Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=225705
Story Retrieval Date: 10/21/2014 6:56:04 AM CST

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Soldier Field's newly-upgraded Wi-Fi and cellular service will speed up service for fans attached to their phones during Sunday's game.


Tweet away: Soldier Field upgrades Wi-Fi and cell service

by Mitch Goldich
Nov 07, 2013


More than 60,000 fans will fill Soldier Field for Sunday’s Bears game, and many of them will want to post selfies on Twitter, trade text messages with fantasy football rivals and keep up with storylines from other games. 

Fortunately for them, Sunday marks the first home game since stadium management announced a massive upgrade to the infrastructure supporting Wi-Fi and cellular service. 

“The demand for wireless networks has skyrocketed,” said Erin McGrath, AT&T public relations manager in Chicago. “People are tweeting and downloading and uploading so much during games, and concerts and anything going on at Soldier Field.”

AT&T joined together with Boingo Wireless, a company that supplies Wi-Fi at venues like U.S. Cellular Field and O’Hare International Airport, to fund the new Distributed Antenna System (DAS) inside Soldier Field.  The system incorporates 250 antennas, hidden behind signs and poles to keep them out of view.  This is the equivalent of seven individual cell sites normally scattered throughout cities.

“You are not competing with as many people for that signal,” McGrath said of the new DAS. “You can get your tweet or your text uploaded faster, downloaded faster and sent faster. There’s just more capacity in the stadium and more bandwidth.”

In a world where fans can stay home to watch NFL Redzone or consume football media on multiple screens, stadiums are looking for ways to improve connectivity for fans shelling out money for tickets. Now fans at Soldier Field can upload pictures to Facebook, receive text messages from friends and check out stats from other games around the league faster than ever.

Many fans welcome the improvement.

“Awful, just awful,” Joey Nachinson said of the cell reception at a preseason game in August that prompted him to complain about Sprint on Twitter. The 29-year-old Lincoln Park resident visits Soldier Field a few times a year, and his phone use is common of many football fans. 

“I’m always trying to see things going on on Twitter,” Nachinson said. “What they’re reporting about the game, or tracking fantasy and other scores.” 

Nachinson is not alone. McGrath said data usage over AT&T’s in-stadium network during last February’s Super Bowl was 80 percent greater than the year before.  The Super Bowl is only one game, but this example is indicative of the growing trend.

At&T partnered with Boingo on the project, but the network has potential benefits for fans no matter who their cellular service provider may be. 

“This is about people being able to have access no matter what carrier they’re on,” said Luca Serra, director of sponsorship and media for SMG, the venue management company for Soldier Field. 

“We didn’t look at this through the lens of sponsorship and exclusivity.”

Serra said Verizon also utilizes the new DAS. Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular are among companies that waited before making a decision, but have the option available to them.

AT&T and Verizon customers will see an immediate difference in their ability to surf the web using their data plans. Customers of other companies have the option of purchasing one day of Wi-Fi access for $1.99. AT&T and Verizon customers can purchase the Wi-Fi if they don’t want to use up their own data plans, but may not need to purchase the Wi-Fi in order to access faster Internet on their phones.

That should make life better for most customers. 

But Nachinson, a Sprint customer, said he was initially “shocked” when he heard that he’d have to purchase Wi-Fi access.

“All in all, those people with Verizon and AT&T are going to be getting the best possible coverage in the building,” Serra said. “Those with U.S. Cellular and Sprint [and T-Mobile] also have coverage, it just won’t be as robust.”

Though Sunday will be the first home game since the upgrade announcement on Oct. 23, the network was actually installed before the Bears played home games on Oct. 6 and 10. But Serra said the companies wanted to see how it would handle the crunch of a game before making the announcement.

Katie O’Neill, manager of corporate communications for Boingo, said the process is not as simple as plugging in the right number of antennas in a new stadium.  Each venue presents new challenges based on the architecture of the stadium.

“Every stadium is different,” O’Neill said. “Knowing what’s happening at other stadiums is helpful, but it’s always very specific. We work with the architecture, so we won’t get blockage from a concrete wall. We have to make sure we’re not installing a node in a place that’s not kosher.”

And if fans aren't not too busy posting photos to Instagram or monitoring fantasy football scores, they might even let their followers know how the connection is working.