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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

January 18, 2014 at 9:54 PM

At CenturyLink Field, Seahawks fans want a win and a signal

The rectangular white box overlooking section 127 at CenturyLink Field is one of 700 antennas that make it possible for you to stay connected during the big games. (Photo: AT&T)

The rectangular white box overlooking section 127 at CenturyLink Field is one of 700 antennas that make it possible for you to stay connected during the big games. WiFi is available only to the club and suite areas of the stadium. (Photo: AT&T)

Joseph Sunga is a happier Seahawks fan this season.

The eight-year-season ticket holder will watch his team battle for the NFC title Sunday in what might be the franchise’s best year ever. Nothing tops that.

But there’s something else.

This season, Sunga and many of the 68,000 fans who’ve packed CenturyLink Field could actually, reliably, finally use their smartphones during games.

It was a problem Sunga cared about. He wrote a blog post during the 2012 season, calling the stadium out for a frustrating digital experience, and his message got traction among other fans.

“It’s so much easier this year,” he told me.

And, yeah, that matters.

(From DAS infographic by AT&T)

(From DAS infographic by AT&T)

Stadiums across the country are scrambling to upgrade their digital connectivity as a host of new fan habits solidify into something more serious — expectations. Fans at the game don’t just want to watch the game anymore. They want to check player stats. They want to post pictures to Facebook. They want to replay the last down and tap into live reactions on Twitter to Percy Harvin’s injury.

They want to be supercharged fans. And to do it they need a signal.

None of this has escaped the National Football League. In 2012 it announced an initiative to see all 31 stadiums equipped with Wi-Fi, and last year an NFL official told CNN Money he hoped to see that happen by 2015.

It’s a little ironic that CenturyLink Field is named after a company that offers high-speed Internet service but it is not among the stadiums that offer Wi-Fi to all fans, a group that includes Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans and Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, our techie Seattle is in the middle of the pack, according to Paul Kapustka, editor of sports-tech trade tracker Mobile Sports Report.

But stadium Wi-Fi is a taller order than you might expect. And for a variety of reasons, what many stadiums are doing first is what CenturyLink Field did just in time for the first home game of this monster season: It had a cell-service carrier — in this case, AT&T — install something called a Distributed Antenna System, or DAS, throughout the stadium.

The DAS cost AT&T $10 million and tackled head-on the crush of demand on cell-service towers that kept fans like Sunga from getting a signal when thousands around him were after the same thing.

Going to the game? See if you can spot any of the 700 boxlike antennae that are part of the system. They’re above the seats. Propped like speakers in the concourses. Perched high up in the upper-level rafters. Each is supported by both 3G and LTE radios, all stacked out of sight in rooms stuffed with wires.

The antennae split the stadium into 47 zones where capacity is easier to assign. The result: 98 percent of the time, on average, the thing you want to do on your AT&T smartphone — whether it’s making a call, sending a tweet or loading a Web page — works on the first try.

If you’re on Verizon Wireless, you’re doing OK too. The open DAS lets other carriers hitch their signals to the antennae, and Verizon already has. T-Mobile US is planning to join in, too.

AT&T wouldn’t say what that 98 percent ratio was before this latest upgrade — probably a lot lower — but Chad Townes, vice president of AT&T’s Antenna Solutions Group, did say this: AT&T’s last CenturyLink Field upgrade was three years ago, and it worked fine when people were mostly making calls and sending texts. The DAS, as is, might have just a couple years before it, too, gets outpaced by fans’ next game-changing habit.

People are betting it’s video.

My husband was at CenturyLink Field for the Cardinals game last month (yup, the home game the Seahawks lost), and just for kicks I thought I’d try to FaceTime with him on my iPhone so our 1½-year-old son could see Dad in the thick of it. I didn’t expect it to work. Neither did my husband. But it did.

Townes said two things to that. One: It’s unlikely that would have happened before DAS. And two: Had too many other people tried it, no one would have gotten through.

Which brings us back to Wi-Fi. Strong Wi-Fi is better at handling heavy things like video, but a big reason you see stadiums like CenturyLink Field upgrade to DAS first is because service carriers like AT&T will pay to install hardware that serves their paying customers.

When fans are plugged in, teams can more easily engage with them. Tens of thousands of Seahawks fans around the world have "tapped in" to a map on the Seahawks site. (Seahawks.com)

When fans are plugged in, teams can more easily engage with them. Tens of thousands of Seahawks fans around the world have “tapped in” to a map on the Seahawks site. (imin.seahawks.com)

Free Wi-Fi has no such revenue model. If someone’s going to pay the $3 million to $10 million to install it, Kapustka said, it’ll probably be the stadiums. But tech moves fast. What if someone ponies up the cash and the network has to be completely redone in two years?

CenturyLink Field is still mulling the best solution, but there’s little doubt in the industry that a combination of DAS and good, free Wi-Fi, at least for now, is top of the line.

AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys play, has both. With a capacity of 80,000, it seats 19 percent more people than CenturyLink Field but sees a whopping four times the amount of online traffic.

Chip Suttles, the Seahawks vice president of technology, has said the stadium will have Wi-Fi by 2015, but a Seahawks spokeswoman said this past week the team is still figuring out the best way to make it happen. CenturyLink assured me it’s “working closely with the Seahawks to deliver the latest communications technologies to enrich the fan experience at CenturyLink Field,” but gave no other clues.

When it comes to connectivity, stadium officials worry that they’re competing with your living-room couch.

Sunga is not so sure.

“When I have kids, I can tell them that 20 years ago I was in the stadium when Beast Quake happened,” he said, referring to running back Marshawn Lynch’s now-legendary 2011 run against the Saints. “I contributed.”

Would he go to CenturyLink Field games if it had no connectivity at all?

“Yeah,” he said.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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