Private Networks

Cowboys CIO: Connectivity is still the star

ARLINGTON, Texas – AT&T Stadium – After the Dallas Cowboys game against the Houston Texans on December 11, most fans were on their devices as they filed from their seats to the concourse to the parking lots. They were texting friends, hailing Ubers or calling home. Some were connecting to their social media followers, loudly shouting about the game's last-second touchdown to give Dallas the win.

Even after the whistle blows, there's no offseason for Dallas Cowboys CIO Matt Messick. His team has to stay sharp year-round; keeping AT&T Stadium's networks in shape to handle the voice traffic, data traffic and the hundreds of thousands of devices that invariably connect during sporting events, concerts and dozens of other activities.

AT&T's Account Director, Derek Waterhouse (left) and Dallas Cowboys CIO Matt Messick (right) stand near the field just before game time.
 (Source: Phil Harvey/Light Reading)
AT&T’s Account Director, Derek Waterhouse (left) and Dallas Cowboys CIO Matt Messick (right) stand near the field just before game time.
(Source: Phil Harvey/Light Reading)

Near Messick's office, engineers and reps from the Cowboys, AT&T, other carriers and suppliers watch the network and look at every performance metric they can summon. During the Cowboys-Texans game, all went smoothly, and, in this case, no news is good news.

But there is big news coming. AT&T Stadium is changing constantly and looking to set records along the way.

Decades of upgrades

This month, multiple media outlets reported that NFL owners approved a $295 million renovation package for AT&T Stadium, which is vying to be one of the host sites for the 2026 World Cup. AT&T Stadium initially cost a reported $1.2 billion to build and this new upgrade Messick said will undoubtedly include some technology changes, upgrades and improvements.

Inside AT&T Stadium during the Dec. 11 game vs. the Houston Texans.
 (Source: The Dallas Cowboys Football Club)
Inside AT&T Stadium during the Dec. 11 game vs. the Houston Texans.
(Source: The Dallas Cowboys Football Club)

Messick and AT&T declined to detail the specific technology changes that were earmarked for the $295 million renovation package. The Cowboys will make an announcement soon, he said. But the CIO does have some items on his tech agenda, inkling using more mobile private networks (MPNs) inside AT&T Stadium and at its affiliated properties.

When it opened in 2009, the structure, then called Cowboys Stadium, was the largest NFL stadium ever built, the largest domed building in the US and when the roof was closed, it became the world's largest air-conditioned room.

The centerpiece of the 2009 technology story was the stunning 60-ton display and the two 48-foot by 27-foot TVs facing each endzone. Now nearly every fan has a smartphone and is as likely to look down at their phones at least as often as they look up to see the nearly 60-yard-long, high-def screen.

The change in how fans enjoy the game presents a persistent challenge for big venues like AT&T Stadium. They have to support multiple networks and a dizzying array of devices. "Wi-Fi delivers the biggest bandwidth bang for the buck, but many fans still don't know how or can't be bothered to log in to a Wi-Fi network," said Stadium Tech Report Editor Paul Kapustka, who tracks stadium technology deployments. "People still expect to just turn on their phone and have it work, and cellular carriers do what they need to do to accommodate those customers."

On the field at The Star

Messick's tech team is constantly updating the stadium's technology, but his operating environment is unique. The football club he works for, and the stadium's namesake connectivity partner, offer ways for him to roll out new technologies quickly and confidently.

The situation is unique, too, because the NFL has a broad deal with Verizon, the league's official 5G provider. But AT&T Stadium and the Cowboys prefer to work with AT&T, which is headquartered in Dallas.

"I like the benefit that we have with our portfolio of businesses," Messick said. "You can experiment and experiment with bleeding edge technology, make sure it's working and working perfectly. And then you can bring it back in and get a better fan experience."

Dallas oil billionaire Jerry Jones owns the Cowboys, the stadium, and the team's merchandising and retail outlets. He started the stadium's catering and hospitality business and, in 2016, he opened The Star in Frisco, Texas. This all factors into the Cowboys' unique connectivity and technology deployment approach.

For starters, The Star is much more than a practice facility. It contains a corporate headquarters, a hotel complex, fully-operational football practice and game fields, fitness centers, restaurants, and retail stores – it's a tech-fueled wonderland of all things Cowboys, Frisco and football. It's not tiny, and it's all connected. The 91-acre sprawl includes The Ford Center, a 12,000-seat stadium that hosts everything from December's U.S. Army Bowl, a game of high school football all-stars from around the country, to next year's Academy of Country Music Awards.

Messick said the practice fields at The Star have become a testing ground for technologies bound for AT&T Stadium. For example, he said that, for the first few years of The Star's operation, the Cowboys had created a video replay system to help the coaches and players during practice.

But the two football fields in the middle of The Star's main headquarters facility couldn't be reached with the corporate Wi-Fi signal and, even when they could, the round trips between devices, storage and servers was too long.

The Star, at night (is big and bright)
 (Source: The Dallas Cowboys Football Club)
The Star, at night (is big and bright)
(Source: The Dallas Cowboys Football Club)

More access points and fiber were needed each practice, but the gear couldn't be left on the field. "You just can't have poles in the middle of fields with Wi-Fi access points and things like that," Messick said. "So everything was temporary, every time and we were having to string fiber all over the place."

When AT&T's IoT group discussed 5G tech upgrades with Messick's team – including a private wireless network and mobile edge computing (MEC) – the practice field became the proving ground.

Now robotic cameras connected to pan tilt zoom (PTZ) controllers sit back in the headquarters building. With AT&T's help, The Cowboys installed "a MEC device, a private network" and covered the field with low-latency connectivity. Messick said the technology is now more reliable and stays out of the way: "So now, when the players and the coaches walk out there, they just leave, they just walk out with a tablet and everything is functioning behind there; we don't roll anything out."

But Wi-Fi is still a critical connectivity tool in Messick's bag. The Cowboys retail and merchandising warehouse expansion – a 500,000 square foot building at The Star Business Park, completed in 2020 – was designed at a time when private networking options weren't quite ready for prime time. Messick said he may revisit the opportunity to cover the area with cellular distributed antenna systems (DAS) instead of the 200+ Wi-Fi access points and structured cabling connecting the building now.

Ticket takers

Messick said he's considering installing an MPN around AT&T Stadium's ticket scanning machines, which are now connected to an "elaborate Wi-Fi network" surrounding the stadium's perimeter. He explained that he could likely provide robust security with a private network in millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum, and the coverage would be more reliable and less prone to signal interference from nearby homes and businesses.

But he'll have to get it right. The more than 300 ticket scanning machines inside and outside the stadium "are critical infrastructure for us getting people in the building," Messick said. The latency of each scan, round trip lookup and result compounds dramatically when it involves 100,000 people standing outside in freezing weather or a pre-season game in the August heat.

Messick said each network decision in AT&T Stadium is a big one. The complex connectivity systems running digital signage, ticketing, retail, media, broadcast networks and corporate activities all require varying levels of visibility, availability and latency.

TVs are bigger in Texas.
 (Source: The Dallas Cowboys Football Club)
TVs are bigger in Texas.
(Source: The Dallas Cowboys Football Club)

Cellular connectivity is becoming the preferred network type for corporate and business use, leaving Wi-Fi for the fans in the stands. "I want to be in a world where my Wi-Fi is 100% dedicated to fan and fan consumption only," Messick said.

In the stadium's main bowl, fan data usage had long outpaced the stadium's previous cellular tech capacity. That led AT&T and The Cowboys to use the 2020 pandemic lockdown to construct the mother of all DAS installations with MatSing antennas and help from tech partners CommScope and ExteNet Systems.

The MatSing gear has since become a hit with stadium technology execs. The antennas provide focused, line-of-sight coverage farther than other antenna technologies. The result is that robust coverage can be aimed at spots on the field, groups of seats or a handful of private suites without changing the overall experience of everyone else connected to the network.

The big DAS

AT&T Stadium's in-building cellular network is not an MPN, but its proportions align with the larger-than-life Cowboys brand. It uses 35 miles of fiber inside the stadium to handle the connectivity needs of more than 105,000 people, including 372 private suites.

AT&T said that the DAS is configured for 337 zones in the stadium, with enough antenna capacity to cover the entire city of Frisco, Texas. There is nearly double that amount of capacity on standby, Messick said. There are nearly 1,000 4G LTE antennas of different sizes throughout the stadium and the system uses 100 Gbit/s of total transport capacity.

This installation is the largest AT&T DAS in the nation. It's the first NFL stadium ever to have 5G mmWave installed, according to AT&T. The carrier said it has 32 mmWave antennas with 25,600Mhz capacity in the stadium.

AT&T also said that the Dallas Cowboys home stadium was the first such venue where it has installed 5G C-Band. The carrier said there are seven AT&T C-Band antennas with 700Mhz capacity.

With both DAS and Wi-Fi, Messick said the public just consumes however much bandwidth he can throw their way. Messick recalls that AT&T Stadium, when it hosted the Super Bowl in 2011, was the first to offer free Wi-Fi connectivity to the entire stadium.

"I remember, like dancing on the table – well, not literally – when we hit, say, like 1.2 terabytes of data offload over Wi-Fi back then," he said. By comparison, in a December 11 game between the Texans and Cowboys, one with no playoff standings or Super Bowl trophies at stake, the stadium network saw 9.19 TB of data used – downloads and uploads – and it connected nearly 101,000 voice calls.

Table 1: Traffic carried, by technology (AT&T Stadium, Dec. 11, 2022)

Technology Traffic carried (dowload) Traffic carried (upload) Average download speed Average upload speed
LTE IDAS/CRAN 4.93 TB 2.65 TB 15.9 Mbit/s 4.5 Mbit/s
5G mmWave 1.39 TB 1.24 TB 298 Mbit/s 27 Mbit/s
C-Band 0.49 TB 0.19 TB 224 Mbit/s 39 Mbit/s

(Source: AT&T and AT&T Stadium)

The new DAS infrastructure did bring more automation to AT&T Stadium. The all-digital system is configured so that much of the network can be controlled via AT&T's remote offices, saving the Cowboys more real estate and power previously taken up with telecom gear. Messick muses that he might be one of the few big venues CIOs giving back closets and rooms to the facilities group because he simply doesn't need them.

It has taken more than a year to get used to the new network, but it has been a success, and Messick sees much more change to come. During the offseason, he reckons the Cowboys will push more in a software-centric direction and will replace "our [network] core and every edge switch in this building."

Partner props

Messick said the timing of his decision to virtualize more functions and fully exploit DAS technology is not happening in a vacuum. "It's pretty much the direction of the entire industry, and it gives you better control and better security, overall. I mean, that's the most critical part – you have these venues where I have corporate spaces here, and I have public spaces, and you have to be able to protect it all," Messick explains.

AT&T's cultural journey to becoming a more focused, nimble service provider comes into play here. Derek Waterhouse, AT&T's strategic account director for its sports and entertainment group, just wrapped up a meeting of the AT&T Sports Council, a group of teams and venue execs who come together once a year to discuss new technologies and compare notes.

Waterhouse said the meetings allow AT&T to preview what's coming up and discuss what can improve the overall fan experience. AT&T is listening more and encouraging its big venue clients to learn from one another.

Messick said the stadium's partnership with AT&T is working well. He's been watching the tech evolution of the Cowboys since 2008 when he first started with the organization. With handling technical operations at AT&T Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys headquarters at The Star and the other Jones family businesses, Messick and team may not be on the field, but they're always on the clock somewhere.

"Matt is carrying on the tradition of AT&T Stadium tech leaders, who aren't afraid to say something isn't good enough and needs fixing," Kapustka said. "Some might say that problems are easily solved when you have more money to throw at them, but there are enough recent examples of big-venue deployments gone bad to make Matt's leadership and willingness to partner with experts in the field something that is worth respecting."

Related stories:

— Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

Sign In