Mobility

Fast-paced tech upgrades at the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is more than mint juleps and fast horses. It's also about fast mobile connectivity and a brand new app.

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AT&T and Mobilitie have expanded coverage at Churchill Downs by adding antennas to the network.
Image: Jonathan Palmer/TechRepublic

On the outside, stunning red roses, magnificent horses and a plethora of elaborate hats are what the world will see at the 142nd Kentucky Derby on May 7. But behind the scenes is the work on the tech behind the high-speed connectivity for Derby goers at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

For the fourth straight year, AT&T and Mobilitie have enhanced the capacity for mobile coverage at the Derby. Each year, they upgrade the existing Distributed Antenna System (DAS) by adding antennas in strategic locations. This year's upgrades have added more than 50% more LTE capacity to the wireless network, with more than 1 million feet of fiber optical cable and 290 antennas in place. Mobilitie owns the DAS infrastructure at Churchill Downs and AT&T is the anchor tenant on the DAS, adding its own equipment, spectrum and radios to the existing DAS infrastructure.

Photos: See behind-the-scenes photos of the mobile network infrastructure at Churchill Downs.

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The network server room at Churchill Downs.
Image: Jonathan Palmer/TechRepublic

The boosted network will power a new mobile app that Churchill Downs introduced just in time for Derby. The app is powered by VenueNext, the same company that created the app for Levi's Stadium and Super Bowl 50. The app will allow for express ordering of food and drinks, mobile ticketing, online wagering, videos and more.

"Every venue knows that the smartphone has become the center of people's lives. They can't not be able to use it when they're at a live venue," said John Paul, CEO and founder of VenueNext. "They want to let all their friends know that they're there, and their friends aren't."

Monetizing the data

The apps are expensive, so venues offset the cost by monetizing the data they collect on fans.

"A paper ticket in the old days was a great anonymizer. I might buy a ticket but I give it to you to go to the game. By putting mobile tickets on people's phone, they start to learn who is at the game. So they can better market to those people who are coming to the game," Paul said.

The Churchill Downs app will collect data on users to find out more about their preferences.

Social media is essential to promoting any event, especially highly coveted events such as the Kentucky Derby. But with 170,000-plus fans present, it takes high-speed connectivity to allow fans to post on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and other social media outlets.

Last year's Derby drew the biggest crowd in the history of the famous race, with more than 170,000 attendees. The previous day, 123,000 people attended the Kentucky Oaks. The track had a Snapchat competition, inviting people to submit stories via the social media outlet. There were more than 47,000 people who entered videos, which resulted in 1.3 million views, which shows the intense interest in the race.

Data usage explosion

"We're having a data explosion," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs.

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Antennas are strategically placed throughout the track.
Image: Jonathan Palmer/TechRepublic
Each year, the demand for data usage at the Derby doubles, with traffic numbers for this year expected to surpass that of Super Bowl 50, said Dana Tardelli, senior vice president of wireless solutions for Mobilitie. During this year's Super Bowl, 15.9 terabytes of data was transferred over Levi's Stadium DAS, as previously reported by TechRepublic.

AT&T and Mobilitie spent six months upgrading the existing network, and as soon as this year's Derby is over, the team will start preparing for next year's race.

During last year's Derby, AT&T had 5.1TB of data used over its network, which is equivalent to 15.3 million selfies shared, and it expects to surpass last year's record-setting total this weekend, said David Wiginton, AT&T area manager of construction and engineering.

In addition to the beefed-up mobile network and venue app, tech is taking over the race in other ways, particularly with the addition of Trakus sensors in the saddlecloth of the horses. The sensors collect real-time data on the race that is turned into graphics to show the position of each horse, as reported in TechRepublic.

Win, place or show, there's clearly a demand for mobile usage and high tech among horse racing fans at the Kentucky Derby.

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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