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Over the past two decades, sprawling one-size-fits-all venues have gone the way of the landline. Baseball has shied away from the cookie-cutter footprint for a more intimate experience while the NFL has taken a different approach, proceeding in a larger-than-life direction. NBA venues — often sharing facilities with the NHL — are emerging as entertainment destinations, regardless of the game.
Whether renovation or new build, every venue — regardless of size or purpose — must ensure that the fans passing through the turnstiles can use their mobile devices to connect with each other and the outside world. Venue operators, recognizing that reliable wireless connectivity can make the difference between attending a game or watching from home, are viewing distributed-antenna-system (DAS) networks not as a perk but as a necessity.
Crown Castle, the largest U.S. provider of shared wireless infrastructure, has played a vital role in several recent renovations and new builds, including AmericanAirlines Arena (Miami Heat), Amway Center (Orlando Magic), and CONSOL Energy Arena (Pittsburgh Penguins), to name a few. The company provides full design, construction, operation, and maintenance of DAS networks, as well as wireless-carrier negotiations, contracts, and coordination.
“The bottom line is that most fans have a smartphone and/or a tablet device and, at games, they want to take pictures, send texts, and make phone calls,” says Scott Davidson, sales director, DAS, Crown Castle. “Quite honestly, when you have a basketball arena and there’s 20,000 screaming fans, if there isn’t some kind of a dedicated wireless system in the arena, there’s not going to be the voice and data capacity available to do those kinds of things.”
What’s in a DAS?
One of the most prominent misconceptions surrounding DAS networks is that they are interchangeable with WiFi networks. Venues, particularly new builds, often install both at once, furthering the confusion. In fact, DAS is an entirely separate network and infrastructure, requiring its own equipment and operation. DAS networks handle both voice and data.
A distributed-antenna system, as its name suggests, comprises small radio-access nodes (RANs), each equipped with a multiband antenna, scattered throughout the venue. Those antennas are connected via fiber to a base station, often called a headend, which houses a wireless services provider’s equipment, as well as backhaul, switching resources, and power.
Each DAS network is tied back to Crown Castle’s 24/7 network-operations center in Pittsburgh, which responds to any issues or network outages.
Working With Venues, Carriers
Crown Castle’s DAS installation process begins when the company signs a long-term lease with the venue, obtaining the right to install, design, and operate the DAS network for a specified timeframe. Once the agreement is in place, Crown Castle will identify and approach wireless carriers for involvement.
“We’ll go to wireless carriers and find out what they want to do: what are their coverage goals? That’ll lead us into how we’re going to design and build out the system from an RF standpoint: where we’re going to put in antennas and how dense of a network they want,” explains Michael Stafford, small cell implementation project manager, Crown Castle. “Then, inside the venue, we’ll do a design walk [and] do some preliminary testing [to] figure out how we want to build this system to achieve the carriers’ goals.”
A neutral-host DAS provider like Crown Castle will work with multiple wireless carriers in one venue, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Together, Crown Castle and the carrier determine their ultimate subscriber-capacity goals in order to plot out how many antennas are needed.
Ideally, installing a DAS network as part of a new build is preferable to integrating one into an existing communications infrastructure. As stadiums and arenas look to enhance their connectivity, most of Crown Castle’s current DAS networks are integrated into existing venues, requiring a bit of creativity in working within the venue’s physical constraints and personality.
In addition to antenna placement, Crown Castle must also work with the venue on a location for the headend equipment. The headend room, either a converted space or newly constructed room, can be as small as 500 sq. ft. or as large as 2,000 sq. ft., with Crown Castle recommending approximately 1,000 sq. ft.
The headend room at the AmericanAirlines Arena is on the larger side and has been very well received by cellular carriers that have already installed their equipment to serve the arena. The largest carrier to install equipment has mentioned that seldom does it get to install such a large and integrated system with no failures, bugs, or flaws, beyond the customary adjustments.
“Through its deployment of a state-of-the art indoor DAS network, AmericanAirlines Arena is revolutionizing the ways fans stay connected with friends and family around the world,” says Tony Coba, SVP/CIO, The HEAT Group. “This allows our patrons to instantly share their in-venue experiences via their mobile devices by sharing calls, videos, texts, and photos, ensuring a superb cellular wireless experience before, during, and after a live basketball game or concert.”
A ‘Super’ Future
For large-scale events, installation of a DAS network is pivotal not only in the venue but in the surrounding areas where fans congregate. Crown Castle upgraded its DAS network in New Orleans’ French Quarter area prior to Super Bowl XLVII. The company is currently working on upgrading its DAS network in and around University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, for Super Bowl XLIX in 2015.