Verizon has been telling football fans that 5G will enable them to download an episode of sports-based reality show Hard Knocks faster than former Minnesota Viking Randy Moss can run a 40-yard dash. Now data on the actual performance of its stadium 5G network is trickling in, thanks to analysis from wireless consulting and testing firm Signals Research Group.
The firm's analysts walked the entire U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, performing downlink and latency tests of the Verizon 5G network using Samsung Galaxy S10 smartphones. The venue is one of 13 NFL stadiums getting 5G through a Verizon partnership with the NFL. At U.S. Bank Stadium, the tests showed that download speeds topped out just under 1.9Gbit/s. That's clearly speedy, but the stadium was mostly empty and not many people have 5G phones anyway, so the figure mostly matches expectations.
More importantly though, 5G coverage in the stadium was widespread.
"Although we can't definitively state that every single seat in the 66,655-seat stadium has 5G coverage, we are confident that virtually all seats have good, if not great, 5G RF connectivity," the analysts concluded in their report. Even in the concourse behind the seats, the analysts found that throughput was typically more than 1Gbit/s.
"The RF energy from the 5G radios was able to radiate through the narrow gaps in the stadium seats and find its way into the concourse," the team wrote. "These results are impressive because the network wasn't designed to provide coverage in this area." Moreover, the analysts said signal strength in the stadium was consistently better than the signal strength they have seen in outdoor 5G tests.
Caveats and details
There are at least two important differences between what the analysts observed in their test and the ways actual fans could experience 5G on game days. First, the network is heavily congested on game days, which of course is one big reason the NFL sees the value in 5G. But all those people could slow things down.
Second, most cellphone use occurs while fans are in their seats watching the game, not walking the aisles. If a fan happens to be seated in a place the signal does not reach, he or she might have to be on LTE or WiFi throughout the game instead of 5G. Most people would be fine with this as long as their phone worked, but it does present a problem if the stadium wants to use 5G to offer promotions or apps to the fan base. And clearly this is what the NFL has in mind. "Having this cutting-edge technology in our stadiums will greatly enhance the game-day experience and bring a multitude of benefits to our fans and Clubs in a number of different ways," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when the league announced its deal with Verizon earlier this year.
According to Signals Research Group, Verizon has a total of 13 5G radios inside U.S. Bank Stadium. The carrier has never claimed that this deployment would guarantee a 5G experience for every Vikings fan with a 5G smartphone. When it announced its plans to bring 5G to the 13 stadiums, the company said the service would be "concentrated in parts of the seating areas." But Signals Research Group found that almost every seat now has "good 5G RF connectivity," which suggests that the indoor network is performing at least as well as expected, if not better.
Still, 13 radios may not ultimately be sufficient for the 1.75 million square foot U.S. Bank Stadium. According to Qualcomm, 10 co-sited 5G NR mmWave small cells can provide median throughput of ~4.2 Gbps to a 160,000 square foot airport concourse. The U.S. Bank Stadium is more than ten times that large.
Right now it's difficult to know exactly how many 5G radios each carrier will need in premiere venues like football stadiums. Even if a carrier wanted to blanket a venue with 5G radios, it could be tricky given that stadiums need to also accommodate LTE and WiFi access points as well.
More and more WiFi
Despite the promises of 5G, stadiums are expected to remain heavily committed to WiFi for the foreseeable future. For example, Cisco recently signed a deal to deploy 2,500 WiFi 6 access points in Los Angeles's new SoFi Stadium, which will be the world's largest NFL stadium when it is completed. WiFi is carrier neutral and is the go-to solution for mobile ticket downloads, which are increasingly important to sports arenas. Ticket issuers often update barcodes every 15 seconds to avoid theft, so a screenshot of a mobile ticket is almost certain to be rejected at the gate. Fans need to be able to download their tickets in real-time at the gate, regardless of which mobile carrier they use.
U.S. Bank Stadium says its free public WiFi network is supported by 550 miles of fiber optics and 6,200 miles of copper wiring. That same infrastructure supports a 1,200-antenna neutral host distributed antenna system for 4G and 3G cellular connectivity.
The stadium might like to use a neutral host or shared infrastructure model for 5G, so that it wouldn't have to support equipment for each carrier. One model for 5G infrastructure sharing is the multi-operator core network approach, which means that operators share the radio access network and maintain their own core networks. But that is most likely to work in situations where the operators use the same spectrum bands for 5G.
Verizon is using the 28GHz millimeter wave band for 5G, and according to chip vendor Qualcomm, that bodes well for 5G performance indoors. "The fact that mmWave does not propagate well from the outside to inside is beneficial for deploying mmWave indoors as well, since the same mmWave spectrum can be reused indoors with limited coordination with the outdoor deployment," Qualcomm wrote in recent blog post. "This benefit opens new possibilities for mobile operators to offer private indoor mmWave networks, in addition to expanding mmWave indoors as part of their public networks."
Expansion of the public network indoors is clearly the goal for Verizon with its stadium initiatives. AT&T is moving in the same direction, having recently announced plans to deploy 5G at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And although no carrier has publicly announced plans to bring 5G to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, vendors expect it to be 5G-ready by the time it hosts the Super Bowl in 2021.
— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse