‘Best of Breed’ wireless drives Chase Center experience

An under-seat Wi-Fi AP enclosure at Chase Center, foreground, with a DAS enclosure visible to the left. Credit all photos (except where otherwise noted): Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As stunning as Chase Center is visually, what you can’t see is equally powerful in adding to the fan experience. Namely, the wireless networks, and the gear that supports the connectivity.

Inside the shiny new home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, which sits on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, is a cellular DAS deployment from Verizon using Corning gear that may be the new forward-thinking model for cellular infrastructure for large public venues like stadiums and arenas. The 18,000-seat arena also has a Wi-Fi network using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, which supports the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard for communications inside the main seating bowl.

But if you’re attending a Warriors game, or one of the many concerts scheduled at Chase Center, you may not ever see the equipment that brings the world-class connectivity to the fans. Both the DAS and the Wi-Fi networks utilize an under-seat antenna deployment method, just part of an aesthetic plan that does its best to minimize the visual impact of antennas and other wireless gear. Even deeper into the building is all the optical fiber supporting the networks, with capacity for future needs already in place.

During a mid-October 2019 visit before all the networks were fully tuned, Mobile Sports Report still got strong test results from both Wi-Fi and DAS networks in most areas in and around the arena, clear confirmation that the Warriors’ goal of having excellent wireless connectivity at their new home was right on track. And with the Corning ONE system in behind a DAS design built from the ground up with future needs in mind, as well as the expected capacity gains coming from Wi-Fi 6, the Warriors and their partners are confident they’ve built a wireless system worthy of their world-class venue goals.

“We feel extremely proud” of the venue’s wireless systems, said Brian Fulmer, director of information technology for the Golden State Warriors. Though the inevitable construction delays led to some late nights heading up to the arena’s Sept. 6, 2019 public debut, according to Fulmer all wireless systems were fully online for the opening Metallica concert, where the arena saw 2.58 terabytes of data used on the Wi-Fi network with another 2.69 TB used at another Metallica show a couple days later.

“It was a race to the finish line but we did it, and the performance speaks for itself,” said Fulmer.

Searching for ‘Best in Breed’

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue are profiles of the new Wi-Fi deployment at the University of Oklahoma, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Fiserv Forum and the University of Florida! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

If there was ever a chance to build the best-ever new arena, Chase Center was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When you combine the championship run of the team on the court with a devoted fan base centered in one of the hottest economic markets ever, you have the liberty to search for quality instead of bargains on every level.

A Wi-Fi AP hovers over a concourse gathering area.

(Case in point: The Warriors were able to sell out of their new court-level luxury suites, which have rooms just under the stands that include private wine lockers and can cost up to $2 million per year. Clearly, this is a model that may not work in places that aren’t Silicon Valley.)

For the privately financed $1.4 billion building, the Warriors turned to consulting firm Accenture to help determine the “best in breed” technology partners, especially on the wireless front. Several Warriors executives interviewed for this story did all agree on one main point: The team was not trying to install any technology to win imaginary awards for being the best or fastest building out there. Instead, it was all about how technology, especially wireless, could help bring about a world-class experience during every visit.

“Nobody shows up [at an arena] just looking for fast wireless speeds,” said Mike Kitts, the Warriors’ senior vice president for partnerships. “They want to interact. We wanted to create unforgettable experiences in an engaging environment. With the end in mind of a world-class experience, we knew great technology would absolutely play a role.”

Like a team drafting top players, the Warriors ended up choosing Verizon to lead the distributed antenna system (DAS) for cellular wireless, and Aruba for Wi-Fi. To build its neutral-host system, Verizon chose Corning and the Corning ONE platform, with an installation led by Communication Technology Services (CTS).

“We certainly leveraged the expertise of Verizon, as well as AT&T (which is also on the DAS as a client),” said Fulmer. “They’ve done this countless times, and they have the lessons learned of painful experiences.”

Building a DAS that can handle growth

Anyone in the stadium business in Northern California doesn’t have to look too far or remember too long ago to recall one such example of the pain that the nonstop growth in cellular demand can cause. After the San Francisco 49ers’ brand-new home, Levi’s Stadium, opened in 2014, the also brand-new DAS had to be upgraded the very next season to ensure it had enough capacity for the upcoming Super Bowl 50. Verizon, which basically invented under-seat DAS antennas for that deployment, said it had a goal at Chase Center to build a DAS that didn’t need upgrading for at least a few years.

A Wi-Fi AP painted to blend into the outside facade.

Terry Vance, senior manager for Verizon’s Pacific market network performance group, said “the plan from day 1 was to build a DAS with capacity for today and tomorrow. We needed to build this DAS so that for the next 3 to 4 years, we won’t have to touch it.”

Verizon also had to build the DAS in a way that complied with the Warriors’ stringent requirements for clear sight lines, especially in the main bowl seating area. According to the Warriors’ Fulmer, the team “looked at handrail [enclosure] designs,” but rejected them in favor of an under-seat approach. Though more costly in both equipment and construction, the under-seat approach was Verizon’s favored method as well to get more density in the arena.

What Verizon ended up with was a design that currently uses 71 active sectors, with 42 of those in the seating bowl. According to Vance, all the sectors in the bowl area can basically be split into two parts if needed, for a total of 84 potential bowl sectors. Currently, Vance said there are 598 under-seat DAS antennas in use.

According to Vance the Corning ONE system’s extensive use of optical fiber makes it easier to add capacity to the system as needed.

“The fiber to the edge [in the Corning system] is especially useful as you go to 5G,” Vance said. Though it’s not part of the shared DAS system, Verizon also has full 5G bowl coverage at Chase Center, one of the first arena deployments in California. Verizon also is using a couple of MatSing ball antennas, mounted in the rafters to provide cellular coverage to the floor area for concerts and other non-basketball events.

Right now AT&T is the only other carrier on the DAS, with participation from T-Mobile and/or Sprint pending depending upon the outcome of those two companies’ potential merger.

A Verizon 5G speedtest. Credit: Verizon

Jessica Koch, sports and entertainment director of business development for Corning optical communications, gave praise to integrator CTS for its deployment know-how, which she said was “critical to the success of this project.” Corning, Koch said, knows that for fans in large venues like Chase Center, “reliable connectivity without restriction – all the time, at full speed, on any device, from anywhere – has become the expectation in our connected world.”

For Warriors president and COO Rick Welts, the best wireless system is one fans don’t see or worry about, but just use without concern.

“The best thing is if the phone just works, and I don’t have to think about it,” said Welts, who led a stadium tour during MSR’s October visit.

Though Verizon said the system went through some necessary optimization during the hectic early events schedule at Chase Center, Verizon engineers in December were getting DAS speed tests in excess of 100 Mbps for both download links in most locations, according to Philip French, vice president of network engineering for Verizon. Download speeds for 5G connections, he said, are breaking the 1 Gbps mark.

“This DAS is unique since it was the first one we’ve built with 5G in mind from the ground up,” French said. “It’s a very robust design, and for us this is the design of the future.”

Leading the way with Wi-Fi 6

Like several other stadiums that were being finished this past summer, Chase Center was able to take advantage of the release of Wi-Fi equipment that supports the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard. Though all the new capabilities won’t be fully realized until most end-user devices also support the new version of Wi-Fi, having support for the technology inside the arena was key for the Warriors’ plans.

“You can never really be ‘future proofed’ but we were extremely fortunate with the timing [of Wi-Fi 6 gear arriving],” said the Warriors’ Fulmer. “We were right in the sweet spot for an initial deployment.”

Wi-Fi and DAS gear on the catwalk.

According to Aruba, Chase Center has approximately 250 Aruba 500 Series APs (which support Wi-Fi 6) deployed in the main seating bowl, mostly in under-seat enclosures. Overall, there are approximately 852 total APs used in the full Chase Center network, which includes coverage inside the building as well as in the connected outdoor plaza areas.

During our October visit, MSR got Wi-Fi speedtests of 27.3 Mbps on the download side and 18.2 Mbps on the upload side while standing outside the east entry doors near the big mirror balls that are selfie central for fans visiting the new arena. Inside the doors, our speedtest in the lobby got a mark of 55.8 Mbps / 68.6 Mbps.

On one upper concourse area, near several concession stands outside portal 57, we got a speedtest of 10.5 Mbps / 11.2 Mbps. In the seats in upper section 220 just before tipoff we got a mark of 46.0 Mbps / 28.0 Mbps, and in a lower-bowl concourse area outside portal 9 we got a test mark of 53.7 Mbps / 71.5 Mbps.

According to Aruba, several events other than the Metallica concerts have passed the 2 TB Wi-Fi data mark so far, with several events seeing more than 8,000 unique clients connected and marks of 6,000+ concurrent connected devices and 2.6 Gbps of throughput.

The Warriors’ Fulmer praised not just the Wi-Fi gear but the full “end to end network solutions” available from Aruba as well as from parent Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which is a founding partner at Chase Center.

“We’re still only three months in, and there’s a lot more that we want to do,” Fulmer said. “It was not a small undertaking. But I think we can let the technology speak for itself.”

Wireless outlook for 2020: Will the iPhone 11 drive faster Wi-Fi 6 adoption?

You may not immediately think of Apple as a huge driver in the Wi-Fi business, but some initial data points surfacing at early Wi-Fi 6 network deployments may be showing that Apple’s decision to include Wi-Fi 6 support in its new iPhone 11 line could end up driving faster adoption of the latest version of Wi-Fi technology.

As always with any such predictions we suggest you order a side grain of salt to go with our year-end crystal-ball outlook for what lies ahead in 2020. But from an active fall season where we traveled a bunch and talked to a lot of smart people, here are some other observations we have for what lies immediately ahead for the wireless technology marketplace for stadiums, arenas and other large public venues.

1. Wi-Fi 6 adoption may happen faster, thanks to Apple

Editor’s note: This column is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue are profiles of new Wi-Fi deployments at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Florida, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Chase Center and Fiserv Forum! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

If you were building a new stadium or doing a full Wi-Fi refresh over the past summer, the big budget decision most likely on your plate was whether to go with Wi-Fi 6 gear or to wait and use Wi-Fi 5 equipment for now. While those who went the Wi-Fi 6 route may have paid a higer up-front cost and gone through some of the normal struggles with first-generation products, some of the data we are seeing from stadiums with operational Wi-Fi 6 networks is that Wi-Fi 6 client devices are already showing up, in not-so-small numbers.

And you can largely thank Apple for that.

One unofficial but largely true statement we feel comfortable in making is that at most stadiums, iPhones are still the vast majority of devices in use. We haven’t asked for any formal numbers but everywhere we go we keep hearing that stadium network users are typically a majority of Apple devices, sometimes as high as 70 percent of the active devices. (If this sounds like a good topic for future in-depth research, you think the same way we do.)

Oklahoma is already seeing Wi-Fi 6 traffic on its new stadium network. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

When the iPhone 11 line came out in September with support for the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard, it caught many in the industry a little by surprise, since historically Apple has been conservative when it comes to putting new technology into iPhones. Those of us who have been around a bit remember that happening during the shift to 4G, when iPhones were pretty much a year behind the leading Android platforms in supporting LTE.

If you also believe (as I do) that sports fans represent both ends of the device-adoption curve — meaning that a certain percentage of fans will have the latest phones, while others may still have flip phones — it is those forward-leaning fans who most likely got iPhone 11 devices as soon as they were available. According to the Golden State Warriors, they are already seeing iPhone 11 traffic on the Wi-Fi 6 network they have in the bowl seating at Chase Center. And at the University of Oklahoma, the all-Wi-Fi 6 network put in at the football stadium this year saw a growing number of Wi-Fi 6 connections as the season went on, hitting 2,000+ at one game later in the year.

So it’s just a drip of data, but enough to be noticed. Certainly something for you (and us) to watch as the year progresses and more Wi-Fi 6 networks come on line.

2. CBRS deployments will take time to arrive

And even though Apple also included support for Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum in the iPhone 11 line, we don’t expect to see CBRS deployments in venues accelerate anytime soon. Though there was a lot of CBRS talk ahead of the FCC approval for initial commercial deployments (and a lot of whispers about numerous trials at venues), so far there have been only two public announcements of live CBRS networks inside sports stadiums, and both those involve trial networks with no real deployment goal, and most significantly, no signed contracts.

While we remain big believers in the utility that the new bandwidth and LTE support may eventually bring, it’s easy to see why CBRS faces a slow adoption rate in sports venues. The main reason may just be historical inertia, the same conservative approach that has (still!) kept many venues from deploying even basic connectivity on the Wi-Fi or cellular fronts. Second may be the combination of a lack of budget and expertise; because there is no have-to problem that CBRS solves, teams and venues don’t need to rush into deployments.

And while we do believe that CBRS will eventually do great things for applications that need more mobility and security, the lack of turnkey-type approaches (like, “here is your CBRS package for parking-lot connectivity”) makes it a naturally longer sales cycle.

Throw in the fact that many venues may also be currently facing a Wi-Fi overhaul decision or what to do next on the cellular front as 5G arrives, and you have even more reasons for putting CBRS-type discussions on a back burner. The good news is, by the time CBRS starts getting more real, devices will probably have the dual-SIM issue solved in a more user-friendly fashion. When that happens the ability to use CBRS networks as a sort of Super-DAS should accelerate adoption — but that’s not a 2020 thing, at least as far as we can tell.

3. 5G is coming, whether anyone wants it or not

You can’t escape the press releases, headlines and other paid-for proclamations that 5G cellular services are now live in many sports stadiums. But given the fact that devices that support 5G are still at a minimum, only a lucky few fans will likely take advantage of the fast, low-latency bandwidth, at least for the time being.

Fuzzy shot of a Verizon 5G antenna at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver this fall. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Going back to Apple — which did NOT include support for 5G spectrum in the iPhone 11 — you can guess why stadiums that have 5G services are reluctant to talk about exactly how many users are on the 5G networks. Here’s a hint: It’s not a lot. The good news for venues is, however, that since the 5G wars are basically a huge marketing battle between the largest cellular carriers, that means that those carriers will basically pay to put those networks into venues, so all you really need to do is provide some space in the rafters and a fiber connection.

At Mobile World Congress in Los Angeles, we did hear from Ericsson and Verizon that early 5G deployments in stadiums are showing some welcome surprises, like “better than expected” ability for signals to roam — meaning that you can actually (maybe) leave your seat or twist your phone and not lose the signal.

So while the great hyped-about promises of 5G applications in venues — virtual reality! fan-provided video! — remain just an idea, more good news is that with little user pressure, network engineers, equipment vendors and service providers all have some time to learn what works and what doesn’t in a live environment. But for 2020, 5G in stadiums is more about carrier TV commercials than real commercial uses.

4. 4G LTE and DAS are still needed

One of the more-pertinent questions (and the subject of an upcoming MSR Research report) is what happens to the 4G LTE and DAS world inside venues, as carriers want to focus on 5G? The answer here is not as clear, but what’s undeniable is that 4G LTE services are still going to be the balance of cellular traffic for at least the next 2 years, if not more. That means that venues of all sizes still need to have a DAS or small-cell strategy, which gets tougher as carriers squeeze the margins traditionally charged by neutral third-party hosts.

If you’re a big or high-profile venue, you may not have as much to worry about, as for places like that (think Super Bowl, NBA/concerts, or any MLB stadium) it will likely be business as usual with carriers participating in DAS deployments. The biggest wild card on the DAS business side going into 2020 is the still-unresolved question of whether or not T-Mobile and Sprint will actually become one company. In places like Chase Center, that means negotiations over how T-Mobile and/or Sprint will come on to the DAS are on hold. Unfortunately, it’s the customers who will suffer the most as DAS participation from T-Mobile and Sprint gets delayed.

Another thing we’ll be looking at in the upcoming DAS and 4G report is what deployment methods will take the lead going forward — will the traditional top-down DAS antenna deployment method still work, or will under-seat deployments (like the one at Chase Center, see report in the latest issue) proliferate? Another trend to keep watching is the use of MatSing ball antennas, which are gaining more acceptance every time we talk to stadium IT teams. Amalie Arena went big with an all-MatSing DAS (using 52 of the big ball antennas) and Fiserv Forum recently put in 10 MatSings. We are also hearing of MatSing deployments happening in football stadiums, so watch for more MSR info on that front this year.

Wi-Fi 6 research report: Download it now!

As a service to our readers Mobile Sports Report is making the Wi-Fi 6 Research Report we offered earlier this summer as a standalone download, for easier reading, consumption and sharing. Download the report here and start learning more about Wi-Fi 6 today!

With a wide range of technical improvements, Wi-Fi 6 will greatly advance the entire Wi-Fi ecosystem, for all types of uses. But for venue networks the new features are especially important, since Wi-Fi 6 will allow network operators to significantly improve each of the three main things that matter when it comes to in-venue network performance: it will increase the amount of available spectrum and number of channels; it will increase the average data rate for clients; and it will increase the ability to re-use channels in your space. What can Wi-Fi 6 do for your venue network? Find out now by downloading your free copy today!

The Wi-Fi 6 report encapsulated in this report is a joint effort between MSR and our friends at AmpThink, something that grew out of conversations about how to bring more forward-looking expertise on topics like Wi-Fi 6 to the MSR reader audience.

While the meat of this report is based on a Wi-Fi 6 presentation and essay developed by AmpThink, MSR helped clarify the material to make it fit into the report format, with the idea that this report would be just a starting point for deeper discussions into each of the relevant features that we think make Wi-Fi 6 a compelling technology for venues to consider.

More Wi-Fi 6 material coming soon!

When it comes to Wi-Fi 6 and venues, consider Mobile Sports Report your starting point for research, news, analysis and in-depth reporting. In an effort to get as many voices as possible into the discussion, we will also feature more podcasts about the topic — if you haven’t listened yet, our podcast discussion with Aruba’s Chuck Lukaszewski on Wi-Fi 6 is a great place to start.

Look for more profiles of Wi-Fi 6 networks coming soon — and if you want to read about one recent deployment with a lot of Wi-Fi 6 gear that is making headlines this fall, read our Stadium Tech Report profile of the new network at Ohio State — which you can now read online for free (no registration required) or download a PDF version of the report as well.

Cisco inks deal for Wi-Fi 6 network, Cisco Vision system at SoFi Stadium

SoFi Stadium

Aerial view of ongoing construction at SoFi Stadium, future home of the NFL’s Rams and Chargers. Credit: LA Rams/Mark Holtzman, West Coast Aerial Photography, Inc.

Cisco announced today that it will supply gear for a Wi-Fi 6 network at SoFi Stadium, the future home of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, along with a deployment of its Cisco Vision IPTV display management system.

In an announcement that identifies Cisco as the “official IT network services partner of SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park,” the networking company said it is slated to install “more than 2,500 Wi-Fi 6 access points” inside the still under-construction stadium, which is scheduled to open ahead of the 2020 NFL season. Hollywood Park, which is being built by Los Angeles Rams owner and chairman Stan Kroenke, is billed as a “298-acre global sports and entertainment destination,” being built on the site of the old Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, to the south and west of downtown L.A. (and on the flight path in to LAX airport).

While Cisco claims that the all-Wi-Fi 6 network will eventually deliver “four times greater capacity than the previous Wi-Fi standard,” it’s worthwhile to note that the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 won’t be realized until the phones in fans’ hands support the new system as well (most phones a year old or older do not have Wi-Fi 6 support). The good news is, many of the newer phones on the market, including the new Apple iPhone 11 line, do support Wi-Fi 6, so fans with newer phones should be able to see the better performance supported by Wi-Fi 6.

If the stadium itself does eventually use 2,500 or more APs it would be among the top if not at the top of the list of venues with the most APs. (We’d like to get a current count from AT&T Stadium before making any definitive calls on this issue.) According to the release, SoFi Stadium will seat approximately 70,000 fans, with capacity expandable up to around 100,000. In addition to Rams and Chargers home games, the stadium is already slated to host Super Bowl LVI in 2022, followed by the College Football National Championship Game in 2023, and the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2028 Summer Olympics.

On the Cisco Vision side, Cisco said the system will be the first all-4K version of Cisco Vision, and it will support “approximately 2,500 screens throughout SoFi Stadium’s concourses, suites, concessions, as well as across Hollywood Park.” The Cisco Vision IPTV display management system allows for centralized control of graphics and video content across all the connected screens.

Aruba’s Chuck Lukaszewski talks Wi-Fi 6 and venues on the Stadium Tech Report Podcast!

Welcome back to the Stadium Tech Report podcast! We are extremely happy to kick off the new series of recorded chats by welcoming Chuck Lukaszewski to talk about the new Wi-Fi 6 standard and how it’s going to help networks inside large public venues like sports stadiums. If you don’t know Chuck, he is Vice President of Wireless Strategy & Standards at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, and has been working with Wi-Fi for a long, long time.

Chuck has also been a fantastic contributor to MSR’s ongoing attempt to educate our readers — his essay on LTE over unlicensed spectrum is always worth a read — and this conversation continues on the learning path. We open up with some general descriptions of what Wi-Fi 6 is, and then dive down into what its new features mean for venues specifically. About halfway through, you can even hear Chuck give me a lesson on the misconceptions I had about security comparisons between Wi-Fi and LTE networks — click above and start listening!

Chuck Lukaszewski is Vice President of Wireless Strategy & Standards at Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. For over a decade he has engineered and deployed large-scale 802.11 networks, joining Aruba in 2007.

Chuck has built Wi-Fi systems in stadiums, seaports, rail yards, manufacturing plants and other complex RF environments, including serving as chief engineer for many stadiums ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 seats that provide live video and other online amenities. He is the author of six books and design guides including Very High Density 802.11ac Networks and Outdoor MIMO Wireless Networks.