T-Mobile steps up stadium DAS participation, ahead of 5G future

DAS gear at Kauffman Stadium. Credit: ADRF video

T-Mobile has stepped up its participation in stadium DAS deployments recently, ahead of what the wireless carrier sees as an eventual shift to 5G technologies sometime in the near future.

Recent news announcements of T-Mobile being the first carrier to participate in the new forthcoming distributed antenna system (DAS) at Wrigley Field, as well as joining DAS deployments at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field and Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium are proof that T-Mobile is making up for lost ground in the stadium cellular deployment arena.

“It’s a catch-up play, to some degree,” said Dave Mayo, senior vice president of network technology at T-Mobile. While Mayo spent most of a recent phone interview with Mobile Sports Report talking about the promise of future 5G cellular technologies, he did acknowledge that T-Mobile was more aggressively pursuing DAS deals in the moment, to make sure T-Mobile customers could connect when they were at large public venues.

“When they get to the venue, customers expect to be able to post to Instagram and Facebook,” Mayo said. “It’s table stakes.”

In Chicago, the world champion Cubs are looking to 2018 for the arrival of their renovated Wi-Fi and DAS infrastructure. According to DAS deployer DAS Group Professionals, T-Mobile is the first of the cellular carriers to sign on to the neutral-host system.

At the Kansas City Royals’ Kauffman Stadium, the new DAS built by Advanced RF Technologies Inc. (ADRF) and Sprint in 2015 will welcome T-Mobile to the system this month, with AT&T and Verizon Wireless expected to join sometime later this year, according to ADRF. And earlier this year, Texas A&M announced a $3.5 million deal for T-Mobile to join the DAS at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, which previously had AT&T and Verizon as participants.

Looking ahead to 5G

But even as T-Mobile announces its participation in traditional DAS deployment deals — where other carriers or third-party operators may be in charge — Mayo said venues need to rethink their cellular strategies for the coming of 5G, a still loosely-defined set of technologies that will nevertheless be much different than the current standard of 4G LTE.

“5G is going to become available in the next 2 to 3 years, so now is the time to start thinking about this,” Mayo said. With much different transmission frequencies in the millimeter wave zones, the idea is that 5G could theoretically support much higher data rates than current cellular technology. The one drawback of higher-range frequencies, that being shorter distance ranges for signals, may not be a big problem in stadiums since antennas are usually placed closer together than those in other environments.

How the DAS model will or will not translate to a 5G future is a topic already widely talked about in industry circles, and Mayo said current deployment agreements may not work well going forward.

“The whole [deployment] model has to change,” Mayo said. “And the time to start changing that is now.”

T-Mobile joins DAS at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field

Corning ONE DAS headend equipment at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field deployment

The DAS network at Texas A&M University’s Kyle Field will now support T-Mobile cellular customers, according to an announcement from the school.

According to Texas A&M, T-Mobile will pay $3.5 million to have its signals carried on the DAS inside the 102,512-seat Kyle Field. Previously, AT&T and Verizon Wireless had paid $5 million each to be the first carriers on the stadium’s new DAS, which was installed ahead of the 2015 football season as part of a network deployment that cost north of $20 million according to school officials.

The network, one of the highest-performing deployments in U.S. sports stadiums, saw an 8.2 terabyte traffic day for a game this past season against Tennessee, with 3.8 TB of that traffic on the DAS network.

Sprint sees 797 GB at college playoff title game; will have separate DAS for Super Bowl

Ready for the playoffs and Super Bowl! Credit: 5 Bars

Ready for the playoffs and Super Bowl! Credit: 5 Bars

More results from fan wireless usage at the recent College Football Playoff championship game is trickling in, with Sprint claiming it saw 797 gigabytes of data traffic from its sites in and around Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

Added to the 3.8 TB reported by AT&T on its networks, we now have a running total of approximately 4.6 TB of DAS usage for the Jan. 9 game between Clemson and Alabama, which Clemson won 35-31 on a last-second TD. We are still waiting for reports from Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, so stay tuned.

We also have yet to receive any reports of Wi-Fi traffic from Raymond James Stadium officials, so it’s still undetermined how “big” of a wireless event the college championship game was this year. In the past two years, the CFP championship was among the top Wi-Fi single-day usage totals, but so far the Raymond James Stadium folks haven’t responded to any calls or emails requesting information. Anyone who was at the game who wants to comment on the Wi-Fi performance, feel free to jump in to the comments below.

Sprint on its own DAS at NRG Stadium

We also learned from Sprint and from NRG Stadium officials that Sprint will be on its own DAS and small cell network for the Super Bowl, and not on the new Verizon DAS that was installed last year. In a Sprint blog post the company said it saw 637 GB of data on its NRG Stadium network for a December Houston Texans game, ahead of what it saw on its networks during last year’s Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

According to David Moore, manager of information services for NRG Park, Sprint installed the original DAS in the venue, ahead of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. AT&T and Verizon “migrated” to the new Verizon DAS last season, and T-Mobile will also be on the Verizon DAS, according to Moore.

Will cellular carrier aggregation matter in stadium networks?

Kauffman Stadium during 2015 World Series

Kauffman Stadium during 2015 World Series

Over the past few days, both Sprint and Verizon Wireless have made announcements about a technique called “carrier aggregation” (CA for short) for LTE cell networks that basically bonds together different frequency channels to bring more bandwidth to a mobile device. Though the premise sounds great, what we here at MSR HQ haven’t been able to ascertain yet is whether or not this technique will help solve the biggest problem in stadium network situations, namely providing enough capacity for users on the networks installed there.

Sprint has made the most noise this week, with claims of CA demonstrations at Soldier Field in Chicago and Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium that (they said) showed Sprint devices bonding three different frequency channels to hit download speeds of 230 Mbps, a score way off the charts for any existing stadium networks. (The fastest Wi-Fi and cellular speeds we’ve seen in our short history of stadium tests, by comparison, are in the 60 Mpbs range.) Verizon made a similar announcement about CA being put in across its network, without specifying if the service would be available in stadiums. Other carriers, including AT&T and T-Mobile, are also exploring use of the CA technique. At the very least, some lucky users with newer devices may see leaps in performance thanks to CA deployments, a good thing on any level.

But our bigger question — which hasn’t been answered in the press releases and hasn’t (yet) been answered in email questions to Sprint or Verizon — is whether or not CA will help with overall network capacity, which to us seems to be a more pressing problem at most stadiums as opposed to simple download speeds. I mean, demos are great and it’s cool to see what the upper limits are for one device; but it’d be more impressive if Sprint could guarantee that 230 Mbps mark to every device in the park, should everyone there have a Sprint phone with the capability to perform the CA trick (not all devices in the market today can do so).

Finally using the Clearwire spectrum

What’s also not completely revealed in the press releases is what kind of gear is necessary on the back end of the network to make CA work, and whether or not it makes economic sense to have that gear placed inside stadiums to enable the technique for as many fans as possible. While we understand the basic premise probably better than most (since in a former life yours truly spent several years following and analyzing the Clearwire spectrum holdings at 2.5 GHz) it’s not clear if CA solves any congestion problems, especially for carriers other than Sprint, who only have a limited amount of licensed spectrum in each market they serve.

(Without getting too deep into spectrum geekiness, Sprint on paper probably has more room to grow in the CA space since its 2.5 GHz holdings dwarf other carriers’ licensed bands; but to make use of that spectrum, you need customers with devices that can use that spectrum, and enough cash for a wide network buildout, both of which Sprint may be challenged to find.)

As we understand CA, by bonding channels you can make one device faster since it has more aggregate bandwidth to work with. But it’s not clear that using CA in a stadium environment would make the overall situation any faster than say, three phones using single channels by themselves. Also, since you can’t create new bandwidth, if one phone starts tapping three different channels doesn’t that actually leave less room for other devices that may want to also use those channels? Perhaps with CA the connections would be faster and wouldn’t last as long, thereby freeing up spectrum for other devices; again, there’s not a lot of information yet on the capacity side of the equation, especially in crowded stadiums or at big events where bandwidth needs escalate. If there are any cellular wizards in the audience with more knowledge of the situation, feel free to chime in.

We did get an email response from our old friend John Saw, formerly of Clearwire and now chief technical officer at Sprint. Here’s his explanation of why CA is a good thing for stadiums:

Essentially, sites with bonded channels will drive higher capacities. This will be especially timely and helpful in crowded spaces like Soldier Field where there are surges in capacity demand during live sporting events. Sprint customers with CA enabled phones will enjoy 2X (in the case of 2CA) or 3X (in the case of 3CA) their download speeds, which means that they will get a better data experience with a bigger pipe. But wait – CA will lift all boats and it will also benefit those Sprint customers who have not upgraded to CA enabled phones yet. While they may not enjoy the higher peak speeds enabled by CA phones, their phones will have access to more network resources which means they will also have a better data experience, with no stalling or without that dreaded “windmill effect” in a crowded stadium.

I kind of understand what Saw is talking about here, but I am still having a problem with the math that says all boats will be lifted through the use of CA. Plus, experience and interviews have taught us that across the country, Sprint is behind Verizon and AT&T when it comes to DAS deployments inside stadiums; and, it’s not clear (and hasn’t been answered) whether or not CA can work over a neutral-host DAS deployment where carriers share antennas and other infrastructure.

From an industry-wide standpoint, CA seems like a great thing for all cell phone users since as it progresses devices should be able to utilize whatever bandwidth is around to make performance better. It’s also good to see more technology advancements made on the network side of things, since infrastructure needs all the help it can get to keep up with devices. But right now, we’re not sure if CA is the answer to any of the capacity problems stadium network operators face. Anyone with views that can expand the explanation, feel free to hit the comments section below or send me an email to kaps at mobilesportsreport.com.

T-Mobile Arena opens in Las Vegas, with 565 Wi-FI APs

T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, on the official April 6 opening. All photos: Cox Business (click on any photo for a larger image)

T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, on the official April 6 opening. All photos: Cox Business (click on any photo for a larger image)

If they build it, will professional hockey or basketball teams come? The first part of that question has already been answered, with the official opening of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on April 6, just in time for a kickoff concert from the Killers. With 565 Cisco Wi-Fi access points, the arena is well-enabled for wireless access; the big question is, will an NHL or NBA team soon call the place home?

With no deal announced for either league it’s an open-ended question. For now, the 20,000-seat venue, located just west of the strip near the New York New York hotel/casino (right next to the freeway) will have to be satisfied hosting all kinds of events from concerts to one-off sports events like the Harlem Globetrotters (April 19) and a WWE event in June. Fans at any event will be able to use free Wi-Fi provided by Cox Business, which is the “exclusive Technology Integration/Telecommunications Services Provider,” according to a press release from the official opening ceremonies.

While we haven’t visited the arena yet — we are looking forward to a hosted tour during this summer’s SEAT Conference in July — the $375 million multi-purpose venue, owned by a joint venture between AEG and MGM Resorts International, looks pretty cool with its overhanging lounges and outdoor plaza with real, live trees, a rarity on the strip. Inside, the tech underpinnings sound state of the art, beginning with a 10-Gigabit fiber optic network that serves as the arena’s backbone.

Special shrouds for the Wi-Fi APs

Custom shroud for Wi-Fi APs at T-Mobile Arena

Custom shroud for Wi-Fi APs at T-Mobile Arena

According to figures provided to us by Cox Business folks, the 565 Wi-FI APs include a mix of indoor and outdoor models from Cisco, some designed for office-type settings and some designed to withstand outdoor temperatures and weather. According to Cox its on-site engineers also designed a “vanity cover” type of shroud, which is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye while also helping keep the AP safe from “disruptions,” like possibly being bumped or some other physical intrusion.

The arena will also use Cisco’s StadiumVision system to provide synchronized content feeds to the 767 4K-capable digital displays throughout the venue. Thanks to the Cox sponsorship, that content could include “all 60 channels of high-definition news, sports and entertainment content from the Cox cable channel lineup as well as live in-house feeds from the arena,” according to Cox.

We have also heard reports, but have not confirmed with the company, that Mobilitie will be providing the in-venue DAS. Mobilitie’s involvement is not a big surprise, given that the company partnered with MGM in the past to bring Wi-Fi to the resort company’s casinos. Back when the T-Mobile naming sponsorship was announced, there were reports of special discounts and VIP access for T-Mobile customers, but so far none of that information was easily discovered on the arena’s website. Stay tuned for more updates as we get them on the DAS/cellular side of things; anyone who visits the arena soon should take a speedtest and post the results here in the comments.

Jeff Breaux, vice president of western operations, Cox Business, (left) and Derrick R. Hill, vice president, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, gesture toward the exterior digital signage at T-Mobile Arena.

Jeff Breaux, vice president of western operations, Cox Business, (left) and Derrick R. Hill, vice president, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, gesture toward the exterior digital signage at T-Mobile Arena.

T-Mobile buys naming rights to new MGM/AEG Las Vegas arena

Artist rendering of T-Mobile name across top of new Las Vegas Arena.

Artist rendering of T-Mobile name across top of new Las Vegas Arena.

The new 20,000-seat arena being built by MGM and AEG on the Las Vegas strip now has a title name — the T-Mobile Arena, thanks to a naming sponsorship bought by the wireless carrier for an undisclosed amount.

Set to open in April, the new multi-purpose arena will be draped in the familiar magenta hues of T-Mobile branding and also offer “unique benefits” for T-Mobile customers who attend events there, including unspecified “VIP” fast-track entrances and early notification of ticket sales. Alan Snel of the Las Vegas Review-Journal estimates that the rights fees are probably in the near-$6 million per year range, with a deal length of 10 years.

What’s unclear is whether or not the “un-carrier” will actually have any hand in the wireless deployments inside the venue, since the deal for backbone bandwidth and Wi-Fi for the Vegas arena was given to Cox Communications back in December. Among the stadiums we’ve reviewed over the past few years, T-Mobile has trailed other cellular providers in joining stadium DAS networks but it’s a good bet that T-Mobile will act differently in the first sports venue to carry its name.

On our quick trip to Vegas for CES we didn’t see the stadium, but that was because we were looking in the wrong place — it’s not being built next to the MGM but across the strip and somewhat behind New York New York, according to pictures of the building on the new arena website. More as we learn more…

T-Mobile Arena under construction in Las Vegas. All images: T-Mobile Arena.

T-Mobile Arena under construction in Las Vegas. All images: T-Mobile Arena.