Why So Many Stadiums Are Racing to Install 5G, Even With Live Events Paused


If there is a such thing as a god of sports fans, it’s arguable that he had a hand in the blueprints for SoFi Stadium. Los Angeles’ brand new, 3.1-million-square-foot, indoor-outdoor venue has—in addition to the Rams and the Chargers—more amenities than a decent Caribbean resort. The 80 million pixels of its Oculus 4K video board can dazzle the house’s 70,000 fans with 120 yards of moving imagery and 260 speakers’ worth of sound. The translucent roof canopy of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene keeps the expanse naturally cool even as it bathes the field in California sun. For those who can afford more than just a seat, there are no fewer than 260 luxury suites, including a three-story “beach house,” field-level “bungalows” complete with huge sofas, and a 75,000-square-foot Executive Club with marble-paneled elevators and four bars, one each for wine, tequila, whiskey and champagne.

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But the amenity that’s likely to please the greatest number of fans is one that none of them will be able to see.

It’s SoFi’s 5G network, the chief component of a two-stack matrix (the other is Wi-Fi 6 wireless broadband) that, once fans are finally allowed into the house at some point in the post-Covid future, will tickle them with a 2.5-gigabit-per-second data transmission speed that’s faster than the services in 99% of households in the United States.

While the millimeter-wave spectrum might be invisible, the behind-the-scenes infrastructure needed to make it work is not. Building and installing the distributed antenna system needed to make 5G a reality in a stadium whose seating can be expanded to 100,000 is a job that consumes each working day for SoFi’s chief technology officer Skarpi Hedinsson.

“It is one of the most difficult things from a technology standpoint,” Hedinsson told nitronet. “[The] infrastructure is so dense; it’s so large. We’ve been working on the wireless and 5G infrastructure for three years solid, from designing it to engineering it to procuring the equipment, installing it and fine tuning it. It’s an enormous investment.”

Hedinsson won’t put a dollar figure on just what kind of investment it is, but seeing as the stadium’s price tag hovers around $5 billion, it’s fair to say it’s not cheap. Nothing in this place is.

SoFi is part of a small but slowly growing vanguard of large arenas committing themselves to 5G broadband. On Feb. 8 of last year, AT&T Stadium claimed to be the first big venue to adopt it, even though the coverage was “limited.” Not to be outdone, Verizon announced that its own 5G network would be up and running in 13 NFL stadiums that same Sunday, though the NFL’s communications office similarly conceded that the “service will be concentrated in parts of the seating areas,” and not everyplace. “Having this cutting-edge technology in our stadiums will greatly enhance the game-day experience and bring a multitude of benefits to our fans,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, was the first mega-venue to get 5G, which also powers the “AR Immersive Columns” inside.Getty Images, AT&T

At press time, Verizon reported that the number of arenas it’s wired for 5G has now grown to 43, including New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Citi Field in New York, and Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

There’s nobody who wouldn’t like data speeds to be a little faster, of course, and stadium owners—in the endless game of one-upmanship they play with one another—are always happy for a new perk to talk about. But 5G, for now at least, is a technology still in its early stages. As SoFi’s experiences make clear, it is also a costly and complicated one to install. And with some analysts predicting that in-person events won’t fully return until 2022, it’s an investment that won’t start paying for itself for many months. A key question, then, is whether stadiums racing to install 5G should do it simply because fans will expect it or because it will provide venue owners and teams with concrete revenue and marketing benefits.

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