November 19, 2015 by
When Kansas State University took on the self-imposed challenge of delivering “the best fan experience in the Big 12″ a couple years ago, it was clear that something had to be done about the lack of wireless connectivity in its largest sports venues.
Before this football season, KSU took a big step forward in living up to its goals by partnering with Boingo Wireless and Aruba Networks to bring stadium-wide Wi-Fi and DAS networks for fans to the Bill Snyder Family Stadium, with plans to follow up with similar connectivity for Bramlage Coliseum, the school’s basketball arena. With 380 Wi-Fi access points and 200-plus DAS antennas in Snyder Stadium, fans there will no longer have to complain about not being able to get a signal, a problem that reached a tipping point last year, according to the K-State network staff.
According to Scott Garrett, the senior associate athletic director for external operations, the idea of fan-facing Wi-Fi or improved cellular via a DAS (distributed antenna system) had been talked about internally since 2008 or 2009, especially so when the stadium underwent significant construction revisions in 2012. Built in 1967, the football stadium had expanded to its current capacity of 50,000 fans, who in the last couple years started letting the school know that “no signal” was no fun.
“Our [yearly] fan survey, especially the last couple years, had a growing feedback about the inability to connect [at the stadium],” Garrett said. Back in 2010 and 2011, there really wasn’t a hue and cry, but “every year since then, the negative feedback [about connectivity] had doubled,” Garrett said. “It was really painful after last season.”
Building two networks at once
What fans didn’t know last year was that a plan was already in place to fix the issue, thanks to an RFP crafted by the athletics department and the campus telecom office. After sorting through several candidates, including carrier-driven DAS-only plans, Kansas State went with Boingo Wireless as the lead deployer for both a DAS and a Wi-Fi network, with rental revenues from the former helping offset the deployment costs of the latter.
“Boingo has a lot of experience in the [stadium] marketplace, and their financial model allows us to install a DAS and get money to build a Wi-Fi network,” Garrett said. Even though the deal was signed in 2014, the complexity of bringing new networks to older buildings was such that the target date for launch became the start of the 2015 football season.
Doug Lodder, vice president of business development at Boingo, said there was a “boatload of synergy” in doing both a DAS and a Wi-Fi network deployment at the same time. “Just knowing where antennas will be placed for either one makes both better,” Lodder said.
The biggest deployment challenges for both networks were in both end zones of the stadium, both of which have only one section of stands with no overhangs, making it tough to locate antennas. Without using under-seat antennas (“we are firm believers that going up from under is a last resort,” said Lodder) Lodder said Boingo was able to make its design work — “we found enough ways to get the APs in,” he said.
For the Wi-Fi network, Boingo used gear from Aruba Networks, a choice made in part because Aruba gear was already in use in other parts of the Kansas State campus.
For the DAS, Boingo used Teko gear from JMA Wireless. Currently Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are on the DAS, with Garrett “hoping to add AT&T” sometime soon.
Another classic issue for many deployments in older stadiums, where to locate the head-end room, was solved for this season with a temporary structure since the proximity of the basketball arena — according to Garrett it sits about 30 yards beyond the football stadium’s south end zone — was just one of several factors putting a crimp on available head-end real estate.
“We’re still trying to figure out a permanent place for the head end,” Garrett said. “We just didn’t have room for it on the [existing] site.”
Soft launches and a new app
With construction taking place over the summer, Kansas State knew it couldn’t keep its network a secret. On Aug. 12, athletic director John Currie posted a letter on the K-State website, which in part told fans about the new networks being installed, as well as the availability of a new game day application, built by SportsLabs, a 2-year-old startup based in Boulder, Colo.
Garrett said the “teaser” letter from the AD helped alert fans to the new connectivity options, and some started taking and sharing photos of the antennas during pre-season activities at the stadium. But just to make sure the launch didn’t overset expectations, Garrett said the KSU staff kept mostly silent through the first game of the season on Sept. 5, allowing them to have a bit of a “beta” type soft launch.
The go-slow start helped, he said, because it allowed network administrators to identify and correct a logon issue before the next home game. Garrett said Kansas State also monitors social media in real time, allowing for on-the-spot fixes when fans are having problems.
“We once saw two tweets about a problem in Section 9 [of the stadium] where some fans got kicked off the Wi-Fi,” Garrett said. “We were able to test and monitor and provide immediate feedback.”
Throughout the season, Garrett and his staff stepped up the promotion of the network, and drove fans to download the new game-day app, which includes interactive stadium maps and integrated access to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram so fans can follow and post directly from the KSU app.
Rebecca Cameron, senior account director for SportsLabs, said that in addition to in-stadium use there is also a lot of app usage for fans who aren’t at the game, with the live game audio being the app’s most popular service. According to Cameron more than 4,000 fans have downloaded the app so far this season.
Garrett said KSU and SportsLabs will continue to add to the app, with a future eye on support of services like mobile concession ordering and instant replays. Garrett said Kansas State is a bit unusual for a big NCAA school in that it controls its own media rights, allowing it to make final decisions on technology providers.
“We were looking for a more sophisticated digital effort, and we really liked what SportsLabs had to offer,” Garrett said. Though not widely known, SportsLabs is making a name for itself in the sports app and websites field, having already secured the College Football Playoff series as a customer, along with the University of Kentucky and the ACC and West Coast Conference.
The new network and all its trappings, Boingo’s Lodder said, places Kansas State among the leaders in the collegiate connectivity race, ahead of many larger schools in bigger media markets.
“A lot of Pac-12 schools haven’t put in Wi-Fi yet,” Lodder noted. “It’s interesting to see who is taking that first step.”
Kansas State’s Garrett is happy that the initial problem of no signal is solved, and is enjoying seeing what a high-definition network can produce.
“It’s incredible to go from having no ability to text or call at all to having that problem totally solved,” Garrett said. “Now it’s great to see how many people are getting on Facebook and Twitter, sharing with friends. We’re looking forward to expanding and seeing what other new things we can add.”