Fans flocking to NRG Stadium in Houston this weekend to watch the NCAA Final Four and cheer on their favorite college team will be unaware of the behind-the-scenes scrambling to prepare the venue for the connectivity needs of more than 75,000 fans.
The Final Four is the pinnacle of years of planning to prepare each host venue for what it needs to handle the
connectivity needs of hordes of basketball fans that will flock in from all parts of the country to watch the battle for the championship title. The amount of data being accessed during the Final Four grows every year, as fans post photos and videos to Instagram and Snapchat and other social media, and while they access the NCAA's March Madness app.
The data usage is expected to surpass that from Super Bowl 50 this year, said Artecia Wilson, AT&T area manager of construction engineering. At Super Bowl 50, as reported by TechRepublic, there was 5.2 terabyes of data transferred over the AT&T network, and overall there was 10.1TB of data consumed during the event.
Getting the stadium ready for 75,000-plus fans
L.J. Wright, director of men's basketball for NCAA, said they've been working for more than a year to get NRG Stadium ready for the onslaught of more than 75,000 fans this coming weekend, April 2-4.
"For the Final Four, it's amazing how the usage just continues to grow. It's almost that you can't keep up with it. A new building being built today might not be able to keep up with the added demands of a Final Four because fans are busy texting their friends, everybody's staying connected," Wright said.
NRG Stadium will be the host for next year's Super Bowl, so it's already been amping up it's connectivity, which made it a natural fit to host the Final Four. "At an event like this, because you want the fans to have the best experience possible, you try to plan and get the facilities up to speed," he said.
One of the problems to overcome each year is that the Final Four is always held in football stadiums, due to the need to house a larger crowd than will fit in basketball arenas. This means that while the stadium might have a state-of-the-art system set up for football seating, it will change when the NCAA brings in seats closer to the court.
"When we come in with our seating system, we build our seats for basketball. We actually seat people out where the numbers are on a football field. We build from the court all the way up into the permanent fixed seats in a stadium. Some of the venues are building their Wi-Fi into their fixed seating, placing it underneath. For football that's great, but when we build our decks, there's this obstruction, so they have to work around how to accommodate this seating system we have," Wright explained.
AT&T has invested $25 million on DAS upgrades in Houston for the Final Four. AT&T added 375% more LTE capacity to the stadium's existing wireless network, with more than 765 DAS antennas. It also spend just over $1 million on a giant spherical antenna that is aptly named the Giant Eyeball Antenna and is used for cell on wheels (COW) deployment in downtown Houston to cover Final Four-related events and concerts. The COW handles expected spikes in demand to keep up with connectivity demands, AT&T's Wilson said.
"The idea is that the spherical ball would allow you to provide coverage in a circular environment. It could be in the middle of a venue and it's providing support all around. Typically you have antennas that are directional so you need multiple antennas. In this instance the eyeball is providing coverage all around," Wilson said.
Why connectivity matters
It's essential to provide seamless connectivity to fans, as previously written about on TechRepublic.
"If you just stop and look at a game, everybody has a cell phone now. It's an amazing thing to stand back and watch the tipoff. If you don't watch the actual tip, if you watch the fans, there are so many flashes going off with everybody with their cell phones. Older generations and younger generations are all on their phone. Whether that's my dad or my son, they all have their cell phones and they're sharing with their friends," Wright said.
One of the reasons why solid connectivity matters for the NCAA is unique to March Madness. "In the first and second rounds, we have four sites going on a day. Four sites on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Four sites being played with games. If I'm in Lexington, the University of Kentucky might not be playing in Lexington, but the Wildcats might be playing in some other part of the country. And their game is on the same day. So I pull out my iPad and pull up the March Madness app and I'm watching the Wildcats play in another part of the country," Wright said.
When a majority of fans are doing the same thing, whether watching their favorite teams play in another venue or praying that their brackets won't be busted, it creates a vast need for Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity.
"Data usage increases every single year. It's amazing. When you think about it, the attendees at these venues want to take pictures being at the actual event. Then they share it on Twitter, on Instagram, on other social media outlets and you need data to do it. It grows every single year," Wilson said.
AT&T's Wilson is looking forward to the outcome of the Final Four, and, ironically, it's unrelated to which team wins the championship. "I'm looking forward to seeing the final stats when Final Four is done because a lot of work has gone into supporting the event. I can't wait to see the final result."
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 People, W and Women's Wear Daily.