Communications Infrastructure in a Stadium

By Jerry Milatz – Nov. 5th, 2014

By now it is old news to most venue managers that their fans want decent mobile connectivity when they enter their building.  The ability to connect to social media, fantasy leagues and even the baby sitter has become a major criteria for people when they attend an event.  And like it or not, what a person shares, tweets and posts can directly impact ticket sales of a facility’s next event.  To that end there has been a decade long push to equip stadiums and arenas with the infrastructure needed to deliver this expectation.

DAS, an acronym that stands for Distributed Antenna System, is the infrastructure of choice for cell phone service delivery to high and very high density (>1 subscriber/meter squared) subscriber placement.  In a DAS system, high capacity cellular service radios are centrally located and an array of small, unobtrusive, antennas are located throughout the facility. Their collective signals are brought back to the radios via copper and/or fiber optic cables.   Generally speaking a correctly engineered and installed DAS system will provide a robust cell system, capable of providing voice and 3/4G LTE data services to even a full house of connected fans.

There are some really big caveats to the DAS system to keep in mind however.  First of all, only fans with carriers that have leased rights on the in-house DAS system will have service.  So before we go much further, this is a good place to discuss the “Carrier Neutral” DAS system.

The politics and economics of installing a DAS system can make even the most hardened negotiators shake with frustration.  Hiring a seasoned professional in this area can add tens of thousands of dollars in revenue per year to the final agreement.  The venue manager will have available to them the option of using a neutral host provider (Boingo, Extenet Systems, American Tower, etc.) to install and run the system, or one of the carriers (ATT, Verizon, etc.).  In the case of the neutral host provider, it will be up to the venue and provider to “entice” carriers to lease services on the DAS system, generally through a long term (10 year) lease agreement. In the case of a carrierinstalled and managed system, it is generally understood that the installing carrier will use the system.  In either case, to make sure as many fans as possible are serviced and kept happy, the venue needs to make sure their agreement with the installer defines the system as carrier neutral, meaning any carrier willing to pay the lease fee can use the system to provide service to their customers.  This will often be negotiated in the spectrum agreement, just one of the assets the venue will be leveraging in this process.

Even with a carefully crafted, carrier neutral spectrum agreement there is no guarantee a venue will come anywhere close to providing coverage to the bulk of its fans needing cellar service.  A venue may only get one (or none) carrier to use the system.  So to make sure everyone stays happy, many venues are over-building their DAS systems with a robust Wi-Fi system.  In many situations where the venue is too small <8,000 seats, it may be impossible to get a carrier interested in providing/installing a DAS system so the only real option is a robust, high density Wi-Fi system.  Even if a venue has managed to get a contractor or carrier interested in installing a DAS system in their arena, the only way to make fans really happy is with a robust, High Density Wi-Fi system.  A robust, high density Wi-Fi system allows r fans to freely share their experience on social networks without chewing through their precious LTE data plans.  In addition, experience has shown that with recurring events, fans will bring in non-LTE devices like iPods, iPads and other tablets for an improved experience, once they know the Wi-Fi is available.  These non LTE devices can greatly improve adoption/participation rates, a key component in generating revenue with sponsors.

At this point I’m sure several readers are saying “we have a Wi-Fi system in our venue”.   If you noticed above, the terms “robust” and “high density” proceeded the term Wi-Fi.  The difference between a Wi-Fi system and a robust, high density, Wi-Fi system, cannot be overstated.  There are NO similarities between them with the exception that they both use the public 2.4 and 5 GHz spectrum.   As a starting point to understanding the differences in a high or very high density Wi-Fi installation, I highly recommend:

Deploying Very High Density Wi-Fi
by Ruckus

(Note: Ruckus has both High Density and Very High Density guides.  We are interested in Very High Density).  Ruckus has identified the paper as targeted towards engineers and advanced installers, but I believe the paper is very well written and the key points can easily be understood by the less technical reader.

Making a robust, high density Wi-Fi system economically feasible is a challenge.  While a DAS system enjoys the benefit of deep pocket carriers, willing to spend reasonable amounts of money to provide service to their subscribers, Wi-Fi enjoys no such benefit.  It is generally up to the venue to monetize this investment as best they can.  Many will simply chalk up the cost to “goodwill”, and well they should, but that would be shortsighted.  The more aggressive will look for ways to make real money with their Wi-Fi investment. 

If a venue has spent the time and money to install a really well designed Wi-Fi system, they have what is called a “carrier-class” system.  This means that if they have a DAS system in theirbuilding, the carrier or carriers recognize that the Wi-Fi system is sufficient to allow the carrier to “off-load” their data traffic to it.  Generally the carrier will pay for this privilege. This is a key point.  The cost to install a carrier-class system verses a pretty good system is fairly negligible.  This is the classic “penny wise, pound foolish” value trap.  When possible, always install a carrier class system, especially in a DAS provisioned building.

As many know, sponsors play a key role in providing revenue to a venue.  Change is afoot, brought on largely by mobile devices and the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) revolution, which has sponsors looking for an experience to link their brand to, rather than just tallying impressions.  Getting a sponsor to help pay for Wi-Fi has now become a very valid approach. However, just providing a splash page that mentions the sponsor of the Wi-Fi service is not enough.  Sponsors and advertising consultants will claim that major brands like Pepsi®, Nike® and other brands venues want to attract, already have 100% brand recognition.  They don’t need more impressions.  What they do want is a quality experience that they can link to their brand to in order to raise brand appreciation and brand reputation in the customer’s mind.  Venues need to enhance their fan’s experience in a way that the sponsor can link their brand to his or hers positive experience.  This will generally involve installing a fan enhancement system like Go Beyond Live® from WFN Solutions, LLC.  This system and others like it, offer the fan a multitude of interactive experiences tailored to the event.  These include streaming views of the event, captured by cameras placed in strategic locations, food and merchandise ordering with delivery to the seat, surveys and trivia games, souvenir photos for keeping and sharing on social media, streaming player and artist video interviews and much more. It is these experiences that sponsors want to link to in an effort to raise appreciation of their brand. You can use your Wi-Fi infrastructure with software like Go Beyond Live® to provide these experiences and better leverage your investment.  The more featurerich the software, the more opportunities exist to offer to sponsors.

Currently, there are many apps which cater to fans in their seats.  Most are what we refer to as an external app.  This means the app relies on connecting to the internet and the internet service provider having enough bandwidth to deliver the app correctly.  And while a large, reliable pipe to the internet is a requirement for social media, fantasy league play, and other services, many of the services like food and merchandise ordering, celebrity interviews, advertising, etc. can be kept in house.  In fact, extremely bandwidth intensive services like video must be kept in-house to ensure a quality experience.  Recent problems with service providers throttling service speeds and blocking popular sites because of high bandwidth requirements must be avoided.  Having the ability to stream a smooth, high resolution video experience is the surest way to get and hold quality sponsors.  To make this happen, in-house content servers must exist. 

Another thing to consider when choosing fan experience software is its flexibility.  Is it one event software or generic, fixed look, software, or can it be skinned to match the event, like the Go Beyond Live® system?  This is very important.  Many venues have more than one team as tenants, like hockey and basketball. Flexible fan software should be able to switch from an afternoon basketball game to and evening hockey matchup quickly and easily.  This means bringing along the logos, color scheme, merchandise, concessions, suite menus, advertising, seat chart, highlight films, external links and everything else that makes that event special and unique.  Providing this level of care and commitment to  permanent tenants and recurring events not only keeps them and their marketing people happy and loyal, it adds one more level of enjoyment for the fans. 

As we move into the future, the partnership between venue managers and high tech solutions providers will become even more important.  Sophisticated fans will continue to insist on even more integration with the event.  Things like videoenabled referee or player helmets, Zamboni® cameras and press box audio feeds are already a reality. Player g-force, speed and elevation statistics, heart rate, blood-oxygen level, and other health stats, all are well within our reach now.  In the very near future, imagination will be the only barrier to what a fan could experience.

About the author: Jerry Milatz holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Michigan Technological University.  He is a principle in CRT & Associates, Inc., a Michigan based consulting firm and a founding partner in WFN Solutions, LLC, creators of the Go Beyond Live fan enhancement software.