CTO hopes fiber-based Wi-Fi, 2,000 video boards will win fans

CTO hopes fiber-based Wi-Fi, 2,000 video boards will win fans

When Mercedes-Benz Stadium opens later this year it will include a 63,000 square-foot high-definition LED video display that circles the roofline, enabling it operators to show a variety of content that takes advantage of the board’s massive scale. That’s just one of the many technology challenges Jared Miller must tackle in his role as CTO of AMB Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Atlanta Falcons. It’s a challenge he relishes, even as deadlines for each project hurtle toward him like blitzing linebackers.

Jared Miller, CTO of AMB Sports & Entertainment AMB Sports & Entertainment

Jared Miller, CTO of AMB Sports & Entertainment.

“Having a technology leader onboard to oversee the design and ultimately give design direction gives us a lot of control over the building and the operation we’re going to undertake in the many years ahead,” Miller tells CIO.com.

It would be easy for Miller to get distracted, given that the Falcons are playing the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI this Sunday in Houston. But Miller knows that if AMB’s ownership wants to host future Super Bowls, as well as Falcons and Major League Soccer games, he must set the stage for technology that can last for both teams for years to come. That requires ensuring that the 75,000 fans who pack the stadium to see a football game or soccer match can access media content and other digital information at all times and from anywhere in the facility.

NFL CIO set high tech bar

AMB’s initiatives follow the  example set by NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle, who has been pushing the technology needle, implementing tablets, applications, analytics and other tools over the last few years. In-stadium Wi-Fi has also been a huge priority for the league, as McKenna-Doyle told CIO.com in 2014 that the connectivity fans experience should be as good if not better than what they are accustomed to at home. Miller’s tech playbook is similar.

Taking fiber to the edge: Miller is working with IBM to deploy a Passive Optical Network (PON). This will provide fiber to the edge from the data center to facilitate Wi-Fi connectivity for every security camera, video display, digital sign, as well as any fan who accesses the stadium’s network.

Fiber is typically used for backbone cabling, with copper cables running out to the edge devices. But fiber can transmit much more data than copper, which will afford the stadium “virtually limitless bandwidth,” says Miller.

In electing to go with the pricier cabling – 4,000 feet of it -- Miller says he is thinking about the growing expectations of fans for more data-driven experiences. Moreover, he says fiber systems should last longer than the copper cabling and electronics, which would have to be replaced every few years.

Wi-Fi for all: To complement the PON, Miller is deploying a Wi-Fi network with 1,800 wireless access points, including 1,000 in the seating bowl and 800 in various locations around the stadium. Such a network will help fans stream and consumer content from the world outside the stadium. “They come in with an expectation that they are going to connect to the world outside of the stadium,” Miller says. Miller says he is testing the practical limitations of the devices; the more points you have, the greater the risk for interference that can denigrate the user experience.

Halo board: At 58-feet tall and 1,100 feet around, the “halo board” is the centerpiece of the stadium’s 2,000 video displays. Built by Daktronics, the board includes 38 million LED lights to highlight video playback and interactive and graphics displays. The display will mix live action main screens with isolated alternate shots of featured players, in-game looks from around the league and statistics. AMB is also building three massive displays into a 100-foot tall, megacolumn video board, which will face out to the downtown Atlanta area.

Prudent beacon deployment: Beacon technology is also a big part of stadium’s plans to help “better understand who a fan is and where they are.” AMB could text fans who opt into the messaging service to come into the stadium an hour before game time. The trick, Miller says, is refining the group messaging dynamics to be sufficiently targeted. For example, Miller says AMB would avoid texting the game-time start message to the 50,000 fans already inside the stadium. Other alerts would suggest fans go to a certain concession stand to redeem a food or beverage offer. “We want better insight into how they are going about their game or event day,” Miller says.

However, Miller says he needs to figure out the best way to approach a practical implementation. To ensure reliable coverage across the 2 million square-foot stadium, Miller might have to install 2,000 to 3,000 beacons. But the batteries would rapidly drain and need to be replaced every one to two years. Miller says he also wants to be careful not to bombard the fans with too many marketing pings, which could be annoying and quickly suck down smartphone battery life.

Fans want to multitask during games

Beacons, fiber-fueled Wi-Fi and 2,000 video boards beg the question of whether the obsessive emphasis on connectivity is good for any professional sports stadium. You’d expect fans shelling out big bucks to want to see their favorite team in action rather than stare at a dizzying array of screens and field beacon alerts from their phones. But Miller says this is table stakes in the digital era, particularly among millennials and younger generations raised on mobile devices and ubiquitous connectivity. All the same, Miller concedes that it’s a delicate balancing act that requires AMB to be pragmatic about its technology deployment.

“It’s about the game or event but we recognize people are going to multitask and at the end of the day the consumers are in control,” Miller says. “This is a shift that is happening in every industry so our challenge and our question is, do we want to take an approach of not providing Wi-Fi or screens or embrace it, recognize they are services that you expect and that you believe as a fan can enhance your experience.”

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