It’s easy to take connectivity for granted. Although there is still a digital divide in some rural parts of the United States, many enjoy ubiquitous connectivity in the form of fiber home broadband, mobile network services and public Wi-Fi. However, where connectivity begins to break down in my humble opinion is in sport and entertainment venues. I have lamented in past social media posts about my experiences at the Circuit of the Americas in my hometown of Austin, as well as the Alamodome in nearby San Antonio. It is a frustrating proposition when fan, concession and social media apps simply don’t work in a crowded venue because of oversubscribed Wi-Fi and mobile networks.
However, in 2022 I had the opportunity to visit three venues that understand the value of connectivity for enhancing the fan experience and improving operational efficiency. In this piece, I will dive deeper into each one and provide my insights.
Aruba at Chase Center, San Francisco
Aruba is the networking arm of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). Last November, I spent time with Aruba executives and Daniel Brusilovsky, vice president of technology for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors at the Chase Center. Opened in 2019, the venue is beautiful—and the beauty is not just skin-deep. Careful thought has gone into every aspect of its design to ensure that Bay Area basketball fans and concertgoers have an amazing experience, and this extends to connectivity. Shortly before my visit, the Warriors announced the deployment of Aruba Wi-Fi 6E access points (APs) in the arena—the first implementation of its kind at a live entertainment venue in North America.
During my visit, I learned that more than 250 under-seat APs are deployed in the bowl seating section of the arena. That is an astounding densification for roughly 18,000 attendees, but I put it to a personal test during my game-night visit. Every social media app on my iPhone worked flawlessly, and what’s even more impressive is that attendees can order concessions delivered to their seats via traditional food home delivery apps. From my perspective, the venue has smartly over-engineered capacity that will provide plenty of headroom for future fan activations spanning high-definition video and mixed-reality experiences.
Aruba is also helping simplify ongoing network management at Chase Center. The company’s patented ultra tri-band filtering dynamically adjusts available channels to eliminate signal interference and improve performance in what is typically a highly congested environment. Additionally, Aruba’s toolsets allow the IT operations team to centrally configure and enforce role-based policies across its wireless and wired infrastructure. Speaking of that wired infrastructure, Brusilovsky shared that the venue has an astounding 600 miles of fiber optic cable. Aruba’s gear also provides Bluetooth Low Energy and Zigbee to support IoT use cases that span asset tracking and sensors for wayfinding. It is also worth mentioning that Aruba is first to market with its Open Locate feature. This integrates GPS into the Chase Center APs to facilitate robust location-based services and automatically map AP installations; it eliminates what is typically a tedious manual process that’s often inaccurate or overlooked by network operators because it requires too much effort.
Cisco at Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas
Last June I spent time with Cisco at their signature Live event in Las Vegas. While I was there, I visited Allegiant Stadium, which is now home to the recently transplanted Raiders franchise in the NFL, and which is another technological marvel. The most massive piece of tech? A sliding tray that moves the entire playing field in and out of the arena—and that weighs 19 million pounds!
It is no surprise that the venue operations team at Allegiant turned to Cisco for connectivity. With a seating capacity of 65,000 attendees, the venue required careful attention to network planning as an essential element of its construction. Many arenas deploy under-seat AP placement, but in a space as large as Allegiant Stadium, that design would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, Cisco provided an overhead solution for the venue, leveraging its Catalyst 9104 AP to deliver Wi-Fi 6 for faster throughput, lower latency and support for a greater number of fan devices. The footprint of the AP is considerably larger than a typical AP, but it also integrates high-gain antennas to simplify deployment. Additionally, Cisco has integrated a software-configurable antenna that facilitates both beam switching and steering, two capabilities that are necessary in large venues and outdoor environments.
During my back-office operations tour of the stadium, I was struck by the sophistication of the IT control room, which includes additional Cisco gear. From my perspective, this is likely one of the reasons why the networking stalwart was awarded the deployment over Extreme Networks, which enjoys a deep relationship with the NFL. There is value in partnering with a full-stack solution provider, and Cisco has significant capabilities beyond Wi-Fi in the form of routing, switching, routed optical networking and a private 5G-as-a-service offering. I suspect that Allegiant Stadium will rely heavily on Cisco as it continues to refine its connectivity experience for fans and concert attendees.
T-Mobile at Q2 Stadium, Austin
Last October, I attended an Austin FC soccer match at Q2 Stadium and spent time with the IT operations lead there. The new venue is the home of the two-year-old Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise—the first professional sports team in my hometown. (I’m still bummed that The Verde didn’t make it to the championship game!) However, in my mind, Q2 Stadium is a big winner with respect to its partnership with T-Mobile in deploying what is likely one of the first 5G Standalone venue networks in the United States. Standalone marries both 5G core and radio access network elements to unlock the true promise of 5G from a latency and throughput perspective.
At Q2 Stadium, this is culminating in T-Mobile’s Ultra Capacity 5G deployment with its 2.5 GHz spectrum assets. Mid-band provides the best balance of coverage and performance, and my speed tests while walking the venue proved that out. T-Mobile claims that average download speeds are 16 times faster than LTE during a crowded game. In my humble opinion, that’s a game changer (pun intended) as it allows fans to share their game-day experiences on social media as well as allowing tablets enabled with concession apps to order food and beverages. I am looking forward to attending future games knowing that I will enjoy the benefits associated with a world-class 5G deployment.
Two other venue and near-venue mobile networking deployments are worth mentioning despite my not visiting them in person: the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and Minute Maid Park in Houston. Both have one thing in common, leveraging Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum managed through OnGo. OnGo is making it much easier to acquire the spectrum necessary to deploy LTE and 5G private networks. As a result, Comcast is leaning into CBRS for its private cellular networking deployment at the Wells Fargo Center.
Last January, Comcast announced its plans for the venue, which entail support for both LTE and 5G that will leverage Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud. The announcement signals Comcast’s launch into the private 5G networking business after its acquisition of CBRS spectrum. What I like about the partnership is that Comcast is taking advantage of Nokia’s early lead in private cellular wireless through a fully integrated solution that includes radios, baseband stations and the software to manage the entire deployment.
The second honorable mention is a near-venue deployment close to Minute Maid Park, home of my beloved Houston Astros. Astros fan Max Gold lives across the street from the venue and quickly became frustrated with the lack of coverage provided by Verizon, so he built a DIY 5G network using Baicells wireless gear on the Pollen Mobile network utilizing CBRS spectrum. What’s innovative is that Mr. Gold is rewarded financially when people connect to his network, and he proved that his 5G deployment outperformed Verizon during the Astros run to a second World Series victory with tweets of his live speed tests during the playoffs.
I am excited to see more sports and entertainment venues invest in next-generation wireless connectivity to enhance the attendee experience and improve concessions and overall operational efficiency. Chase Center, Allegiant Stadium and Q2 Stadium all stand out for forward-looking connectivity planning and deployment, which should pay dividends in the form of more efficient operations, improved profitability and a world-class fan experience. OnGo and CBRS also continue to democratize access to licensed spectrum and accelerate the deployment of private cellular networks.
Boil it all down, it’s a win-win for venues and attendees. I hope to see more venues for the major team sports and embrace this kind of forward thinking.