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Are You Ready for Some Wireless?

By Mike Collado
September 5th, 2013

In anxious anticipation of the start of football season, CNN published a story this week that explores the conundrum the sports and entertainment industry is wrestling with: meeting the wireless expectations of today’s uber-connected fan.

Cynics – which includes my wife – will wonder why on earth sports and concert goers need broadband capacity. After all, it’s noisy, you’re there to have fun, and the stadium shows scores from other games, right?

Wrong.

At a recent San Francisco Giants game at AT&T Park, it was the fans who were not looking at their smartphones and tablets that made up the minority.

And just to mollify any argument that you’d expect to see technology on display in Silicon Valley, the same was true at a Lynchburg Hillcats game – a minor league farm team for the Atlanta Braves.

AT&T Park - Home of the San Francisco Giants

 

Calvin Falwell Field - Home of the Lynchburg Hillcats

 

Bringing the Home Game Day Experience to the Stadium

The trend is so acute that both stadium owners and leagues are reacting. According to the CNN article:

The improved home-viewing experience — high-def TV, watching multiple games at once, real-time fantasy-football updates and interaction via social media — has left some NFL stadiums scrambling to catch up. It’s one of the reasons why, before rebounding last year, the NFL lost attendance between 2008 and 2011, forcing the league to alter television-blackout rules.

 

In response, the NFL (see more here) and MLB (see more here) have launched stadium Wi-Fi initiatives.

What will that mean for the fan?

Bleacher Report provides a great vision that includes social media interaction, stadium concessions and a dizzying array of multimedia and game footage.

Earlier this year at DAS and Small Cell Congress, SOLiD hosted a panel of experts that included John Avenson, Vice President of Technology for the Minnesota Twins. Target Field is one of the first stadiums to provide Wi-Fi. It has also deployed a Distributed Antenna System (DAS).

Avenson shared that today’s fans expect to stay connected, and that expectation now transcends generations.

The same panel included a wireless operator who, in describing the stadium of the future, declared that fans simply won’t come if the stadium can’t deliver a great wireless experience.

DAS First, Wi-Fi Later

Here’s where things get interesting…

In its inaugural “State of the Stadium Technology Survey”, Mobile Sports Report editor Paul Kapustka found that DAS is more prevalent that Wi-Fi:

When it comes to wireless connectivity, Wi-Fi might get the headlines, but according to our respondents, Distributed Antenna Systems, or DAS, is actually more popular. Fifty-three percent of survey respondents said their facility already has a full-facility DAS deployment to all areas, while only 33 percent of respondents said they currently offer high-quality Wi-Fi to all seating areas. Why is DAS showing up first, and Wi-Fi later? Simply because of two reasons: Putting in a DAS, a network of smaller, distributed cellular antennas, eliminates the most pressing problem in many large venues: The “no service at all” issue that arises when tens of thousands of cellular customers are competing for access from a few local towers. Though it might be slower than a Wi-Fi connection, DAS provides a working signal to a majority of people in a facility, solving the most vexing problem for many fans, that of having no connection at all.

 

Carriers fund stadium DAS networks to assure strong carrier Net Promoter Scores or Quality of Service for their customers. The concern is that if a fan can’t upload a photo of the winning touchdown, they might just switch cellular providers the next day.

(DAS is also effective for enabling public-safety coverage in the stadium)

But – as we learned at the recent SEAT Conference – carriers are not particularly keen on funding Wi-Fi deployments for the simple reason that they believe the DAS will be sufficient to handle data capacity.

Achieving the Vision

Clearly, DAS is going to be deployed only at high-profile stadium locations. (Sorry, Hillcats fans…)

But satisfying the fans’ broadband needs through Wi-Fi requires addressing the conundrum of paying for the network which the CNN article touches on:

Another reason, Kapustka said, is that the cost of installing Wi-Fi will come out of the pockets of venue owners and operators who have traditionally not needed to invest in such costly projects. Instead, they receive public money to help build stadiums and television money for the right to broadcast games.

“Stadium owners and operators need to get their hands on the fact that they need to put in Wi-Fi like they need to put in plumbing,” Kapustka said.

 

Given the costs to deploy either DAS or Wi-Fi, infrastructure – not revenue models or cellular and Wi-Fi technology – is perhaps the MVP (it just seemed appropriate – smiles) in assuring these networks can scale to enable the connected fan both today and in the future. RCR Wireless captured our thoughts last May at the HetNet Forum‘s DAS in Action event:

 

Your Turn

What are the challenges and opportunities for enabling the Home Game Day Experience at the Stadium?

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