Stadiums and arenas are scrambling for wireless systems that can handle the mosh pit of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram users

Concert Crowds Flounder in Digital Dead Zones

Stadiums and arenas are scrambling for wireless systems that can handle the mosh pit of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram users

By John Jurgensen

Updated Dec. 4, 2014 5:20 p.m. ET

If you can’t send a selfie from a rock concert or an NFL game, does it still count as being there? That’s more than an existential question as texting, tweeting, Snapchatting and Instagramming fans outpace—and overload—networks at public events.

At Lollapalooza this summer, four young women huddled amid the crowd, struggling with their phones. The cellular networks serving Chicago’s Grant Park, the site of the annual music festival, were swamped by the digital demands of roughly 100,000 fans.

“Instagram,  Facebook , Snapchat, Twitter—literally any social media gets cut off at concerts like this,” said Mia Eriksson, a 21-year-old senior at the University of South Carolina. During a set by Calvin Harris, a Lollapalooza headliner, she and her friends used Snapchat to capture the DJ’s performance but most of their videos failed to upload. “It sounds whiny, but I want people to know that I’m there right then,” Ms. Eriksson said. “If I post a video at 9 a.m. the next day, no one really cares about it.”

From mega music festivals to high-profile sports matchups, live events have a parallel life online, thanks to the fans in the audience. But that has given rise to a maddening irony: The biggest events are also the most likely to dissolve into dead zones for data. That’s what happens when tens of thousands of people are trying to broadcast their minute-by-minute experience from their phones, overloading data pipelines that weren’t designed to handle high-volume traffic.

In a digital age where constant connectivity is seen as a given, fans take it as an affront if they can’t transmit selfies showing Justin Timberlake in the background. Spotty service in a rural area is one thing, but when you pay $300 for that seat in the third row, it’s frustrating to see your phone reduced to a plodding status bar or a spinning progress wheel. Tech companies are rushing into the void, with networking giants such as  Cisco Systems  Inc. outfitting sports stadiums with wireless networks and startup companies setting up temporary Wi-Fi at weekend music festivals.

Ad hoc networks in some venues mean the same event can have digital haves and have-nots. For last month’s Electric Daisy Carnival in Orlando, Fla., a company called SignalShare set up a Wi-Fi network on a grassy field. Kevin “Rocky” Holman, a SignalShare consultant, described how antennas in the VIP area of the dance-music festival boosted the Wi-Fi signal there for holders of high-price tickets. “These people get a little more bandwidth than the great unwashed” in the general-admission area, he said.

Some Electric Daisy fans lucked into sweet spots near the Wi-Fi antennas but others had trouble latching on to a signal. A woman in a polka-dot bikini standing at the edge of the Wi-Fi zone held up her phone in hopes of a connection. Asked about the network, she popped a light-up pacifier out of her mouth and opined, “It sucks.”

For most people, the main side effect of a choked network is having to wait until after the show or the game to brag on Facebook. (For the scores of spectators who see phones as a scourge of live experiences, that’s not such a bad thing.) But because the success of events is increasingly measured by ripple effects on social media, the ramifications are real for concert promoters, venue owners and the acts on stage. When the social-media tide ebbs, that throttles a critical form of free marketing that can sell tickets or merchandise down the line.

Music manager Doc McGhee, whose clients include KISS and Darius Rucker, says bands want to use interactive tools such as letting fans post their photos on video screens during concerts or text song suggestions for the encore, but can’t always trust a venue’s network. “I’m in all these meetings with the innovations companies who have a better mousetrap for the band, but if you can’t get it online you can’t make it work,” he said. “When the show starts and the bandwidth goes down, you’re out of business.” `

Solving the problem is a priority for venue owners and event organizers, who have been forced to acknowledge fans’ assumption that access to a robust and reliable network is baked into the price of admission. During games at the San Francisco 49ers’ brand-new Levi’s Stadium, tech-support staffers, called “Ninerds,” roam the stands to help individuals log on to the Wi-Fi network and navigate the stadium’s app. The American Airlines Center powered up a Wi-Fi system for visitors in the spring after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban relented on his long-held stance that games—and not phones—should be the center of attention. Pro sports organizations including the National Football League and Major League Baseball have set minimum Wi-Fi and cellular standards that all their venues must meet.

The music industry also is increasingly focused on geeky details. “We have seen more events, artists, and promoters in the past few years asking about how our venues are wired and how much bandwidth is available,” said Denise Taylor, chief information officer of concert promoter AEG, which owns more than 100 venues around the world. Someday, mobile Wi-Fi rigs might be loaded onto tractor trailers with the rest of a band’s touring gear, but for now most groups are reluctant to pay for that, or the extra crew members needed to manage such systems.

A handful of companies are battling to install Wi-Fi systems and beefed-up cellular networks, known as distributed antenna systems, in the arenas, stadiums and parks where music festivals spring up. The obstacles are daunting. A mobile Wi-Fi setup can add $100,000 to a festival’s production budget. It costs millions of dollars to outfit a sports arena with a data network.

Cisco Systems has installed revved-up Wi-Fi in about 75 sports arenas and stadiums world-wide in the past five years. “The rate of change and fan expectation is huge,” says Chris White, general manager of Cisco’s sports and entertainment division. Venue owners, after dragging their feet over installation costs and the invasion of phones into game-day traditions, have finally come around. Enhancing the fan experience is fine, but they need to monetize it, too. “If they can sell you that T-shirt or hot dog easier, or upgrade your seat [through their wireless network], that’s the business of the venue,” Mr. White says.

In addition to the expense of installation, there are technical challenges. Wi-Fi radio waves get blocked by human bodies and bounce off basketball courts and other surfaces in unpredictable ways. Wireless networks have to accommodate the newest smartphones and tablets, as well as older ones. Antennas, while often unsightly, must be installed almost everywhere to prevent dead spots, especially in cavernous concrete stadiums. It’s a vicious data cycle: The more bandwidth that people are given on their phones, the more they gobble up with hefty downloads and uploads of videos and photos.

“We’re at this point where devices have so far outstripped the networks’ ability to keep up,” says Paul Kapustka, who tracks the industry in his trade publication Mobile Sports Report.

At the Electric Daisy Carnival in Orlando, behind a stage decorated with two 90-foot-tall owls, the festival’s digital vital signs were monitored in a trailer housing a network operations center. Charts on a wide screen tracked how many people had logged on to the site’s Wi-Fi network and the amount of data they were using. The tech-heavy scene was a contrast with the festival’s free-form ethos. Outside, headphone-wearing DJs on platforms above the crowd pumped their fists and swayed over computers. Fans draped in glowing accessories shot videos, typed messages and consulted their phones, often trying to find companions they had lost in the crowd. Others were immersed in the music, with apparently little thought of digital communications.

A five-man team from SignalShare had set up the network from scratch in one day, working alongside crews erecting stages and carnival rides in the grassy lots next to the Citrus Bowl stadium. The SignalShare team had plugged into the stadium’s network for its main link to the Internet. A server in the operations-center trailer distributed data through fiber cables to dozens of Wi-Fi antennas, small black boxes bolted to speaker towers around the main stage. The coverage area they created was relatively small, about two acres, but enough to support the Web traffic of a small town, with a maximum capacity of 16,000 people.

The high-tech gear had been toughened up for a concert environment, where hardware takes a beating and cables can get run over by forklifts. “We roadie-ized this stuff,” said Mr. Holman, the SignalShare consultant, while standing next to a Wi-Fi antenna sheathed in black plastic “in case someone spills a beer on it.” He spent 35 years as an audio engineer and production manager, touring with headliners like John Mellencamp and Bon Jovi.

SignalShare’s Chief Technology Officer, Joe Costanzo, started the business intending to distribute ads and sponsorship to sports fans’ mobile phones. But after running into unreliable connectivity in many venues, he set out to build and sell Wi-Fi networks.

Five years later, SignalShare has installed permanent Wi-Fi in a dozen venues, including the Indiana Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse, along with temporary setups at events such as the U.S. Open tennis tournament. In addition to the Raleigh, N.C., company, other providers include Boingo Wireless, known for airport Wi-Fi, as well as big players such as Extreme Networks, Inc. (recently named the NFL’s official Wi-Fi technology provider) and Aruba Networks, Inc. (behind the high-tech Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco).

Only a handful of companies specialize in taking Wi-Fi on the road. Insomniac, the promoter that produces the Electric Daisy Carnival, booked SignalShare for the Orlando festival after Wi-Fi troubles at its event last summer in Las Vegas before a sold-out crowd of 135,000 a day. Insomniac had promised Wi-Fi to everyone using the Electric Daisy app or Snapchat. But the network stumbled, preventing people at the Las Vegas show from logging on and driving complaints on social media.

“Connectivity allows people to show the outside world what’s really happening inside the event, so we’re always working to improve that,” said Insomniac spokeswoman Jennifer Forkish, adding that overloaded networks at events are also a headache for staffers on site. “That’s why we use radios.”

Orlando was SignalShare’s trial run with Insomniac, which hired the company to supply Wi-Fi for one of three performance stages at the festival. Mr. Costanzo said concert promoters have a hard time justifying the expense of setting up a temporary network. For the roughly $75,000 it would have cost to cover all three stages, he said, “maybe they could book an up-and-coming DJ.”

Hoping to prove its value—and eventually generate revenue for clients—SignalShare recently rolled out a service called LiveFi, which sends fans event-related messages and images from social media. The service also can deliver tailored ads and sponsorship messages based on where fans are in the venue and how much their tickets cost.

Wi-Fi providers also offer clients a glimpse into fans’ lives online. At last summer’s Electric Zoo, an electronic-music festival at Randall’s Island Park in New York City, SignalShare equipped 18 acres with Wi-Fi. Among the 25,000 people who attended each day, a peak of 4,500 were logged on at the same time.

The site they accessed most via Wi-Fi was Instagram, which got 174,000 hits from the event as people checked the app and uploaded photos. During the same period, there were 7,600 communications with the Weather Channel site. (The festival site was evacuated on the third day due to thunderstorms.) People also tended to intimate business. Throughout the Electric Zoo, there were 4,500 requests for Tinder, an app for pinpointing potential nearby hookups. And there were even more requests—5,300—for Grindr, a similar app primarily for gay men.

One challenge for Wi-Fi providers is letting people know a network exists. At the Electric Daisy Carnival in Orlando, a festival map pointed out which stage had Wi-Fi. But just a handful of small signs in the area gave the network’s name: #EDCwifi.

Adam Mayle, of Tampa, Fla.., didn’t know about the network until he was asked if he had used it. The 29-year-old was repeatedly trying to send text messages to friends from whom he’d become separated at the festival.

For Mr. Mayle, the cellular congestion had a silver lining. When he arrived at the Electric Daisy Carnival in a pedicab, the driver couldn’t get a signal on his phone either. That meant he couldn’t use the credit-card device attached to the phone, sparing Mr. Mayle the $20 fare.


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