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AT&T Stadium offers high-tech way of rallying fans

AT&T installed a 130-foot interactive LED "fan experience board" in its namesake sports arena in Dallas.

The new fan experience board at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. AT&T

For AT&T, it wasn't enough to have the naming rights to the mega stadium where the Dallas Cowboys played. The telecommunications giant wanted to leave a bigger impression.

More than a year after AT&T won the naming rights to the former Cowboys Stadium, the company is poised to do just that with a 130-foot LED "fan experience board" that interacts with a specific AT&T-created app. Fans will be able to send photos to the board, and at critical times in a game, it will go into "Unite This House" mode, which will turn every smartphone in the stadium with the app into a rallying device for fans.

Fans will get their first glimpse of the board, which sits on the eastern platform of AT&T Stadium, this weekend in the Cowboys's first pre-season game, with the official season to start on September 7.

The AT&T Stadium fan experience board represents a step up in the kind of attention a sports venue has received from a carrier. Carriers are increasingly looking to packed stadiums and arenas as a place to make their name when it comes to network quality, often boasting about the amount of traffic they are able to carry and the amount of equipment they have installed.

"It's critically important," said Scott Mair, senior vice president of network planning and engineering for AT&T. "People judge us by our performance."

Scott Mair, senior vice president of network planning and engineering for AT&T. AT&T

AT&T and Verizon Wireless have over the past year jousted over the claim of the most reliable wireless network. Networking testing firm Root Metrics ranked Verizon as the best overall network in July, while AT&T has cited Nielsen's research for its own claims of network superiority. T-Mobile meanwhile, has cited Speedtest.net as evidence of its claims as the fastest network.

With the AT&T name emblazoned on the stadium, the coverage better be ubiquitous. Since the naming rights deal was struck last July, the carrier has increased the wireless capacity by 50 percent by bringing in 1,300 antennas and 1,500 wireless access points. There's enough equipment in AT&T Stadium to power a good sized Texas neighborhood, or a typical medium-sized city, according to Mair.

"That's a lot of horsepower packed into one stadium," he said.

Mair, however, said that's the typical treatment a sports venue would get. AT&T covers 75 percent of all major sports venues, he added.

It's clear why AT&T, and the other carriers, would care about hooking up these venues. With so many people packed into one place, the congestion and strain on the network is inevitable. But the last thing a carrier wants at a high-profile event such as a football game or concert are people complaining about coverage. That's a far cry from just a few years ago, when carriers struggled to keep up with rising wireless traffic demands, with AT&T in particular barely able to handle the torrent of iPhone traffic on its network.

Beyond stronger coverage, AT&T has pimped out the stadium. There are eight "experience columns" that look like large mall directories. But instead of directions to Old Navy, there are high-definition videos of Cowboy players and cheerleaders. The content can also be changed to fit a concert or other event.

AT&T's experience columns offer stats and videos on Cowboy players and cheerleaders. AT&T

The highlight is the large LED panel, which is made of 40 independent, robotic, mirrored, louvered panels that can rotate for different images. Fans can upload photos to the board, and some of their names will appear on it, connecting through the AT&T Stadium App, which will be available for iOS and Android devices. The app is free, and you don't have to be an AT&T customer to use the app; you just need to be within the immediate vicinity of the stadium.

"Unite This House" is its marquee feature. At specific times, a message will pop up on the phone of every fan who has downloaded the app, asking them to touch the screen. That triggers the phone to vibrate "significantly" and flash its camera LED like a strobe light. The idea is that every fan in the stadium participates, creating a massive rumble and light show that crescendos with a boom on the LED display.

"It made me feel it this morning," Mair said, noting it was his first time experiencing "Unite This House" in action. "When 80,000 strobe lights go on and off and vibrate, it's going to be really impressive.

Mair teased more features to come, and said "it would build over time."

AT&T and its anti-text-and-drive campaign on display on the fan board. AT&T