By Tom Still

MADISON – At the close of the third quarter during the
Wisconsin Badgers runaway football victory over Nebraska, a new entry went into
the record books… and not just Melvin Gordon’s single-game rushing record of
408 yards.

It marked the first time that Camp Randall Stadium experienced
what telecommunications experts call an “inversion,” which means more data was
leaving the stadium in the form of photographs, videos and other digital
information than was being received inside by fans, press and staff.

The data inversion was a result of 80,000 people celebrating
Gordon’s record and witnessing their presence to others beyond the confines of
the stadium. Normally seen only at major events such as the Super Bowl, the
data inversion would not have happened a year ago in Camp Randall.

That’s because Camp Randall underwent a technology facelift
this summer that placed it among an elite cadre of major college and
professional stadiums equipped with a high-speed Wi-Fi network, an Internet
protocol television network and a distributed antenna system. Together, they
handle a flood of voice, data, video and other digital traffic.

Just as Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, site of the Dec.
6 Big Ten Conference Championship game, is wired for 21st century
mobile technology, so is Camp Randall. For those thousands of fans who couldn’t
even get a cell phone signal in past seasons, the upgrade has been a welcome
addition to football Saturdays.

In some ways, the people who buy tickets to watch Badgers’
football at Camp Randall are punished for doing so. Many home games, especially
in the early season, take place at 11 a.m. on Saturdays. The stadium concession
sales transition in 2013 was awkward, at best, and the wait for restrooms can
stretch from Section P to … Not P.

In this case, the UW-Madison Athletic Department listened to
its customers. Survey results two years ago ranked Wi-Fi coverage and cell
phone reception at the top of the fans’ wish list.

That led to a $6.5-million project involving the Athletic
Department and AT&T, which has handled similar stadium tech upgrades around
the country. The result is a Wi-Fi system that is among the densest in the
United States – as measured by the number of access points needed to extend
coverage to all of Camp Randall’s hard-to-reach spots.

Camp Randall was built in 1917, with layers of physical
improvements over time, so upgrading the stadium’s technology array for the
mobile age required sophisticated engineering and enough hardware to cover its
massive footprint.

On the Wi-Fi side, AT&T provided a 10-gigabit backbone
connection and installed about 750 access points throughout the stadium. Those
Wi-Fi access points are “tuned” before each game, adjusting for a mix of
environmental and human factors.

There are also hundreds of distributed antenna points
throughout the stadium, which are primarily for voice and text traffic. The
distributed antenna system is not run by AT&T but by a third party, with
AT&T and Verizon as customers. It all works together, however. The AT&T
Wi-Fi installation increased the amount of available wireless bandwidth, taking
congestion away from the cellular network.

The stadium also features 720 IPTV screens. About 400 of
those screens are located in the club and suite sections of the stadium, with
the remainder spread throughout.

A little known fact: The football scoreboards, with their
constant videos and replays, are not run from inside Camp Randall. The
$1-million control center is located at the Kohl Center, the UW’s basketball
and hockey arena, and connected through 300 strands of optical fiber. The Kohl
Center already has a distributed antenna system, and a Wi-Fi and IPTV
installation project is slated for 2015.

The decision to upgrade Camp Randall’s technology is
consistent with national trends. Younger fans are leaving stadiums when they
can’t get connected, so college and pro sports teams have embraced technology
as a way to improve the fan experience and boost bottom lines.

It’s a way to get fans off their own couches – where they’re
connected to multiple devices and can still watch the game – while enhancing
sponsorship revenues delivered through digital messages.

Future uses of the Camp Randall system could include instant-replay
and food-ordering apps, but that’s for another season.

“We set out to build it slowly, test it thoroughly and
grow,” said Jim Roberts, the Athletic Department’s information technology
director. “We felt it was better to be on the leading edge than the bleeding

Now, if only someone can develop a Camp Randall restroom
waiting time app…