Innovation

Super Bowl 52: How the NFL and US Bank Stadium are ready to make digital history

At Super Bowl LII, the Patriots vs. Eagles contest could break a record for the largest data usage ever during an event, as fans stream live video and upload massive quantities of photos to social apps.

It's not just the brutally cold weather that could make history in Minneapolis during Super Bowl 52 on Sunday. The NFL expects football fans to surpass all previous data usage during the big game, with key moments such as the kickoff between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, and Justin Timberlake's halftime show to result in huge amounts of photo and video uploads to social media.

Every year the data usage numbers go up. Last year's Super Bowl 51 matchup between the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons resulted in 11.8 terabytes of data going through the Wi-Fi network at NRG Stadium in Houston. In 2016, Super Bowl 50 had 10.1 TB of total data used over Wi-Fi at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA, which was a 63% increase of the data usage at Super Bowl 49 in Glendale, AZ in 2015.

SEE: How the NFL and its stadiums became leaders in Wi-Fi, monetizing apps, and customer experience (TechRepublic free download)

It's all part of how the NFL has changed dramatically over the past several years by providing high-density Wi-Fi solutions at stadiums to ensure that fans stay connected while at a football game. At the Super Bowl in particular, fans want to be able to take photos and videos and upload them to social media, both to share the experience, and also to ensure that their friends and family know they've snagged a ticket to one of the most sought-after sporting events in the world. After all, what's the point of going to the Super Bowl if no one knows you're there?

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Image: NFL

NFL and stadium officials expect this year will be no different than the past few Super Bowls as fans eagerly consume the data available at US Bank Stadium.

"We're preparing for it to be another record-breaking year because of what we've seen throughout the regular season," said Michelle McKenna-Doyle, senior vice president and CIO of the NFL. The NFL works with its partners Extreme Networks and Verizon to monitor Wi-Fi usage and the amount of data fans are consuming.

Wi-Fi usage throughout the regular season, is "doubling year-over-year almost any amount of capacity that's put in there. And a lot of that gets driven by the top applications that are now accessing these networks," McKenna-Doyle said, pointing out that many of the most popular apps used by fans are video-based and use more data.

"Last year, we almost reached 12 terabytes, which was a little more than we had expected. And then I think this year, we're expecting to top that and we've built in capacity through the Wi-Fi systems and through all the high-end equipment to be able to handle that level of connectivity," McKenna-Doyle said.

John Brams, director of hospitality, sports, and entertainment at Extreme Networks, which is the Official Wi-Fi Analytics Provider of the Super Bowl, said, "I absolutely expect that there'll be more data. I just think that's where we're at. I think as phones become more powerful, as the type of applications that people are using, the requirements around data consumption, it just continues to increase. I'd be surprised if it doesn't expand. General usage numbers, meaning the number of users actually using it, will at some point will level out and I think that won't change the data as it continues to grow and it will continue to grow year on year."

What makes US Bank Stadium cutting edge

US Bank Stadium is one of the most cutting-edge sporting venues in the world. It resembles an ancient Viking warship, which is appropriate given that it's home to the Minnesota Vikings. The 1.75 million square-foot venue opened in July 2016, and it seats 66,655 during regular season games, but that number will drop to 65,000 for the Super Bowl. By comparison, last year's Super Bowl in Houston held 71,000 fans. Yet the NFL still expects data usage numbers to rise.

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US Bank Stadium will be the site of Super Bowl 52.

Image: US Bank Stadium/Nic Lehoux

David Kingsbury, CIO for US Bank Stadium, said the stadium is a Cisco building, top to bottom. The platform is Cisco's Digital Network Architecture, and it uses Cisco Connected Stadium Wi-Fi for a high-density wireless network. There are six 10 Gbps circuits coming into the stadium, and 550 miles of fiber into the building, and 6,200 miles of Cat6 Ethernet copper wiring.

SEE: Super Bowl LII: How Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile have boosted LTE (ZDNet)

"We have a little over 9,000 ports that report to the building. We also routed a Cisco telephone system and IT TV systems in the building, and all the access lights are all Cisco access lights, as well. On the TV side, there's about 2,100 HD TVs in the building. We have about 700 Cisco handsets for the phone system, and about 1,200 access points on the Wi-Fi side," Kingsbury said.

"On top of all of that, Verizon has built up a DAS [Distributed Antenna System]. They've already upgraded once since the building's been opened. So they built it out for the first season and then in between the first season and second season, have already upgraded the system," he said. "Initially, we had approximately 900 DAS antennas throughout the building, and after the upgrade they added roughly another 300, so there's about 1,200 antennas for DAS. In the bowl, both the DAS and the Wi-Fi antennas are primarily mounted in handrail enclosures. And there are a few under seat DAS locations in the end zones. But primarily, it's just a handrail enclosure type of environment."

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Handrail antennas in US Bank Stadium.

Image: Verizon

There have been a few changes made to accommodate the Super Bowl, with temporary broadcast booths causing a few issues with connectivity. However, the addition of more access points and DAS antennas have resolved the problems, Kingsbury said.

The network also extends outside, which is a drastic difference in temperature compared to indoors in Minneapolis. "We have the giant glass doors that are on the west side of the stadium that range from 35 feet to 95 feet tall. So the Vikings, when weather permits, love to have the doors open, which means we have our ticket-scanning operation outside onto the plaza. A network of kind of honeycomb enclosures was designed for our lighting poles on our plaza to extend the Wi-Fi network outside so that we can accommodate both public Wi-Fi usage and wireless ticket scanning that we do using VenueNext devices that are similar to what they use at Levi's Stadium in San Francisco," Kingsbury said.

To make sure that fans know how to use the Wi-Fi, Extreme Networks will once again be providing a Wi-Fi coaching program. There will be 20 certified Extreme Networks coaches walking around the venue to interact with fans and provide info on how to use Wi-Fi and the Super Bowl app and any other tech questions, Brams said.

The analytics solution that Extreme Networks uses is cloud based, and last year was the first time it was used. This year, there have been enhancements done for the reporting and customization the NFL has requested with the analytics, Brams said.

Verizon and AT&T adding connectivity options throughout Minneapolis

Cellular service is separate from the Wi-Fi data used in the stadium. The DAS network and support for the fans participating in Super Bowl events has also been upgraded. More than 1 million visitors are expected to attend Super Bowl festivities in Minneapolis beginning with Super Bowl LIVE.

AT&T has spent more than a year and has invested more than $40 million into its network for the big game, including 122 additional new or enhanced cell sites in the Minneapolis-St.Paul-Bloomington area, said Warren Salek, assistant vice president for RAN engineering at AT&T.

"As we watch every year, it continues to grow. But there are a lot of factors that go into it. I think it's going to be an interesting one this year because we're in a cold weather city, so I think some of the usage might be a little bit more indoors, a little more concentrated, so we are expecting higher volumes than last year and we're ready for it," Salek said.

AT&T upgraded its DAS system at US Bank Stadium, and it will now provide nearly 220% more LTE capacity than at the start of the 2017 football season. As part of the DAS, there are more than 800 antennas hidden throughout the venue, which will help manage heavy wireless traffic on game day.

Outside of the stadium's network, AT&T has also upgraded or installed new DAS at 16 locations throughout the area, including at nearby hotels, arenas, airports, and convention centers. And it's deploying 10 temporary Cell on Wheels (COWs) throughout Minneapolis to handle the expected increas in wireless network demands for the Super Bowl.

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Verizon's small cell antennas outside the stadium.

Image: Verizon

Verizon began planning for the Super Bowl two-and-a-half years ago, six months sooner than normal, because of the need to work around city moratoriums on deploying fiber in frozen ground, said Brian Mecum, vice president of west network for Verizon.

"So two-and-a-half years out, we started. The goal was to train our team to be able to handle and do dry runs for the Super Bowl itself. If you're at Verizon and you're in charge of the single biggest sporting event in the US, and the most watched event and the most shared event on a smartphone, you have to prepare for traffic that is unparalleled," Mecum said.

Verizon has added more than 230 small cell sites in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and 24 new permanent cell sites. Verizon has added 48% more of its DAS antennas inside the stadium, and it's installed a new neutral host DAS system at Mall of America to boost network capacity by 900%. There's also a new neutral host DAS at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport with new 4G LTE coverage in tunnels, to boost Verizon's network capacity at the airport by more than 1,000%.

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The Super Bowl app.

Image: Teena Maddox/TechRepublic

Mecum said, "What happens is, every year, people find more and more to do with their phones. And the most shared event on the planet, which I would say is a Super Bowl game, people go and they need to be able to upload video, Tweet and if it's around anything social media, especially Snapchat, be able to do heavy video usage. And their phone takes pictures and video, and then they back them up in the cloud. So, the phone is constantly chatting with the network. And you know what it's like when you're in the stadium and everyone's yelling? You have to yell at the person sitting next to you to be able to share, because the noise is so loud. That's what happens with our network. It has to be able to hear all those phones, and they're all looking for attention and they're all looking to do something on the network at the same time."

In order to do that, he said, "you have to build for the type of usage that you need. Last year we had 11 terabytes at NRG Stadium. We anticipate between 15 to 24 [terabytes] at US Bank. Because each year, cellular usage almost doubles. So, we've built the LTE Advanced network out for Super Bowl," Mecum said.

And much of the infrastructure remains in place after the big game is over. "I say lucky you if you live in a Super Bowl city," Mecum said.

The Super Bowl 52 app

The Super Bowl app is similar to last year's app, which is provided by the NFL for the venue. Fan usage of the app varies during regular season games, but it can be as much as 40% of all attendees, McKenna-Doyle said.

"We're doing some testing this year, but we don't have it fully enabled where the tickets are on the app. That's what will drive, obviously, full-blown integration and everyone using it is once we go to mobile ticketing. We're testing that at this Super Bowl a bit, so this year will be similar to previous years," McKenna-Doyle said.

"And we also know that the Super Bowl app itself is really meant to be like a utility experience. You just make sure fans can move through the stadium and experience the stadium well because for their social engagement. It's making it seamlessly connected through and be able to switch quickly through, to the team app or other social networks, is what's important," she said.

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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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