We woke up this morning in Dallas to 20 degree temperatures and a parking lot covered in ice. Not exactly the kind of weather the NFL was hoping for when it selected the new Cowboys Stadium to host Super Bowl XLV, but it didn't stop both teams and media from making their way -- however slowly -- to Arlington for Super Bowl Media Day. Naturally, the likes of ESPN were there in full force, but rather than picking apart defensive schemes and seeing who could outgun Troy Polamalu for the longest mane in North Texas, we spent our time asking about mobile OS preferences and soaking up knowledge from Cowboys CIO Pete Walsh. With a price tag well north of $1 billion on the new Cowboys Stadium, the home to the world's largest HD display is certainly one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It's packing 884 wireless access points throughout (not to mention an internal network operations center that constantly monitors activity on each one), 260 miles of fiber optic cabling, capacity to handle over 100,000 simultaneous wireless connections, over 3,100 IPTVs and micro cell towers for each major carrier within -- you know, so that kickoff video that just can't wait actually sees its way onto YouTube prior to the start of the second half.
Head on past the break to catch of a video of us talking smartphone platforms with Green Bay Packers center Scott Wells, as well as a lengthy (and insightful) interview with the Chief Information Officer of the Dallas Cowboys. Everything from the Cowboys' rejection of FanVision to their hopes to blanket the stadium with gratis WiFi is covered, and we're even given a hint that contactless payments and mobile food ordering systems could be just a season or so away.
On the field and in the sky
As a newcomer to Super Bowl Media Day, we weren't quite sure what to expect when arriving at the frigid Cowboys Stadium. It's as if both teams collectively brought their hometown weather with 'em to Big D, though there was plenty of warmth to be found within. We were able to mingle with the players from both teams for an hour apiece, soaking it all in and admiring the gigantic 72- x 160-foot Mitsubishi Electric high-def display (two of 'em, in fact) hanging from the ceiling above. Being that this marks the first time that we've seen said screen in person, we can't help but remark at just how jaw-dropping it is. We were told that dozens of construction crews dropped everything and sat in stunned silence the first time these panels were flipped on, and we totally buy it -- there's simply nothing quite like looking at these things, and the pixel density Mitsu was able to achieve is nothing short of mind-blowing. Frankly, it'll be hard to take in a live event from the nosebleeds after seeing just how nice these top-row huggers have it here.
And then there's the unending waves of radiation that were coursing through our veins and penetrating our skulls. Based on a design from the systems architects at CDW, the stadium has right around 884 wireless access points installed, with each one tuned to provide coverage to roughly 250 seats. That's a whole lot of WiFi, and you can thank AT&T for keeping it running. We had no issues whatsoever finding a strong signal from everywhere inside the building, from the field itself to the depths of the data centers. We also tested the upload strength from within, and saw a consistent 1,500kbps uplink speed from our laptop while uploading a sizable video. Obviously, we wouldn't expect those speeds to hold once 100,000 or so pack the stands, but Pete Walsh affirmed that the stadium is equipped with at least a couple of OC-3 connections, and he had no qualms saying that this wireless network could support over 100,000 simultaneous connections.
Somewhat surprisingly, we learned that the massive WiFi initiative has only been live since Thanksgiving Day of last year. During the AT&T Cotton Bowl, on-site engineers noticed that things were crawling during the first half, but thanks to a patch that was pushed live at halftime, uploads during the second half were noticeably quicker. The only downfall right now is that the WiFi is only free to those with AT&T accounts (smartphones,tablets, LaptopConnect users and residental home internet users), ; if you bring in a WiFi-only iPad or a phone from any other carrier, you're asked to pony up a few bucks to connect for the event. Pete confirmed that his organization is currently in talks with the NFL (and presumably carriers) to open it up for free to everyone, regardless of carrier, and we're hoping that deal gets done sooner rather than later.
We also had a brief moment to ask Packers center Scott Wells whether his team was pro-iOS or pro-Android. His answer? "It's probably split." When I asked him what he uses? This gem came out: "I have an iPhone. But I had an Android [phone] at one time. I switched because... I didn't know how to use it. The iPhone was easier to use." See it for yourself below.
Behind the scenes technology at Cowboys Stadium
Both solutions architects from CDW and Walsh himself maintained that the goal for Cowboys Stadium was "the ultimate fan experience." That experience is getting a boost this coming weekend with the NFL Super Bowl app. Walsh hinted that it may be updated prior to game day, but even if not, it should add a whole new level of interaction to those who bring Android and iOS-based phones to the Super Bowl. We're talking real-time statistics and mobile voting on the MVP at the game's conclusion, and we're hoping that they'll out the stops eventually and toss in instant replay. The video below takes a deeper look at what it took to actually achieve the goal we referred to above.
Speaking of which, we specifically asked Pete if the Cowboys had (or would) consider FanVision. You may recall our (mostly positive) review of the device / system from late last year, but it's pretty clear that the boys in Dallas have no intentions of using it. Instead, Walsh's team is quietly developing a solution of their own -- one that they are hoping to nab three patents for. Walsh feels that FanVision is too bandwidth-intensive, and he also balked at the idea of handing out proprietary handhelds to consumers who were already walking in with powerful smartphones and slates. When we pressed on what platforms would be supported (iOS, Android, webOS, BlackBerry OS, etc.), he strongly hinted that "everyone" would be taken care of -- likely referring to a web-based app that could be accessed regardless of operating system.
It's possible that this solution could be live for the Cowboys' next season, but we'd probably place the chances at 50/50. The organization is hoping to make various camera angles and replays available to fans via the app (or web app) instantaneously. Walsh has no intentions of pushing live an application that isn't bulletproof in practice, and until the lag times have been squashed, it'll remain in the labs. We also inquired as to whether the Cowboys would entertain the idea of licensing this technology out to other franchises that would prefer to more tightly integrate mobiles into the fan experience, and Walsh didn't hesitate to admit his plans to take this to the NFL once it was fully baked.
"The smartphone is your key to everything"
That's a quote straight from Pete Walsh, who is clearly sold on the idea of pushing mobility as a part of the overall experience. We asked what was lacking in his already-cutting edge facility, and he quickly spouted off dreams involving mobile concession ordering, contactless payment options and possibly even delivery of said food orders based on location information from the customer. There's no question that the Cowboys are actively looking to exploit their wireless system -- you should probably prepare yourself for Pepsi coupons if you opt-in to ads at the stadium, for example.
Mobile facts and figures
Ready for an inside scoop from the man who sees all when his stadium fills up? On average, 64 percent of fans at Cowboys games arrive with an AT&T phone. Around 22 percent are rocking a handset from Verizon, and the leftovers are split amongst Sprint, T-Mobile and the prepaid guys. That's a pretty insane number in our estimation, and we're guessing that the overwhelming majority of that has to do with iPhone users showing up for Cowboys games.
Interestingly enough, Walsh expects those numbers to change somewhat dramatically for this Sunday's event. Being that both Green Bay and Pittsburgh aren't exactly AT&T strongholds (at least in comparison to DFW), he's expecting "the majority" of those in attendance to be on Verizon, with AT&T close behind thanks to corporate seats. Still, every major carrier has bolstered network capacity in and around Dallas specifically for those event, but Walsh was quite proud of the fact that the Cowboys already have a "multi-carrier antenna" system that greatly enhances coverage for the Big 4 on a day-to-day basis. Sure enough, our AT&T test calls went through beautifully while deep within the stadium's lairs -- we've tried similar at old fashioned venues, and we've experience far, far worse results. The full interview with Pete Walsh, as well as a look around the stadium today at Super Bowl XLV Media Day, is below.
No question about it, the new Cowboys Stadium is a mecca for technology. The lengths that the organization has gone through to ensure flawless wireless connectivity and enhanced cellular coverage is commendable, and we can only hope that other venues take note. Walsh's ideas on the future of fan enjoyment also gave us hope that they'll be implemented in far more regions than just North Texas. A decade ago, the mere thought of using a smartphone to watch various camera angles while within a stadium was as far-fetched as it gets; today, it's bordering on expected. With HDTVs (not to mention 3D variants) so common in US households, clubs are having to up the ante in order to pull folks back to the live experience. And if everyone can pull off something similar to what the Cowboys have here, we might just say the traffic, grossly inflated parking fees, tragically expensive grub and unpredictable coaching moves may be once again worth enduring in person.
*Verizon has acquired AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.