Brandon's Blog: Big House Cellular Coverage Efforts Continue
MGOBLUE Michigan Stadium
MGOBLUE
Michigan Stadium
MGOBLUE
Aug. 10, 2014

University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon will regularly offer his view on a variety of topics related to U-M and intercollegiate sports. All his posts, along with links to related content, will be available on his page, mgoblue.com/brandon, and he is also on Twitter at @DaveBrandonAD.

Historically, cellular coverage and Wi-Fi networks in sports stadiums have either been nonexistent or subpar. In fact, the Sports Business Journal went as far as calling stadium and arena connectivity 'shoddy.' My experience would suggest this is a case of accurate reporting

At our recent Manchester-United-Real Madrid soccer match, our U-M Athletic Department in partnership with the University of Michigan Information and Technology Services tested upgraded cellular coverage in Michigan Stadium with Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility.

Cellular service at Michigan Stadium has always been sub-par, and we continue to pursue every possible alternative to improve this amenity for our fans. We have tested several approaches to improving cellular coverage and performance -- with results that have been more frustrating than they have been effective. While our test at the soccer game received some anecdotal kudos, others found cellular coverage to still be lacking. So why isn't there an easier answer?

Sports teams across the country are searching for answers. Even the new, sparkling football stadium for the San Francisco 49ers located in the shadows of Silicon Valley, the promise of top-notch connectivity fizzled in its debut. [ The San Francisco 49ers' New Football Stadium Is a Dud (Bloomberg Businessweek) ]

Part of the problem for all of us is our own expectations. We all want the same level of service during a football game as we enjoy at other times and other places.

Speed is one issue, but the lack of consistent access to coverage is simply irritating.

So, what causes speed and connectivity issues?

Even if we are using the best cell phone technology available, once we get into a large crowd, everyone is competing for access to a limited resource. So the amount of information trying to get through the 'pipe' is huge when thousands of people want to tweet, text or call during a timeout, halftime, after a big play, etc.

The amount of information being transmitted also puts enormous pressure on the capacity limits of 'the pipe.' Phone calls and texts are smaller in size, but when someone uploads or downloads a photo or video, the amount of data being transmitted increases exponentially.

This is only a Cliffs Notes version of the problem. We owe it to our fans to explain what the U-M Athletic Department is trying to do in order to deliver faster speeds and better connectivity at our events.

We want our fans to have the best possible level of connectivity that will hopefully allow them to use their mobile device to text, tweet, make phone calls and do simple things on social media. We are simply not able to provide every fan access to high speed Wi-Fi that allows for the transmitting of pictures and/or streaming videos. This has nothing to do with financial investment; it has everything to do with the unique challenges created by Michigan Stadium.

To improve connectivity in today's mobile technology world, some stadiums with a second level can mount antennas under a second deck, aiming the signal towards the first deck. With Michigan Stadium built below street level and having one continuous, open seating arrangement, we have to find locations to unobtrusively place antennas -- which impacts their effectiveness.

Aesthetics is important. If we took aesthetics off the board, we could put up poles, cables and increase connectivity. The downside is Michigan Stadium would look like an erector set!

In our most-recent effort, we built fake brick piers to camouflage antennas at field level. This allows the radio waves to shoot back up into the stands. The original system only allowed us to place the antennas under the various spectator tunnels located around the stadium, which allowed the signal to be distributed up and down the stadium. We still use the other systems, but the increased signal from the field provided a noticeable improvement.

Having the largest capacity in the nation (109,901) and the density of the fans within the bowl are all issues our engineers and consultants are trying to tackle.

In an indoor arena with a much smaller capacity, connectivity is much easier to achieve. In that environment it is possible to get a much better technological experience.

In that setting, spectators can often use fairly reliable Wi-Fi -- a different technological challenge. But when you try to provide this kind of capacity (the pipe!) for tens of thousands of people, often times trying to access the network at the same time, it becomes very difficult.

So, one may ask, why can't we just get a bigger pipe?

The short answer we have been given is that we are up against the limit of physics. Cellular phones are connected to radio waves. This is not a new technology.

Engineers place antennas to cover specific sections of the stadium to allocate the bandwidth as effectively as possible allowing the pattern of radio waves to be organized in such a way to maximize capacity of the 'pipe.'

We are working to engineer the best possible connectivity with aid of the experts at the University of Michigan, consultants, and the cellular providers themselves. And because of the difficulties presented to this technology by the design of Michigan Stadium, we continue to test different engineered designs by the two carriers who have been willing to partner with the U-M Athletic Department -- Verizon and AT&T Mobility.

Now other carriers are discussing partnerships with U-M as the mobile industry examines ways to better serve their customers.

The results of our recent test during the soccer game will provide us with a significant amount of analytical data when the carriers decipher the numbers. High-level analysis points to a 600-percent increase in capacity in certain areas. The big challenge is that with the seemingly insatiable demand for connectivity, the extra capacity is almost immediately consumed. Another way to think of it is last year Verizon had the equivalent of two 'cell towers' covering the inside of the stadium. For the soccer game they had the equivalent of four cell towers and, with further refinements, they are targeting to have the equivalent of seven towers by the first football game. The initial cut at the data suggests we are clearly making progress, but to increase our fans connectivity to the extent that everyone gets quick cellular access when they want it will still require a lot of testing, work and refinement.

Nearly 100 years ago, when Fielding H. Yost conceived the plans with architects and engineers for Michigan Stadium, they built it with the idea that it could have a future capacity of up to 125,000 spectators. We will continue to work hard and smart to create the best mobile capacity possible to ensure those who attend events at our stadium will continue to enjoy a great college football atmosphere well into the future.

Go Blue!

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