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Courtesy of Luca Serra, SMG

The new game at Soldier Field: AT&T and Boingo Wireless have upgraded the infrastructure at the stadium to allow better cell service and Wi-Fi.

New Wi-Fi and cell service system handles data rush during Soldier Field weather evacuation

by Mitch Goldich
Nov 20, 2013


Courtesy of Luca Serra, SMG

Some 250 antennas are hidden around Soldier Field to support the improved network.


Graph produced by Mitch Goldich/MEDILL. Data courtesy of AT&T.

Click to enlarge

When AT&T partnered with Boingo Wireless to bring widespread cell service and Wi-Fi to Soldier Field, it would have been hard to predict a day like Sunday. When storms triggered an evacuation from the stands during a Chicago Bears game for the first time in over a decade, the new system sure got a workout.

“You never want something like this to happen,” said Luca Serra, director of sponsorship and media for SMG, the venue management company for Soldier Field. “But at the same time it was a huge measuring stick for us to see what the system could handle.”

At 12:30 p.m., Serra said Soldier Field management decided to evacuate the stands. Five minutes later, the NFL decided to delay the game with 4:51 remaining in the first quarter. The storm brought tornadoes that decimated parts of southern Illinois and dumped torrential rains on the stadium and the Chicago area. Fans spent nearly two hours huddling in covered areas like the concourses.

Stadium personnel tried updating fans about the situation, but Serra acknowledged some fans likely would have had trouble hearing loudspeaker updates in such a noisy and chaotic environment. So fans with smartphones took to the Internet for updates.

“The speeds over our network for data traffic have just been blazing fast,” said Erin McGrath, AT&T public relations manager in Chicago.

“This brand new system is built just for this purpose,” McGrath said. “Supporting massive amounts of data traffic. We know this is a trend at larger venues. Year after year, in-stadium traffic at events like concerts and games is skyrocketing. With that in mind this new system will sustain us in the future.”

The Bears won 23-20 over the Baltimore Ravens in their second home game in a row, the first two ever since AT&T and Boingo announced the upgrade in October. 

AT&T customers used 471 GB of data Sunday, which McGrath said is equivalent to making more than 1.3 million social media posts with photos. The majority of the data was tapped for downloading, not uploading, however, which means most customers used the Internet to gather updates, not share them.

A new Distributed Antenna System (DAS) with 250 antennas inside the stadium vastly improves both cell service and Wi-Fi. The system has more bandwidth, which means data users see faster speeds when a large group of people tries to surf the Internet, refresh their Twitter feeds and post photos to Facebook all at once.

AT&T designed the system, but it is “neutral-host” which means any carrier can use it. Verizon also uses the DAS system. Sprint, U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile don't but customers with those and other carriers have the option to purchase the Wi-Fi from Boingo for $1.99 per day.

Data usage at the Nov. 18 game dwarfs the Nov. 11 game.

One major reason for such a large increase is because the weather delay and overtime made for a longer game, so the data was collected over a much longer period of time. But the peak hour Nov. 18 (1-2 p.m., during the delay) was 150 GB, and the peak hour Nov. 11 (12-1 p.m.) was only 68 GB.

Customers without AT&T or Verizon were not able to utilize the faster network for free. Joey Nachinson, who has had complaints about his service from Sprint before, had another poor experience.

“From my perspective, it was nothing new,” Nachinson said. “Nothing better or worse. Sprint service is awful at Soldier Field on game days. Mine would work sometimes, but it was very slow and painful. Other times it would time out and say no data connection.”

Nachinson could have spent $1.99 for the Wi-Fi but said he had trouble doing so. He said his phone was slow to load the page from which he could purchase it.

But customers able to use the new system have given it high remarks. Serra said that he asked about feedback during an operations meeting this week with the heads of every department in Soldier Field. Nobody had heard a single complaint.

“Everybody was thrilled with the performance of the system,” Serra said. “And really impressed that the network really could handle a huge volume of traffic going across it. We haven’t heard anything negative.”