The Fertitta Center, home of the American Athletic Conference and Sweet 16 finalist men’s UH Cougar Basketball team, is state of the art. It’s a beautiful facility with not a bad seat in the house, amazing lightshows, and WiFi service designed to support the smartphone connected fans and their social media followers. Want to post a selfie from courtside? Go right ahead. Following the Chancellor’s tweets? No problem. Blogging about the big plays and uploading video clips? Be our guest! The Fertitta Center was designed for the fan experience including online and social media needs. With all the excitement for our team, the great WiFi has not escaped the attention of the fans. As Cougar fan Melinda McMahan said in her post “ the WiFi at the Fertitta Center rocks!!!”
In the earliest stages of the planning of the new UH basketball arena it was clear that UH needed to provide top notch WiFi throughout the facility. Fans expect, and this generation of students demand, high speed access to the internet. UH learned that the hard way through the experience with TDECU stadium which struggles to provide even basic service in some sections. In the case of the stadium, UH outsourced the WiFi to an outside vendor with experience serving large venues but that has been unable to deliver. The lesson of TDECU stadium was that if you want to do something right you need to do it yourself.
Designing the WiFi At the Fertitta Center
Armed with new and better products, a skilled team of UH analysts and technicians, and a supportive partner in Layer 3 Communications and Aruba, the decision was made early on that UIT would design, oversee the installation, and operate the WiFi in the Fertitta Center. The goal was to build a network that would enhance the fan experience to contribute to enjoyment of the game.
Three years ago, University Information Technology switched to Aruba WiFi products and HP switches and contracted with Layer 3 Communications for products and support. UIT has quickly become one of the higher education leaders on deployment and design of Aruba WiFi installations and has developed a strong, mutually beneficial working relationship with both Layer 3 and Aruba.
The facility is a large public venue or “LPV”. WiFi in these facilities are notoriously difficult to design and deploy. The Capacity of the FC is 7100 and it includes not just seating but the concourse, clubs, and support spaces. The Center is a big open area with a lot of people and WiFi devices packed tightly together. Wireless access points (AP) needed to be distributed in a manner that they can serve just the right number of fans per AP and configured so they do not interfere with each other.
Installation of the Design
Brandon Stratton, WiFi Analyst and team lead from UH and Scott Lester, LPV WiFi expert from Layer3 (Layer3 has helped design WiFi networks for many LPVs including Levi Stadium in San Francisco, home to the 49ers), were tasked with the design; A task made doubly difficult due the ever-changing nature of construction projects.
UIT project manager, Lisa Thomas coordinated UIT, UH Facilities Planning and Construction, and the contractors and kept all the players well informed and on point. Her diligence was critical to the overall IT buildout in the Fertitta Center and success of the WiFi deployment. Look up from a seat near the court and you are likely to be able to see most of the 36 AP’s in the arena itself and a few of the 65 more that serve the concessions clubs and other areas.
The result was a network that exceeded expectations. On December 1st of 2018, the night of the first home game in the Fertitta Center the WiFi supported 3,189 unique wireless devices. At one point 2,090 devices were using the network simultaneously, which is why Melinda McMahan was happy enough to tweet Chairman Fertitta to tell him about it!
Success by the Numbers
Since the opening night University Information Technology has continued to refine the service in the Fertitta Center. UIT has installed diagnostic equipment that constantly monitors the network performance and staff perform network speed-tests before and during games to catch and correct performance issues before it impacts fans. Performance thus far has been stellar.
In February, the team performed baseline speed testing throughout the facility when the building was empty. Average download speeds exceeded 90 megabits per second (mbps) while upload speeds exceeded 130 mbps. Testing was performed during the South Florida game on February 23rd to determine how it functions under load: there were 2,559 devices using the network throughout the game. During that time, fans placed 168 phone calls and 7 Facetime video calls over the WiFi network rather than connecting to a cell tower. In all, fans consumed 122 Gigabytes of data or the equivalent of downloading 35,000 songs during the USF game. That would be the equivalent of every ticket holder downloading 5 songs!
Amazingly, the impact of a sold-out game on data speeds was almost imperceptible to the users. Testing of download speeds dropped to averages for downloads to around 60 mbps and uploads to 90 mbps during busiest times but they still peaked at 90 and 100, respectively. How fast is that? Netflix recommends a minimum speed of 5 mbps for HD streaming.
Based on design and performance this season, the Fertitta Center WiFi network has the capacity to support many more devices and much more traffic than it has seen so far. David Johnson, Assistant Vice President for Technology Services and Support describes the possibilities: “The Fertitta Center was an opportunity for Network Planning and Development, Network Operations, and the WiFi team to stretch their wings and build out a solution to problems they hadn’t tackled before. The result has been dramatic. I think we’re just starting to understand the potential of this level of WiFi service in the Fertitta Center. We’ve already seen that we can support the data rates needed for social media, internet browsing, and even live video over smartphones, so I think we’re only limited by our imagination at this point. We can envision using the WiFi to provide real time stats, live player info, push notifications, and maybe even video or audio streams that are synced to the game on the floor that would enhance the fan experience. I just think it is so fitting that the Cougar Basketball programs now have a place to play that has as much potential as the teams. Every year new technology is introduced and makes its way onto campus. It is very important that University Information Technology and UH Athletics stay abreast of the latest tech in the hands of the students to keep the Fertitta Center at the leading edge.”
The Fertitta Center Project Team: Dr. Rita Barrantes is responsible for Network Operations and IT Project Management, James Schexneider is the Manager Network Operations, Brandon Stratton was network analysts and team lead for the project design, and Lisa Thomas was the IT Project Manager. Charles Chambers is the Manager of Network Planning and Development.