game viewing on while inside the arena. Wi-Fi in the Perch tested at 42.1 Mbps / 61.0 Mbps.

Fans are finding the Wi-Fi

Though we haven’t yet seen any more detailed network use statistics, like unique game-day connections or peak concurrent connections for any events, Branch said fans are definitely finding the network. Sponsored by AT&T with an “ATTWifi” SSID, there is no landing page or portal for the network asking for any information — once fans find the network and connect, they’re on.

This type of personal assistance might be even more needed at the Super Bowl.

“In the first year we didn’t promote it [the Wi-Fi] heavily, because we were making sure everything worked well,” Branch said. But this year, he said the team has been promoting the network in emails to season ticket holders, and with video board messages on game days. At a high school football weekend this past fall, Branch said the Falcons saw 75 percent of attendees connect to the Wi-Fi network.

“AmpThink and Aruba did a really good job” on the Wi-Fi network, Branch said. “I love it when my friends tell me how fast the Wi-Fi is.”

By adding solid wireless connectivity to the host of other amenities found inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium — including fan-friendly food and drink prices that are simply the lowest you’ll see anywhere — Branch said he felt like the Falcons’ ownership had succeeded in creating a venue that was “an experience,” where fans would want to come inside instead of tailgating until the last minute.

With the Super Bowl looming on the horizon, Branch knows there’s still no rest until the game is over, with new challenges ahead. The Sunday we visited, the Falcons debuted a new footbridge over the road outside the back-door Gate 1 entry, and Branch knows there will be networking challenges to make sure fans can still connect when the NFL erects its Super Bowl security perimeter far out from the actual stadium doors.

“Our motto is be prepared for anything,” said Branch, noting that there is really no template or historical model for a building unique as Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re changing tires on a car going 100 miles per hour,” Branch said, only partially in jest. “But we’re confident we’ll be ready for the Super Bowl.”

The metal falcon is selfie central for visitors new and old

Wi-Fi and DAS antennas cover the ‘front porch’ landing area inside the main entry

Under-seat Wi-Fi AP enclosure

A shadowy look at one of the MatSing ball antennas in the rafters

The gear behind the under-seat DAS deployments

The view toward downtown