Strong showing for Wi-Fi network at SunTrust Park

The Atlanta Braves’ new home, SunTrust Park. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

After speaking with the Atlanta Braves via phone about their new home, SunTrust Park, we couldn’t wait for our recent visit to Atlanta for the SEAT 2017 Conference. Thanks to a personal tour hosted by Greg Gatti, senior director of information technology for the Braves, Mobile Sports Report got an up-close look at not just the new park’s excellent wireless networks but also its impressive innovations in seating spaces and other amenities that should keep Braves fans and visitors (like the numerous Cubs fans in attendance this week) happy for the foreseeable future.

Any doubts about whether the network reports were too optimistic were quickly laid to rest the first moment we took a Wi-Fi speedtest. While waiting outside the main right-field gate of SunTrust we got a Wi-Fi speed reading of 96 Mbps on the download and 136 Mbps for the upload, a level of connectivity we would see often during our visit. In addition to the ballpark the Braves also built the surrounding mixed-use neighborhood, called The Battery Atlanta, a mix of office space, mall-like retail and residences, a sort of instant neighborhood with superb connectivity at its core.

Both before and after our stadium tour MSR walked around the Battery, getting speed tests anywhere between 40 Mbps and 140 Mbps, depending usually how close you were to any of the numerous Wi-Fi APs mounted on buildings along the streets, walkways and public areas like the Braves fountain or on balconies of the close-by sports bars.

Yes it is, in great force

Having such good connectivity made tasks like getting an Uber ride a snap, since the Wi-Fi coverage extended out from the ballpark exits through the Battery streets to the designated Uber pickup zone.

Inside the park, Gatti first showed us (through a glass door) the Braves’ new data center room, which reminded us of the similar facility at the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center. If there’s any commonality for new stadium builds, it’s that the geeks usually get a nice, clean, efficient looking room for their gear instead of some dusty concrete dungeon in the venue basement. And though we’re not network engineers here at MSR on our walk around the visible AP mounts and other equipment installs looked sharp, well constructed and smartly hidden, placed when possible out of the normal fan’s line of sight.

Instead of listing all the speed tests we took I will simply say that in almost all places the speeds we saw were between a low of 62.29 Mbps / 65.84 Mbps (taken in the Home Depot balcony club area above the left-field bleachers) and a high of 88.17 / 101.54, in the upper deck seats along the right field line. A quick test of the Verizon Wireless DAS saw a reading of 106.36 / 25.18 in the upper deck concourse behind home plate; we didn’t have an AT&T phone with us so more thorough DAS testing will have to wait for another day.

A good look through the glass doors of the data center

Beer coolers a ‘cool’ idea

On beyond connectivity, the Braves clearly kept technology in the forefront when they made other innovations throughout the park. One that resonated with us were the electronic beer coolers we saw in several premium seating areas. Basically, these are cup-holder holes cut into a countertop with coolers inside, which keep your beer ice-cold when you’re not holding the cup.

The IPTV operations at the park were also impressive, from the tablet-based TV controls in suites (software provided by YinzCam) to the touchscreen directory kiosks in The Battery. For some of the premium seats right behind home plate, there are interactive televisions mounted between seats; another new premium area just above the first bowl of seats behind home plate has tables with four high-top chairs, which are sold as sort of very-small suites. The tables have a small TV in the middle which can be used to watch programming as well as to order food and drink to be delivered in club-seating fashion.

Several other club-type areas like the Home Depot suite, a Comcast-sponsored bar area in the upper deck near the right field foul pole and a club at field level in right field with a chain-link fence cutout view of the field give the Braves multiple options to give premium seating to groups of many sizes, along with the traditional suite areas.

An AmpThink-designed enclosure for railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs

In many of the premium seating areas the Braves have also installed USB charging ports, another nod to the ubiquity of mobile devices being brought to games. There are also numerous Big Ass Fans installed on concourse walkways, a nice amenity that takes into account the sometimes stifling humid heat in Atlanta.

If there was one snag to the game-day experience at SunTrust Park we’d say that the traffic situation of getting to and from the venue needs some more thought. Even though the park sits right by a major freeway, the exits and entrances don’t seem to offer a quick flow in our out for anyone who is arriving from, say, downtown Atlanta, which is about 10 miles away. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s good MARTA subway service doesn’t go anywhere near the park, making all transportation a wheels-based necessity.

The designated Uber dropoff area is a good example of an idea that needs some experience-based tweaking, with pickup and dropoff zones on the opposite side of a street that seemed congested from well before the game to afterward. While having a clearly signed place for ride-share activity is smart, the attempt to do dropoffs on one side and pickups on another led to several confusing U-turn attempts even in our small number of interactions. There’s also no oversight or on-site assistance or staffers to help either customers or drivers, which for a first-time venue seems an error in judgement.

But overall, SunTrust Park seems like a huge success that will only get better over time — according to Braves president of development Mike Plant, only about 30 percent of the space in the Battery is currently open, meaning there will be more businesses and residents surrounding the park in the near future. Already it’s clear that fans have found the space an agreeable one to hang out before games — while speaking at the SEAT Conference Plant said that most of the bars and restaurants are full well before game times, so he warned SEAT visitors to get there early if they wanted to grab a bite to eat or a drink before a ballgame.

More pictures from our visit below. Thanks to the Braves for our tour and to MLB for media access during our stay.

Panoramic view of SunTrust Park

A club space with a view out the right field wall

Wi-Fi AP mounted on outfield concourse

A look at railing AP mounts in the outfield bleacher seating

The IPTV control screen for suites

IPTVs located between premium seats right behind home plate

Tabletop seating with TV just above home plate

The big ball with its 360-degree LED screen

Fans walking through The Battery on their way to the game

Another Battery view with the Comcast office building behind right field visible

Main scoreboard promoting the MLB app

Sightlines and decks at SunTrust seem built for selfies

Nice view from the upper deck

Closeup of a Wi-Fi AP install

Above fans’ eyes is a DAS gear placement (and a Big Ass fan)

DAS gear mounted on the roof of the centerfield concourse wall

Thunderstorms, the beautiful but unwelcome visitors

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.”

Colorado passes on full-stadium Wi-Fi or DAS for Folsom Field

View of the west stands at Folsom Field, home of the University of Colorado football team. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

View of the west stands at Folsom Field, home of the University of Colorado football team. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

With a No. 9 ranking in all the major polls, the University of Colorado football team is experiencing a resurgence this season, which may lead to a rare CU sellout for this weekend’s final home game against Pac-12 rival Utah.

While the Buffs’ on-field performance in 2016 may have ended years of fan frustration, the 50,000+ fans expected to be in attendance at Folsom Field this Saturday may still experience another form of frustration, mainly in trying to get their mobile devices to connect to the Internet. According to school officials, there is no full-stadium, fan-facing Wi-Fi or cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) network in Folsom Field, and no plans to bring either to the venue anytime soon.

Instead, most fans at the on-campus stadium will rely on one of two nearby macro sites, one each from top wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon Wireless. According to Jeff Lipton, director of real estate for CU, the school decided to pass on bringing Wi-Fi or DAS to Folsom for a number of reasons, including the cost of the systems, the infrequent use of the facility, and potential loss of network control to prospective suppliers.

Hard to justify cost of connectivity for lightly used venue

“Nationally, stadiums are challenging” when it comes to cost justifications for installing wireless networks, Lipton said in a recent phone interview. While Lipton claimed that CU “hasn’t been sleeping on this,” saying the school has been reviewing wireless stadium options for several years, he added that CU had concluded that a cellular DAS wasn’t a good fit for Folsom, which has been the home of CU football since 1924.

Error message shown while trying to connect to ESPN's website at Folsom Field on Nov. 19.

Error message shown while trying to connect to ESPN’s website at Folsom Field on Nov. 19.

One of the main problems is, Lipton said, justifying the cost to bring connectivity to a venue that is only used a handful of times a year. In 2016, Colorado had six home games on its football schedule, the main use of 53,613-seat Folsom Field. This past summer there were two concert dates with the Dead and Company band that filled the stadium, and the stadium is also used as the finish line for the annual Bolder Boulder 10k on Memorial Day.

Though the crowds that do come to Folsom would no doubt enjoy better connectivity, right now it’s not in the cards, Lipton said, especially from a cellular DAS perspective.

“We looked at DAS for the main part of the stadium but determined it was not cost effective, and the vendors wanted a connectivity exclusive” for the rest of the campus, a deal Lipton said CU definitely did not want to agree to.

“We like to control our own [wireless] destiny on campus — we’re not going to give that up in a deal to get DAS,” Lipton said. And, Lipton said that “I’m not sure that [technically] in the long term, DAS is the solution” for stadium networks.

The right way to Wi-Fi

What’s more interesting to CU is finding some way or waiting for new technology to emerge to make owning and operating a Wi-Fi network inside Folsom something that makes sense. When it comes to Wi-Fi, Lipton said that CU has been aggressively installing it in many of the 12 billion square feet of building space it manages at the Boulder, Colo., campus.

Around Folsom, there is free public Wi-Fi available at the new Champions Center (an indoor practice field and offices building located adjacent to the east side of Folsom Field) as well as in the attached parking structure. There is also some free Wi-Fi available for suites and club spaces in the newer structures on the east side of Folsom Field, but nothing for the balance of bowl seating in the stadium.

Folsom's east side structure, which does have some Wi-Fi inside suites and club areas.

Folsom’s east side structure, which does have some Wi-Fi inside suites and club areas.

“We have pretty ubiquitous Wi-Fi throughout campus, and we installed it and run it,” said Lipton. In terms of bringing Wi-Fi into the Folsom Field bowl — as well as to the stands at the Coors Event Center, the school’s 11,00-seat basketball facility — that idea is still being studied by an internal working group, Lipton said.

“We recognize that long term, there are some real revenue opportunities [around Wi-Fi networks] that could pay for this later on,” Lipton said. “But it’s not there yet.”

Any Wi-Fi network that does end up getting built inside Folsom would also have to surmount the non-trivial challenge of bringing wireless networks to a facility with parts that are nearly 100 years old. Part of the bowl also sits in the ground, bringing another degree of difficulty to the idea of getting cables underneath the stands (for possible under-seat or railing-based antenna options). But for newer parts of the stadium, including the north end zone structures and the new east side, bringing connectivity to the stands outside wouldn’t be as difficult.

At the 11,064-capacity Coors Event Center, Lipton said there is some CU Wi-Fi inside the building, but it was not designed for full-stadium crowd access down into the seating bowl.

Unable to send texts, or get Internet access

Though Lipton claims that the two Folsom macro sites — one atop the roof on the stadium’s west side building and another on a building across the street — are working “much better” this season, an MSR visit to Folsom for the Nov. 19 home game against Washington State saw almost zero connectivity, on both the cellular and Wi-Fi front.

A look at the newer north and northeast structures at Folsom Field from the east stands.

A look at the newer north and northeast structures at Folsom Field from the east stands.

Though our tests were sporadic, with only one phone in one part of the stadium, our not being able to send a text message with a photo of the stunning Colorado Rockies backdrop was probably something many others experienced inside Folsom last week, where 48,658 fans saw CU beat WSU 38-24. On the Verizon network, we were almost always looking at a “1x” number for connectivity, which pretty much guaranteed no signal all day long.

Even inside the east building’s 5th-floor club area, where we detected the CU campus Wi-Fi network, our phone couldn’t connect, briefly showing a link but then dropping it as soon as we tried to do anything. There was no visible promotion of the CU Wi-Fi, or any instruction about whether fans should use one of two visible SSIDs, one with a “guest” label and one without. Back out in the stands, we tried to get to the ESPN website to see other college scores, but again our device failed to connect.

While Lipton admitted that “traffic on [football] game days can overwhelm” the macro sites, he still thinks any advanced connectivity has to make fiscal sense. As the one who says he signs contracts for such deployments at CU, Lipton said “there’s an art to every deal.” For Folsom Field connectivity, however, that deal hasn’t yet been done.

Ookla shares Speedtest data from CenturyLink Field, other stadiums

Ookla ad banner being flown over CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Credit: Ookla

Ookla ad banner being flown over CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Credit: Ookla

Anyone who follows Mobile Sports Report knows that I use the Speedtest app from Ookla to measure stadium network performance whenever I visit a sporting venue. While my one-man tests do show some measure of network power, I always dreamed of harnessing the results from many fans at the same game to see a better picture of the network performance.

Well, Speedtest’s creators think along the same lines, and conducted an experiment during an Aug. 25 Seattle Seahawks preseason game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. You can read their very thorough post and neat results here, with some interesting twists — for instance, the cellular networks are way faster than the CenturyLink Wi-Fi, according to the Ookla results.

UPDATE: Ookla responded to our email and let us know that on Aug. 25, there were 252 Speedtests at CenturyLink Field, a great sampling to draw results from. Ookla also talked about tests from 12 different events at CenturyLink Field, and said in the email that across those events it saw 1,143 tests conducted.

Ookla also published some test result totals from other stadiums as well, including Levi’s Stadium, AT&T Stadium and Bank of America Stadium, but didn’t say when those tests were recorded, or how many tests were taken.

What we really like, however, is that Ookla’s tests show what our stadium tech report surveys have been showing — that overall, in-stadium network performance is steadily improving. Over time, more data like this can help dispel the still-lingering rumor that stadium networks don’t deliver good connectivity. Now if we could only get Ookla to partner with us to do league-wide or college-comparison speedtests… anyone ready for that idea?

Will Periscope and Meerkat swamp stadium networks?

Three thoughts to start your week off, of a completely unrelated nature. First one up is about a couple of live video-streaming services that you might have heard of or seen, Meerkat and Periscope. I successfully avoided watching any super-selfimportant types video themselves using Meerkat from SXSW, and I’ve been too wrapped up in March Madness to care yet about Periscope. So far I haven’t seen any coverage that details how much bandwidth the apps use up. Probably not much if you are livestreaming something all by yourself. But what if a bunch of people decide to livestream, and they’re all in the same place? So I do wonder how stadium networks will handle the idea of live video streams.

Will the Wi-Fi and DAS networks be able to handle the traffic? Anyone looking into this yet? Discuss. You can do so in the comments, or send me some longer thoughts via email and I will relay them to the crowd. Will Periscope and Meerkat be banned in-stadium? If so how can that happen? Will live video streams be the final straw that makes teams and leagues realize that Twitter may not be such a great content partner after all? I don’t have any answers yet but I assure you this is a question that will be asked the rest of the year in stadium IT shops — as well as in the lawyers’ offices where content and TV rights are negotiated and protected. Selfies may be fine, and Vine may be OK. But live streams of sports events are bound to get someone’s attention, fast.

Thought No. 2: Twenty-three years ago, I remember exactly where I was when I saw this:

I was in Beaver Creek, Colo., in a swanky hotel room that I normally couldn’t afford, watching the Duke-Kentucky game after covering pro ski racing during the day on the slopes of Beaver Creek. Because it was near the end of the ski season the still-new Beaver Creek wasn’t too full, so us members of the media got special rates to stay in the slopeside hotel rooms that now will cost you an arm, a leg and maybe a first-born. That is not important to this thought, though. What is important is that I remember watching the game on a nice TV. Which was the only way you could watch, 22 years ago.

Fast forward to Saturday night, when another classic NCAA tournament match involving Kentucky came down to the wire, and a last-second shot, on the exact anniversary of the Laettner shot. That Kentucky prevailed this time in another classic also doesn’t really matter here; what does is how I watched the second half — on my phone in my backyard while cooking dinner on the grill, over a Wi-Fi connection to a router inside the house. The thing I thought about afterwards was how completely normal it seemed to do something that was unthinkable 22 years ago, namely watch a live game via a handheld device through multiple connectivity junctures — and it all just worked. In the future I will probably remember the game more, and the key free throws and the crazy defense of the last play. But right now I’m still a little in wonder in how far the idea of watching sports on your phone has come.

Third thought: Some more history here — does anyone out there remember the 2009 version of SXSW, when Foursquare was launched and the huge influx of attendees using Twitter on their iPhones brought the AT&T network to its knees? Here’s another link to the historical moment when AT&T got pantsed publicly for not knowing how much bandwidth its customers would need at a gathering like SXSW.

Fast forward again to this year’s SXSW, and man, was AT&T ready for record network usage. Not only did it trot out the huge big-ball cellular antenna that it used at Coachella last year, it beefed up regular network connections and brought in a whole herd of COWs (cell trucks on wheels) to satisfy a mobile bandwidth demand that doesn’t seem to be able to stay flat or go down. According to AT&T, its network saw 37 terabytes of data used during the SXSW event — that’s like three-plus Super Bowls worth of traffic, and this is just on AT&T’s networks, so not counting other carrier traffic.

We concentrate a lot here on stadiums and the particular problems for wireless communications caused by a tight geographic grouping of device-holding people. But what about towns with festivals like SXSW, or other big gatherings? Is your event ready for massive wireless bandwidth needs? If not what is your plan going forward?

Washington dropping Huawei for Cisco/Verizon Wi-Fi at FedEx Field, report says

Ming He, Country General Manager for Huawei in the U.S. (left), and Rod Nenner, Vice President of the Washington Redskins (right), pictured together when Huawei announced the team sponsorship and partnership.

Ming He, Country General Manager for Huawei in the U.S. (left), and Rod Nenner, Vice President of the Washington Redskins (right), pictured together when Huawei announced the team sponsorship and partnership.

According to a report from Bill Gertz at the Washington Times, the Washington, D.C. NFL franchise is apparently scrapping a recent deal with Chinese networking gear supplier Huawei to put fan-facing Wi-Fi into FedEx Field, turning instead to U.S. companies Cisco and Verizon.

Gertz, in the “Inside the Ring” column at the Times, said the Washington team’s senior vice president Tony Wyllie said in an email that “We [Washington] are in the process of deploying a stadium-wide Wi-Fi network working with Verizon and Cisco.” Gertz said the team did not elaborate on why the recent deal with Huawei was apparently scrapped before it got started.

Huawei, which claims to have installed Wi-Fi networks in many stadiums worldwide, had not had any large-scale installations at major U.S. venues before announcing the FedEx Field deal. A major competitor to large U.S. networking firms like Cisco, Huawei has been at the center of controversy in recent years, including being tabbed as a security threat by U.S. government officials, and later as a reported target for N.S.A. surveillance.

Under the announced terms of the deal, Huawei was supposed to install Wi-Fi in suite areas this December; a company spokesman said that while there was no official deal announced, Huawei was also supposed to follow that install up with a full-stadium deployment before the 2015 season started. In the initial announcement, the team announced Huawei Enterprise USA as a multi-year team sponsor and “Official Technology Partner.”

We have got calls and emails in to all the interested parties, and will update this story as we hear more.