June 25, 2017

Analysis: The year of the big stadium Wi-Fi upgrade

Carolina Panthers director of IT James Hammond shows off a new under-seat Wi-Fi AP at Bank of America Stadium. Credit: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers director of IT James Hammond shows off a new under-seat Wi-Fi AP at Bank of America Stadium. Credit: Carolina Panthers

Even in the midst of several brand-new stadium debuts and the future-proofed wireless networks inside them, there is a separate, yet distinct trend emerging in the big-stadium, wireless connectivity world: Call it the year of the big upgrade.

Our profile in our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., is a case in point: Thanks to the never-ending demand for more connectivity for fans, stadiums that deployed networks just a few years ago are now finding that those old systems already need upgrades or replacements, typically at a much higher cost than the original network. In addition to BofA Stadium, the New England Patriots’ home, Gillette Stadium, also got a Wi-Fi makeover this past summer, going from about 400 Wi-Fi APs to well over a thousand, with most of the new ones deployed under seats.

According to Fred Kirsch, who oversees the Gillette Stadium network, some of the under-seat placements there were especially tricky, since granite underneath the stands didn’t allow for the ability to drill through the concrete. A workaround involving an above-ground enclosure was envisioned and manufactured, underlining the custom complexity of network deployment found from stadium to stadium. No two are the same, and what works at one may or may not work at another.

But what is common across all these large venues is the ever-increasing need for bandwidth, a moving target that has yet to slow down or stabilize. Last year the story that turned everyone’s head was the need by carriers to upgrade their DAS infrastructure at Levi’s Stadium ahead of Super Bowl 50 – this coming just a year after the stadium had opened for business. While the demands of a Super Bowl (especially Super Bowl 50, which set records for DAS and Wi-Fi usage) are perhaps much different than everyday events, it’s still a safe bet that for many stadiums with Wi-Fi networks – especially the early movers – 2016 has become a year of reckoning, or biting the bullet and writing more checks for more coverage, perhaps seemingly too soon after the initial rollout.

Getting ready for Super Bowl LI

In Houston, NRG Stadium finally has Wi-Fi, and not a moment too soon, with Super Bowl LI on the near horizon. Since the venue didn’t have Wi-Fi prior to this season it’s not really an upgrade but it’s hard to understate the challenge of putting in a Super Bowl-ready network in just one summer, a construction calendar shortened by the fact that integrator 5 Bars and equipment vendor Extreme Networks had to wait until after the NCAA Men’s Final Four was over to begin installing cabling and APs. At of the start of the NFL season the Wi-Fi network is already live at NRG Stadium, and is sure to go through weekly tweaks as the league marches on toward its championship game.

Gillette Stadium before the Sept. 11 game vs. the Miami Dolphins. Credit: Steve Milne, AP, via Patriots.com

Gillette Stadium before the Sept. 11 game vs. the Miami Dolphins. Credit: Steve Milne, AP, via Patriots.com

And while attention-grabbing new stadiums like US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta are planning big network capacity from the get-go, some new stadiums like T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas have upgrade thinking planned in from the start, with the idea that the network will never really be a finished product, at least until they stop making new phones or developing new apps. Of course, that future isn’t happening anytime soon, with the Apple iPhone 7 announcement with the new double-lens camera coming in just before the start of another football season.

New phones and new apps mean more bandwidth demands, leading even those who already have stadium networks to keep wondering if what they’ve installed is enough. We suspect this may be an ongoing story line for the foreseeable future, so – stay tuned here to Mobile Sports Report for the latest success stories and lessons learned from those who have already jumped in or jumped back in to the deployment fray.

Editor’s note: This column is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available for free download from our site. Read about Wi-Fi deployments at Bank of America Stadium, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and more!

Jaguars get out of SignalShare deal, turn to PCM for EverBank Field Wi-Fi management

Pregame activity at EverBank Field last weekend. Credit: Jaguars.com.

Pregame activity at EverBank Field last weekend. Credit: Jaguars.com.

When Wi-Fi design and implementation firm SignalShare legally imploded earlier this year, one of the biggest questions that surfaced was — what would happen to teams and stadiums who had contracted with SignalShare to run their Wi-Fi networks? The Jacksonville Jaguars, who a couple years ago announced big plans with SignalShare, have gotten out of their contract with the now-bankrupt SignalShare and have turned to integrator PCM to manage the Wi-Fi network at EverBank Field, team officials said.

Mike Webb, director of IT with the Jaguars, said in a phone interview that the team was “able to terminate” its 3-year deal with SignalShare with help from Wi-Fi gear provider Extreme, which was part of the original deal. PCM has also teamed up with Extreme to run the Wi-Fi network at the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium. Neither SignalShare nor NFS Leasing has responded to any queries about the legal actions; Extreme Networks has also refused to comment on any specifics of any SignalShare-related deals.

While the original deal called for big plans to bring exclusive content to fans at EverBank Field via SignalShare’s portal software, Webb said that currently there is no stadium-specific or game-day app for Jaguars fans. He also said that Comcast sponsors the Wi-Fi connection (as it does at many other stadiums), with fans logging on by connecting to the xfintitywifi SSID.

Adding more APs for patios, new construction

Currently, EverBank Field has 650 Extreme Wi-Fi APs in the venue, with approximately 450 of those in the seating bowl, Webb said. Over the past offseason, the stadium added Wi-Fi coverage to five new areas, mainly patios outside club areas as well as to the South end zone tunnel, which will eventually connect to the theater that is being built outside the stadium.

For the lower level of seating, Webb said Wi-Fi APs are installed in railing enclosures, while higher-level seats are served by overhead mounts. While Webb said the network initially “had some issues” with 2.4 GHz band activity, the addition of more 5 GHz capacity helped to “vastly increase performance.” The Wi-Fi network now regularly sees 14,000 connections per game, Webb said.

More cellular capacity is also on the way to EverBank Field, as Webb said that two (unnamed) wireless carriers have agreed on a plan to build a DAS in the facility for outside seating coverage.

Patriots upgrade Wi-Fi at Gillette Stadium for 2016 season

Gillette Stadium before the Sept. 18 game vs. the Miami Dolphins. Credit: Steve Milne, AP, via Patriots.com

Gillette Stadium before the Sept. 18 game vs. the Miami Dolphins. Credit: Steve Milne, AP, via Patriots.com

Gillette Stadium, one of the first NFL arenas to have fan-facing Wi-Fi, more than doubled the number of access points in the venue this past offseason, according to team executives.

Fred Kirsch, who goes by the curious title of publisher & vice president of content at Kraft Sports Productions, is well known in stadium tech circles as the overseer of all things technology for the New England Patriots operation. In a recent phone interview, Kirsch said “the timing was right” for a Wi-Fi upgrade at Gillette, a venue that has had fan-facing Wi-Fi since 2012. The team’s first full-stadium network was installed by Enterasys Networks, which was later acquired by Extreme; prior to that, Gillette Stadium had Wi-Fi for luxury suites and clubs provided by gear from Xirrus.

“The [Wi-Fi] overall technology has changed, so we can really improve it now,” said Kirsch about the team’s decision to beef up its wireless network. With new Wi-Fi standards now in most equipment, Kirsch said it was possible to “put in a lot more APs without channel bleed. All over the stadium, we have better coverage.”

Going under-seat in the bowl

According to Kirsch, Gillette Stadium had previously had about 400 Wi-Fi APs in the original design. After the upgrade was over, Kirsch said the stadium now has more than 1,000 APs, with most of the new devices deployed under seats in the bowl seating areas, the latest team to join this growing deployment trend.

In most of the bowl, Kirsch said his team was able to core through the concrete to install the APs; however, some parts of the stadium sit directly upon granite, leading Kirsch and his crew to improvise a cable-and-tray system to get cabling to the APs under the seats. This procedure necessitated custom-designed enclosures, which introduced a small delay in construction procedures, according to Kirsch.

On the game-day application side of things, Kirsch said that the team’s YinzCam-developed app will support faster access to instant replays, and will also add in a third-party option for fans to take a picture of something that might seem astray (like, perhaps, a broken pipe in a restroom) and send it in via the app. Kirsch said the app will be able to geo-locate where the picture came from, giving the team a precise location of the problem.

Extreme buys Zebra’s WLAN biz for $55 million

Wi-Fi gear vendor Extreme Networks beefed up its lineup today with the acquisition of the wireless LAN business of Zebra Technologies, a $55 million deal that is scheduled to close later this year.

While it’s not apparent how the Zebra acquisition will affect Extreme’s stadium and large public venue businesses, it seems like some of the Zebra products including their security and managed services offerings could be a fit for teams in the market for Wi-Fi.

Network World has a good breakdown of the deal, including a quote from Gartner which says Zebra gear should be on the short list for customers in the retail and hospitality businesses (among others) as well as verticals with location requirements, which would seem to include stadiums. Any Zebra users in stadium deployments out there, give us a holler and let us know what you think.

At the very least, the deal is just another sign of consolidation in the Wi-Fi industry, a trend that has seen Brocade buying Ruckus and HP buying Aruba in the bigger deals to date.

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?

NRG Stadium Wi-Fi ‘soft launches’ at Texans preseason game

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.35.17 AMThe Houston Texans gave their fans more to cheer about with a 16-9 preseason victory over the New Orleans Saints last Saturday, but what might have made a lot of people happy at NRG Stadium was the unofficial debut of the stadium’s new Wi-Fi network, which was available in a sort of “soft launch” mode.

We say “sort of,” because according to people who were at the game there was pretty heavy promotion of the new network’s availability, with bandwidth sponsor Comcast distributing flyers in seat cup-holders as well as making in-stadium announcements about the wireless connectivity. NRG Stadium had been one of the few NFL venues without Wi-Fi, but with the Super Bowl headed to Houston at the end of this season installing Wi-Fi became a priority.

Starting after the Final Four concluded this past spring, integrator 5 Bars and Wi-Fi gear provider Extreme Networks got busy, eventually installing approximately 1,250 Wi-Fi APs inside NRG Stadium. According to 5 Bars representatives, many of the APs in the seating bowl were installed under the seats, a deployment method that is becoming a trend in larger stadiums.

Though we don’t have any stats yet (since the network isn’t really “officially” launched) we did hear from network sources that there was a good uptake on the system, and we are looking forward to watching the Wi-Fi’s performance this season leading up to Super Bowl 51 in February. If any fans out there hit another Texans game anytime soon, send us a speedtest of the Wi-Fi!