Small cells

Carrier WiFi's Not Winning in Sports Arenas

The need for connectivity in sports venues is growing as mobile device usage has become as common as the over-consumption of beer, but carriers' interest in being the connectivity providers is starting to wane.

Sports venues used to be a prime market for carrier WiFi deployments, until the business case started to get murky. Whereas carriers used to write off stadium deployments as the cost of doing business, now they are losing interest. And, if they are involved, most are opting for tried-and-true distributed antenna systems (DAS), rather than WiFi or small cell deployments.

Take AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), for example. It has been the biggest proponent of WiFi in the US, equipping the Wrigley Field baseball stadium in Chicago and other stadia with WiFi hotspots, but the desire to add to those deployments has cooled.

Paul Kapustka, editor of Mobile Sports Report, says AT&T's attitude now is that it won't invest in stadia unless it can put its name on them. Even then, it is leaning more heavily on DAS then WiFi. (See AT&T Adds Windy City WiFi.)

This is a sentiment that Doug Lodder, vice president of Wi-Fi and DAS development at Boingo Wireless Inc. , shares. That's because, he says, what the venue wants is not aligned with what carriers want. Venues want WiFi, cellular, and any connectivity they can get as they fight the couch-potato syndrome that's causing fans to stay at home and skip shelling out big bucks to attend a game.

These potatoes got off the couch -- was it the WiFi wot did it?
These potatoes got off the couch -- was it the WiFi wot did it?

Carriers, on the other hand, say it's too expensive, and, in addition, see Wi-Fi as a rival to their 4G LTE services that also comes burdened with an uncertain ROI.

Being wary of WiFi seems like old news, as carrier WiFi strategies have taken off -- but venues are a different story. For one thing, the bang for your buck is low. They are only used once a week or so for four to eight hours, compared with malls or airports where a steady stream of people are always passing through. Plus, venues expect carriers to foot the bill for a technology that's carrier neutral.

"If AT&T had their way, it'd be a single AT&T experience in venues, Starbucks, etc, but most venues want a different experience," Lodder says. "One wants ads supported, or to charge for access, or a logo on landing page, faster service, or more access points. The cost can be reduced significantly through synergies, but it doesn't eliminate the venues' involvement and what they want."

For its part, AT&T says both WiFi and DAS are still part of the equation. Chad Townes, vice president of AT&T's Antenna Solutions Group, says the carrier has installed DAS in many professional and college sports venues, coupled with WiFi in some situations, and will continue to do so. He also points out that AT&T recently installed DAS and WiFi in Sun Life Stadium (American football) in Miami, and made WiFi upgrades at Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

DAS still trumps WiFi
When carriers do jump in, including AT&T in a lot of cases, they are likely opting to build out DAS rather than deploy WiFi or small cells, despite the push they are making on the latter two in other areas.

Kapustka, who has ben studying venue connectivity for the past few years, says that DAS -- a network of connected antennas that bring wireless connectivity to a given geography -- can be more expensive than equipping a space with WiFi access points, but it's easier to install, straightforward to monetize, and it's not carrier neutral, so its easier to control.

"One of the things I've seen is the feeling that with a good enough DAS you alleviate most of the problems and enable most of the things that people want to do," he says. "In the future, what everyone sees is that people are going to want to do more things like catch replays, watch live videos, and view different camera angles. That is happening in so very few places right now that having good enough is good enough for right now."

The anticipated uptick in usage has caused some cable providers to take another look though. Just last week Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) announced a deal with the San Francisco 49ers to install dual, fiber-based 10Gbit/s Ethernet lines to support advanced services in its new Levi stadium. The difference here lies in the services. (See Comcast Scores With 49ers.)

"They are putting WiFi into new Niners stadium because they get to run Xfinity sports [Comcast's online TV service] on all the displays," Kapustka explains. "It gives you a clear path to monetizing WiFi."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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