SBJ/February 27-March 4, 2012/In Depth

The big problem with wireless

Connectivity continues to challenge sports venues. Can they keep up, and who will pay for it?

Bill Schlough, San Francisco Giants senior vice president and chief information officer, looks at the Wi-Fi network serving AT&T Park, and the industry at large, and sees a daunting, almost discouraging reality.

“If you give fans bandwidth, people are going to use it, and they’re going to use it for intensive applications,” Schlough said. “There’s just this absolutely explosive demand happening, and no matter how much capacity you have, the demand continues to rise up to meet that.”

AT&T Park was among the first major sports facilities to offer in-venue Wi-Fi to fans to connect to the Internet. The amenity, first introduced in 2004, was initially seen as something of a curiosity, and used primarily by a small cadre of laptop-toting technophiles.

A Texas Rangers fan shoots cell phone video of batting practice at Rangers Ballpark. The ability of fans to tweet, text, email and share photos and video from their seats is now a fundamental part of the in-venue experience, which places a big strain on a venue’s wireless capabilities.
Photo by: ICON SMI
Eight years and a series of historic smartphone and tablet revolutions later, the mobile dynamic at AT&T Park is far different. Traffic on the network has at least doubled virtually every year, and club officials predict that during the 2012 season, an average of 25 percent of the park’s 41,503-seat capacity will be on the network at any time — a rate nearly 10 percentage points higher than just last year.

The reasons behind the massive surge in mobile demand are easy to understand. Tablets and smartphones have fueled a bold new era in fandom, allowing easy access to a near-infinite amount of scores, statistics, video, social media and other content now considered essential to the game-day, in-venue experience.

The much harder part is building and supporting, both technologically and financially, a network capable of meeting both current demand and expected further spikes in traffic.

The Giants over this winter installed about 25 additional access points to the ballpark Wi-Fi network, bringing AT&T Park’s total to 375. The team typically spends an undisclosed seven-figure sum supporting the network each year. But the situation remains one of barely keeping up.

“It’s really hard to get ahead of this,” Schlough said. “You can get maybe one step ahead for a while, but that’s about it.”
The Giants, of course, are far from alone. Improving in-venue mobile connectivity, through both cellular and Wi-Fi
networks, now represents one of the foremost priorities for any team, league or venue operator. Beyond ensuring enough bandwidth exists to support the mushrooming number and usage of fan-facing applications, connectivity is critical for a range of back-end business functions and public safety.

More simply, the dropped call, missed text and mobile app that won’t load are all common and increasingly high-profile challenges at sporting events. And connectivity is now widely seen as a central component of the fan environment, right along with sight lines, parking or concession choices.

“We’re definitely at a tipping point now,” said Priya Narasimhan, founder and chief executive of Pittsburgh-based YinzCam, which develops mobile apps to be used by fans watching live events in-venue, and now works with 20 teams and arenas. “A few years ago, we still had to sell a lot of teams on the basic idea they needed to have a Wi-Fi network at all. Now the question is, ‘What is the level of bandwidth that we need to support everything and how can we meet the demand?’ It’s a very different stage now.”

That tipping point, however, comes with significant costs. Building out a current-generation mobile network at any particular sports venue typically costs a low to mid-seven-figure sum, and then a similar amount for upkeep and expansion each year. Who pays those bills, or how they are shared between teams, leagues, building owners, wireless carriers and other hardware manufacturers, remains a subject of debate. And any major front-office outlay not directly tied to player payroll often receives vigorous executive scrutiny.

“There’s not one simple model, one simple answer to address this,” said Mike Haberman, Verizon Wireless vice president of network engineering. “There’s a lot of variance between the needs and layout of the venue, the needs of the owner and so forth.”

Unique challenges

Cellular carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, the country’s two largest mobile providers, describe the traffic demand at a typical sports facility as nothing less than a perfect storm.

One starts with the basic grouping of people at an arena or stadium, crowds much larger and more tightly bunched together than in any office building, shopping plaza, park or other common area. Add in the heavy amount of steel and concrete needed in a sports venue, two substances notorious for disrupting mobile signals, and the situation gets more challenging. The circular or ovular shape of many venues presents further complications and creates scenarios where differences in signal reception can vary widely within a facility.

Several major sports properties have put together working groups and leaguewide plans that set common baselines for connectivity and make sure no facilities or teams fall behind.
Photo by: Getty Images
“Designing access for large volumes of people is anything but an exact science,” said Bob Zweig, Arizona Diamondbacks vice president and chief information officer. The club partnered with AT&T to install a new Wi-Fi network at Chase Field in time for last year’s MLB All-Star Game. The network is now a prominent selling point for the club to help move tickets. “And after the fact, there’s quite a bit of adjustment that occurs based on spots of particular demand.”

Furthering the demand equation even more is a heavily disproportionate amount of data uploaded by fans compared with cellular or Wi-Fi traffic at large, as sports fans tweeting, texting, emailing and sharing photos and video from their seats is now a fundamental part of the in-venue experience.

“There are definitely cases where our uploading traffic at a venue is actually greater than what is downloaded, thanks in part to what’s happening in social media,” said Dennis Whiteside, AT&T Wi-Fi Services assistant vice president for marketing and technical sales.

Such a dynamic occurred at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, where AT&T customers at Lucas Oil Stadium uploaded nearly 40 percent more data than they downloaded, part of an overall traffic load that was the carrier’s largest for any single sporting event.

“What we’re looking for at sports is a massive convergence of events: high densities of people in confined spaces, huge traffic demand, and demand that is often coming from down deep in stadium bowls where it can be tougher to get signals,” Whiteside said.

That demand shows absolutely no sign of letting up, or even slowing its rate of increase. Earlier this month, Cisco Systems projected global mobile traffic will explode eighteenfold in the next four years, coupled with a spike in the amount of Internet-connected mobile devices that by then will actually exceed the number of people on the planet. Similarly, AT&T’s total data connections nearly tripled in 2011 compared with 2010.

Those figures and predictions, of course, take into account everything and in no way are limited to what’s happening at U.S. arenas and stadiums. But sports remains a leading-edge industry to observe and project mobile usage patterns.
“There is without question a heightened sense of urgency now,” said Michael Caponigro, Cisco global solutions marketing lead for sports and entertainment.

Addressing the issue

Attempting to respond to the in-venue mobile data onslaught is taking numerous and often interrelated forms. Perhaps the most basic and fundamental are ongoing efforts by each of the major cellular carriers to build out their overall networks, with stadium and arena areas simply benefiting from these broader investments.

Verizon late last year announced it would spend nearly $4 billion to acquire unused wireless spectrum licenses from several cable TV companies, with the primary aim of further developing its 4G LTE network that is significantly faster
than previous third-generation, or 3G, networks. AT&T is feverishly bulking up its own 4G LTE network, though to date, it does not serve as many customers with the advanced connections as its chief rival.

Such efforts never are substantial or rapid enough to satisfy every customer or Wall Street analyst. But with high-demand mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad now available from multiple cellular service providers, carriers know the quality and speed of their networks are more critical than ever to customer recruitment and retention.

“Buying spectrum and working with the government to acquire more spectrum is clearly a major priority for us,” said Verizon’s Haberman.

A related effort is the continued rollout at venues of distributed antenna systems, collections of small antennas used to boost cellular and Wi-Fi coverage in high-density areas. In years past, responsibility for installation costs of DAS were often a mixed bag between cellular carriers and venue owners. But more recently, a new business model has emerged in which the carriers have generally fronted the costs of the venue DAS installations, again in the name of customer retention.

In many instances, cellular carriers also pay license fees of five figures, and sometimes six figures, per year to venue owners to gain access to the facility with DAS equipment. Those carriers then are often able to sublicense access to the DAS to their rivals, and recoup some of their costs.

AT&T just spent $10 million to install a 950-antenna DAS at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, site of next year’s Super Bowl.

Verizon, the official wireless provider of the Baltimore Ravens, paid seven figures to install a universal system with 600 small antennas to improve coverage for all users regardless of their carrier. Verizon, an NFL sponsor, has also upgraded its network infrastructure at Cowboys Stadium, Gillette Stadium and Lincoln Financial Field, as well as MetLife Stadium, where it is one of the facility’s four cornerstone partners.

In a region spanning Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia alone, Verizon has invested $347 million to improve networks for all building types since 2010, said company spokeswoman Melanie Ortel. Since 2000, Verizon has spent $65 billion nationwide, Ortel said.

A more crude, temporary version of the DAS is the COW, short for cellular on wheels. These smaller antenna systems roll in on trucks and carts and deliver short-term bursts of network coverage for high-demand events. Verizon this month brought in three such COWs and AT&T brought nine to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. Each were designed to be supplements to DAS installed in and around Lucas Oil Stadium and the downtown area.

Cisco, meanwhile, last year, introduced Connected Stadium Wi-Fi, a much more targeted and concentrated form of Wi-Fi deployment than most other methods. The system, specifically designed for the density and architectural challenges of stadiums, has been installed thus far at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City and Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

Crewmen with Verizon Wireless conduct a signal test on three cellular on wheels systems taken to Indianapolis to improve connectivity for fans attending this year’s Super Bowl.
Photo by: Verizon Wireless
Cisco’s product is more of a straight vendor relationship, with teams and venue owners covering the cost. Those costs vary based on the number of installed access points and other elements, but reach well into six figures at the low end for most venues. Cisco is trying to position the product as a capital expense that can open up new revenue opportunities such as paid content and mobile food ordering.

High-end Wi-Fi networks such as this can serve a double benefit of not only handling substantial traffic on their own, but also offloading demand from often-overrun cellular networks. Ideally, improved cellular networks such as the growing advent of 4G LTE will have a similar easing effect on stadium Wi-Fi networks.

“There is certainly a mutually beneficial effect by having both the Wi-Fi networks and cellular networks optimized,” Caponigro said.

Then there are the high-level initiatives at the league level. Several major properties have put together working groups and leaguewide plans designed to establish a common baseline of stadium connectivity and help ensure that no one particular facility or club falls too far behind.

MLB was among the most recent, establishing late last year a consortium involving league officials and representatives from several major cellular carriers and hardware manufacturers, and soon to involve club representatives as well. This spring the group, with the aid of the individual clubs, will be conducting a site survey of all 30 ballparks, and developing mobile connectivity solutions that can be applied leaguewide.

“It’s still not one size fits all, and there are going to be varying degrees of implementation,” said Bob Bowman, MLB Advanced Media chief executive and president. “But there’s a real need. Connectivity is like air, particularly for people under 25. It’s that vital. And what we’re after is a thoughtful level-setting to benefit the entire sport that has the backing of the carriers.”

Staff writer Don Muret contributed to this report.
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