High-tech on the gridiron: How Camp Randall went from dead zone to hot spot

High-tech on the gridiron: How Camp Randall went from dead zone to hot spot

At the close of the third quarter during the Wisconsin Badgers runaway football victory over Nebraska, a new entry went into the record books… and not just Melvin Gordon’s single-game rushing record of 408 yards.

It marked the first time that Camp Randall Stadium experienced what telecommunications experts call an “inversion,” which means more data was leaving the stadium in the form of photographs, videos and other digital information than was being received inside by fans, press and staff.

The data inversion was a result of 80,000 people celebrating Gordon’s record and witnessing their presence to others beyond the confines of the stadium. Normally seen only at major events such as the Super Bowl, the data inversion would not have happened a year ago in Camp Randall.

That’s because Camp Randall underwent a technology facelift this summer that placed it among an elite cadre of major college and professional stadiums equipped with a high-speed Wi-Fi network, an Internet protocol television network and a distributed antenna system. Together, they handle a flood of voice, data, video and other digital traffic.

Just as Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, site of the Dec. 6 Big Ten Conference Championship game, is wired for 21st century mobile technology, so is Camp Randall. For those thousands of fans who couldn’t even get a cell phone signal in past seasons, the upgrade has been a welcome addition to football Saturdays.

In some ways, the people who buy tickets to watch Badgers’ football at Camp Randall are punished for doing so. Many home games, especially in the early season, take place at 11 a.m. on Saturdays. The stadium concession sales transition in 2013 was awkward, at best, and the wait for restrooms can stretch from Section P to … Not P.

In this case, the UW-Madison Athletic Department listened to its customers. Survey results two years ago ranked Wi-Fi coverage and cell phone reception at the top of the fans’ wish list.

That led to a $6.5-million project involving the Athletic Department and AT&T, which has handled similar stadium tech upgrades around the country. The result is a Wi-Fi system that is among the densest in the United States – as measured by the number of access points needed to extend coverage to all of Camp Randall’s hard-to-reach spots.

Camp Randall was built in 1917, with layers of physical improvements over time, so upgrading the stadium’s technology array for the mobile age required sophisticated engineering and enough hardware to cover its massive footprint.

On the Wi-Fi side, AT&T provided a 10-gigabit backbone connection and installed about 750 access points throughout the stadium. Those Wi-Fi access points are “tuned” before each game, adjusting for a mix of environmental and human factors.

There are also hundreds of distributed antenna points throughout the stadium, which are primarily for voice and text traffic. The distributed antenna system is not run by AT&T but by a third party, with AT&T and Verizon as customers. It all works together, however. The AT&T Wi-Fi installation increased the amount of available wireless bandwidth, taking congestion away from the cellular network.

The stadium also features 720 IPTV screens. About 400 of those screens are located in the club and suite sections of the stadium, with the remainder spread throughout.

A little known fact: The football scoreboards, with their constant videos and replays, are not run from inside Camp Randall. The $1-million control center is located at the Kohl Center, the UW’s basketball and hockey arena, and connected through 300 strands of optical fiber. The Kohl Center already has a distributed antenna system, and a Wi-Fi and IPTV installation project is slated for 2015.

The decision to upgrade Camp Randall’s technology is consistent with national trends. Younger fans are leaving stadiums when they can’t get connected, so college and pro sports teams have embraced technology as a way to improve the fan experience and boost bottom lines.

It’s a way to get fans off their own couches – where they’re connected to multiple devices and can still watch the game – while enhancing sponsorship revenues delivered through digital messages.

Future uses of the Camp Randall system could include instant-replay and food-ordering apps, but that’s for another season.

“We set out to build it slowly, test it thoroughly and grow,” said Jim Roberts, the Athletic Department’s information technology director. “We felt it was better to be on the leading edge than the bleeding edge.”

Now, if only someone can develop a Camp Randall restroom waiting time app…

Recent articles by Tom Still

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He can be reached by email at communications@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.