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.

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.”

Final Four final score: 17.6 TB (at least) of wireless data used at University of Phoenix Stadium

We finally have the Wi-Fi numbers from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Final Four weekend at the University of Phoenix Stadium, and they are big — a total of 11.2 terabytes of data used during the two days of competition, according to the stadium network crews running the operations for the NCAA. Combined with AT&T’s reported DAS total of 6.4 TB, that means the total wireless usage so far is at least 17.6 TB — and that’s not including DAS numbers from Verizon Wireless, Sprint or T-Mobile, which if we had them would probably push the total far higher.

Just on the Wi-Fi side of things, the Saturday semifinal games this year produced enough single-day traffic (6.3 TB) to sneak into our unofficial Top 5 list for Wi-Fi events, barely edging Super Bowl XLIX, which saw 6.2 TB of traffic in the same building a couple years earlier. Granted, the Final Four has more fans in attendance and more time with two games compared to one, but it’s still a sign (to us, anyway) that wireless use by fans at big games of all types is continuing to grow. (It’s cool to see the comparison between a Super Bowl and a Final Four in the same venue, as well. Looks like the network operators there keep improving from big game to big game.)

According to the network stats provided to us, the Final Four crowd on Saturday saw 38,520 unique users connected to the Wi-Fi at some point, with a max concurrent user total of 20,675. On Monday night’s championship game, those numbers were 31,458 uniques and 19,861 max concurrent users. Attendance for the two sessions was 77,612 for Saturday’s semifinals and 76,168 for Monday’s championship, which were both second-highest ever numbers, according to a cool NCAA infographic that has some more stats on TV and internet viewership.

See you next year in San Antonio, NCAA… to see if the connectivity pace keeps increasing!

THE NEW TOP 8 FOR WI-FI

1. Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium, Houston, Feb. 5, 2017: Wi-Fi: 11.8 TB
2. Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 7, 2016: Wi-Fi: 10.1 TB
3. Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys, Divisional Playoffs, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, Jan. 15, 2017: Wi-Fi: 7.25 TB
4. WrestleMania 32, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, April 3, 2016: Wi-Fi: 6.77 TB
5. NCAA Men’s Final Four, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., April 1, 2017: Wi-Fi: 6.3 TB
6. Super Bowl 49, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 1, 2015: Wi-Fi: 6.23 TB
7. Alabama vs. Texas A&M, Kyle Field, College Station, Texas, Oct. 17, 2015: Wi-Fi: 5.7 TB
8. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots, AFC Championship Game, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Jan. 22, 2017: Wi-Fi: 5.11 TB

New Report: New Wi-Fi, app and digital displays for San Jose Sharks’ SAP Center

MOBILE SPORTS REPORT is pleased to announce the Spring 2017 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 profiles for this issue include a first-look visit to the San Jose Sharks’ newly wired SAP Center, where a Cisco Wi-Fi and StadiumVision network (deployed by AmpThink) has brought high-definition connectivity to the old familiar “Shark Tank.” We also have a profile of new DAS and Wi-Fi deployments at the Utah Jazz’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, as well as a recap of the wireless record-setting day at Super Bowl LI at Houston’s NRG Stadium. Plus, our first “Industry Voices” contribution, a great look at the history and progression of Wi-Fi stadium networks from AmpThink’s Bill Anderson. DOWNLOAD YOUR COPY today!

We’d also like to invite you to join in our first-ever “live interview” webinar, which will take place next Tuesday at 11 a.m. Pacific Time, 2 p.m. Eastern time. All the details are here, so register now and listen in next week for more in-depth views from Vivint Smart Home Arena, and their technology partners, Boingo and SOLiD.

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this Stadium Tech Report issue include Mobilitie, Crown Castle, SOLiD, CommScope, Corning, Huber+Suhner, American Tower, and Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome new readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our new partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank our growing list of repeat readers for your continued interest and support.

Super Bowl LI Wi-Fi sees drop in average per-fan use total

Under seat Wi-Fi APs visible down seating row at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

Under seat Wi-Fi APs visible down seating row at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

While Super Bowl LI in Houston set records for most total Wi-Fi used in a single day event, the actual amount of average Wi-Fi data used per connected fan actually dropped from the previous year’s game, from about 370 megabytes per user at Super Bowl 50 to about 333 MB per user for Super Bowl 51.

Using official totals provided by the NFL’s official analytics provider, Extreme Networks, there was a total of 11.8 TB of data used on the Wi-Fi network at NRG Stadium in Houston during Super Bowl 51, compared to 10.1 TB used during Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

While the total Wi-Fi data number represents approximately a 17 percent increase from Super Bowl 50 to Super Bowl 51, the most recent game had 35,430 users who connected at least once to the network, an almost 30 percent leap from Super Bowl 50’s 27,316 unique users. So while Super Bowl 51 had more unique users (and more peak concurrent users as well) and a higher data total, the average amount of data used per connected fan decreased, from about 370 MB per user to about 333 MB per user.

Data for Super Bowls in years past is thin (mainly because stadium Wi-Fi didn’t really exist), but it’s certainly the first time in very recent history that the per-user average has dropped from one Super Bowl to the next. Super Bowl 49, held at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., saw a total of 6.23 TB of Wi-Fi used, with 25,936 unique users, for a per-user average total of 240 MB. We don’t have any stats for unique users at Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium, but with the total Wi-Fi used there at 3.2 TB the average was also presumably much lower as well, unless there were also 50 percent fewer connected users.

Did autoconnect drop the average?

Wi-Fi gear visible above concourse kiosk at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

Wi-Fi gear visible above concourse kiosk at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

The drop in per-user average data for Wi-Fi is curious when compared to the huge leap in overall DAS stats for the last two Super Bowls, with Super Bowl 51 checking in at 25.8 TB of data, a figure that does not include statistics from T-Mobile, which is declining to report its data total from the game. At Super Bowl 50, all four top wireless carriers combined saw 15.9 TB, so the total for Super Bowl 51 is about 62 percent higher — and if you add in the estimated 3-4 TB that was likely recorded by T-Mobile, that leap is even bigger.

Unfortunately cellular carriers do not provide the exact number of connected users, so there is no per-user average data total available. It would be interesting to know if the expanded DAS preparations made at Super Bowl 50 and at Super Bowl 51 actually connected more total users, or allowed users to use more data per user. We have a request with Verizon for more stats, but it may be a long wait.

One theory we have here at MSR is that it’s possible that a large number of autoconnected devices may have increased the unique-user total while not necessarily adding to the overall Wi-Fi data-used total. In our reporting about the NRG Stadium network we noted that Verizon, which helped pay for the Wi-Fi deployment, had reserved 40 percent of the Wi-Fi capacity for its customers, many of whom could have been autoconnected to the network even without them knowing. We have asked both Extreme and Verizon for a breakdown on Verizon users vs. other wireless customer users on the Wi-Fi network, but have not yet received a response.