Keith Laye would love to send text messages while he’s at Carolina Panthers home games. But he said it can take as long as 10 minutes to send a message from inside Bank of America Stadium.
Rob Cummings likes to check Twitter to see whether a player has been injured. But it’s a struggle to get an Internet connection from his seat above the tunnel where Panthers enter the field.
Drew Simmons wants to attend Panthers home games later this season. But he might not go, out of fear his phone won’t have service in the stadium if his pregnant wife goes into labor.
It’s the Panthers’ latest off-field challenge: Keeping up with fans’ expectations for quick and reliable phone service as they seek to do more on their smartphones.
At least 70,000 people are expected at the stadium for Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks – many of them looking to post selfies on Facebook, check their fantasy football matchups, and text friends about where to meet after the game.
The Panthers and AT&T say they’re trying to give those fans a reliable connection. They’ve invested in upgrades to the stadium’s Wi-Fi and antenna systems so that fans can use their phones, but keeping up with data demands is tough.
“Providing a seamless wireless experience for 70,000 people is very challenging, but one that the Panthers and AT&T are committed to doing,” the team said in a statement. The Panthers said they continue to work with AT&T to “fine tune” the systems.
Elsewhere, other sports stadiums are also trying to stay ahead of fast-rising data use.
According to industry publication Mobile Sports Report, most professional baseball, basketball and football stadiums across the U.S. are providing Wi-Fi service to fans to handle the higher demands for data.
But those demands keep growing, said Paul Kapustka, the publication’s editor.
“Devices are getting better – so much better, so much faster – than the networks are able to keep up with,” he said.
Stadiums race to upgrade
This year, AT&T announced it had expanded its wireless system at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium after The Wall Street Journal reported that Georgia students left empty 39 percent of their designated sections of the stadium during the previous four seasons. Some students had complained that it was virtually impossible to use their smartphones in the stadium, the newspaper said.
Some phone companies have turned to backup cell sites to make sure phones work during major events. Verizon Wireless has installed a temporary cell site outside Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., in expectation of massive data demands for the 2014 World Series, which opened Tuesday.
The current round of efforts to improve cell service at Bank of America stadium dates to around 2010. That year AT&T installed a “distributed antenna system” to provide wireless service for its customers at games, according to the Panthers.
In 2012, AT&T redesigned that system, expanding its capacity, increasing data speeds and making it possible for other carriers to provide service in the stadium, the company said. Sprint and Verizon began providing cellular service through the antenna system that year.
According to AT&T, the antenna system gives the company the equivalent of six cell sites in the stadium, which it said is similar to the capacity it provides customers in the city of Concord. According to the company, the antenna system is seeing fans use about 80 percent more data per game so far this season than average usage at games last year.
In response to a rise in data use on smartphones, AT&T in 2012 installed Wi-Fi service to take strain off the antenna system. The Wi-Fi allows Panthers fans, regardless of their phone company, to connect to the Internet for free. The Panthers pay AT&T a monthly fee to provide the service.
Some fans say they have trouble staying connected to the Wi-Fi system.
“It just does not work,” said Laye, who holds a permanent seat license.
AT&T said in a statement said the company continues to evaluate ways to improve the wireless system “and will continue to do so the remainder of this season and beyond.”
Before the 2013 Panthers season, for example, AT&T expanded the Wi-Fi access points in the stadium from approximately 460 to 645. The company also said it added additional capacity to the antenna system for this season.
The Panthers said upgrades were made to the stadium’s wireless system during the recent off-season and no public money was used for those upgrades.
Despite the upgrades, some fans say they are not happy with wireless service in Bank of America stadium.
They say their experience at the game is suffering because they aren’t able to always use their phones to go online and do the many things their phones are equipped to do.
Laye, a Kings Mountain resident, said he had trouble sending text messages at the last Panthers home game, Oct. 5 against the Chicago Bears.
That’s concerning to him, because he sends text messages to check in with his mother and wife, who watch his young son while he’s at the games. “I can’t communicate with them because the signal keeps jumping in and out. And I’m like, ‘I’m in the middle of Charlotte.’ ”
Laye said the stadium’s Wi-Fi system has sometimes kicked him off after about only 10 seconds.
“I understand there’s, like, 70,000 people there, and they’re all trying to get on the same Wi-Fi, but you think if they had it, it’d work,” he said.
The Panthers said they are aware that the wireless service “had some issues” during the Bears game, “but the majority of the stadium worked efficiently.” The Panthers also provide phones throughout the stadium for fans to make free local calls.
Simmons, who with his wife is expecting their first child in January, said he’s giving serious thought to not attending games later in the season. He’s worried no one will be able to contact him if his wife goes into labor.
“It’s going to be an issue for me if I can’t be reached,” the Charlotte resident said.
“As long as I’ve been going to that stadium, and as long as I can remember having a smartphone, it does not work. It’s like getting on a plane for four hours. I just don’t have access to the outside world.”
Cummings, a Panthers season ticket holder for 10 years, said he struggles to send text messages to arrange meetings with friends at halftime. He said he gets a flurry of text messages once he’s out of the stadium – some of them hours old.
A Verizon customer, Cummings said he also sometimes has problems just making calls in the stadium. He said he gets dropped from the Wi-Fi system after about 30 seconds.
“Ever since smartphones came to be, it’s been a challenge to get a data connection in the stadium,” he said.
Verizon said its network is currently being restored after renovations the Panthers made to the stadium earlier this year.
Equipment for the distributed antenna system was taken down for the renovations, a Verizon spokeswoman said. The company is providing service to its customers in the stadium, but its network is not fully restored on the system while AT&T continues to work on it, she said.
AT&T said the antenna system has been reinstalled “but continues to be optimized.”
Kapustka, editor of Mobile Sports Report, said Bank of America Stadium is among 20 other National Football League stadiums that makes Wi-Fi available to fans. He said that leaves 10 NFL stadiums still without Wi-Fi for fans, a number he said could drop by half next year.
Stadiums are not the only places having trouble meeting growing demand from fans for data, he said.
“Anywhere you’re in a large public venue like that, you’re going to have problems,” he said.
Panthers fans say they realize that tens of thousands of fans are trying to use the stadium’s wireless services all at once.
They just want it to work.
“I understand what they’re saying,” said Jon Winslow, a Panthers fan who lives in Winston-Salem. He likes to take photos at home games, but says he’s had to wait until he gets home to post them.
“It would enhance the fan experience if I were able to upload a photo or video immediately.” Staff researcher Maria David and The Kansas City Star contributed.