Sports Venue Production Summit: The Growing Importance of Connectivity

Advances in consumer devices make robust Wi-Fi, DAS a must; the move to IP attracts interest

For U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, site of the 2017 SVG Sports Venue Production Summit this month and other venues, the focus during the design phase was to make sure fans could see not only all the action on the field but also all the action on thousands of LED panels, the massive videoboards, and their own mobile devices.

“At first, there were 859 HDTVs in the plan, and, over time ,that grew to 2,070,” reported James Farstad, chief technology advisor, Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, on a panel at the Summit. “But we also began to realize what we really had were 68,070 screens in the building as mobile devices come into the stadium. So we needed to look at that as our target for our Wi-Fi and DAS deployment.”

From left: Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority’s James Farstad, VITEC’s Eli Garten, and Green Bay Packers’ Ryan Nowak discussed the future of venue connectivity.

In deciding how to outfit U.S. Bank Stadium’s cellular and Wi-Fi capabilities, Farstad and his team faced a number of hurdles, including the stadium’s downtown location, which meant making sure cellular users across downtown would not be adversely affected during an event.

“We needed to not only have high-quality service for four cellular carriers but also protect their investment in the downtown metro areas,” said Farstad. “Absent a DAS system, two things would happen: there would be crappy cellular service inside the building and crappy cellular service for everyone else in downtown. We needed to make an investment to protect the larger environment.”

Bidding for the DAS service was a public process that attracted 14 bids ranging from neutral hosts to opportunities for the stadium to own the DAS or to have it managed by a third party.

“We looked at them all and narrowed it down to three before settling on a neutral-hosted DAS,” said Farstad. Sprint is currently being added to the system (all four major cellular providers are represented).

DAS is not enough because Wi-Fi, for example, enables a super customer experience but also allows the carriers to dump traffic off the edges, saving significant additional investment. A hosted DAS system allows the authority to rent out to the cellular providers.

“So now we are upgrading DAS inside and around the stadium for the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four and other peak events,” he said.

The unique architecture of U.S. Bank Stadium features a lot of open concourses that do not provide a lot of ceiling space for installing DAS and Wifi systems.

“We have center-island enclosures that each have two Wi-Fi antennas to provide service in the bowl,” Farstad explained. “As we upgrade our DAS, we will add 174 additional DAS antennas in the bowl and 44 at the midlevel.

John Shike, VP, business development, Americas, Snell Advanced Media (SAM), said that venues are always competing with the home viewing experience and, as a result, the quality of venue productions continues to rise to broadcast quality. In turn, that demands replay servers, production switchers, and graphics devices that are more capable and have a more broadcast-like infrastructure and integration.

The move to next-generation production technologies like UHD and even wide color gamut will make a big difference for the in-venue experience. The use of quad HD-SDI to transport those UHD signals risks sync issues because the four HD-SDI signals must remain in sync to display a single image.

“I’m not a believer that SDI must die or everything has to go all IP,” said Shike. “You have to use the right tool for the right job. Even 12 Gbps is another way to extend the capabilities of SDI.”

SAM’s role in the process is providing best-of-breed products that are plug-and-play and can take a replay system and connect it to an IP network with the same simplicity as an SDI network.

“We want that process to be as straightforward and simple as it was before,” Shike noted, “and the SMPTE 2110 standard will be the one to make IP plug-and-play and easy to use.”

Joe Schulte, senior engineer/product owner, digital media players and live event systems, Daktronics, pointed out that center-hung displays in arenas continue to make the move to 4K while, in stadiums, videoboards continue to go wider, sometimes two or three times wider, than the traditional 16:9 form factor. As a result, 4K will become more popular as more production teams shoot in 4K and then take a center cut to fill those boards.

“And Belden has come out with 12-Gbps cables that can run 100 meters, and that will facilitate the needs in the control room,” he added. “Some of the IP stuff like standards is a little up in the air.”

But Ryan Nowak, technology systems engineer, Green Bay Packers, said that, when IP standards are settled, the decision to go IP will be a no-brainer. “You will be able to plug a TV in anywhere there is a data drop, and that is better than running dedicated video cable. The downside is that the latency is huge.”

The delay is not that bad for sports events, turning the TV sets in the suites, for example, into the equivalent of an instant-replay device: fans can watch the play live and then look up to the screen for a second look. But, for concerts or moments during an event when someone is speaking, the latency becomes a problem.

“You can have great IP with zero latency and great quality,” Nowak added, “but you’re going to pay for it.”

The Green Bay Packers DAS situation is evolving, with AT&T service being installed in the stadium. Verizon is one of the largest sponsors in the stadium and already has a robust presence.

The Packers upgraded their scoreboard and audio system in 2012 and since then have also upgraded the suites and gates.

“We’ve been moving from RF to IP, and that has been a big change for the network guys,” said Nowak. “Our core network backbone is single-mode fiber for pretty much everything.”

The fiber backbone has grown to 24-strand single-mode fiber (originally, it had six single-mode strands), but that capability doesn’t mean a move to 4K is around the corner.

“Our cameras are a mixture of 4K and 1080p,” he noted, “but we won’t be making a move to 4K scoreboards anytime soon.”

Eli Garten, VP, IPTV and enterprise video solutions, VITEC, added that one of the challenges in reducing latency is that encoder manufacturers are moving toward software-based solutions.

“Sports venues are not a lucrative sector,” he explained. “As they focus on OTT providers and broadcasters who are launching 4K services in the coming years, the majority have shifted to software and the use of multicore servers with adaptive bitrate. And those systems are not optimized to solve latency issues.”

The result is that there are very few options for venues looking to do true 4K, so venues looking for a system that minimizes latency need to shop wisely.

VITEC’s approach to IP networking is to be platform-agnostic to the network and the video sources and instead focus on providing the best user experience.

“It’s not just about the luxury suites but every display,” he said. “And it’s not just about a flat list of channels. The use of nonlinear content will continue to grow, and we are already seeing more VOD concepts where users can consume movies or instant replays. In luxury suites, it is about being more interactive and offering content beyond the game-day camera.”

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