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Picking the right mobile plan for NASCAR's new reality won't be easy

Getting that cool photo or video sent out from a track via social media may be a bit more of a challenge for many beginning this season. Sam Morris/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

So that box underneath the tree looks a little bit like it could be a new cell phone.

And it makes one wonder: What will cell service be like at NASCAR tracks now that Sprint no longer sponsors the Cup Series?

The answer, of course, is no one really knows until the green flag drops on the 2017 season. The conventional wisdom -- that it shouldn't be much different for those who have non-Sprint carriers and that it likely will be a little worse for those who have Sprint -- is a good guess.

"There is no question that there are going to be challenges," said Kimberly Meesters, who headed the NASCAR program for Sprint. "The good news is ... that the Sprint network is immensely better today than it was five years ago. So they should have connectivity.

"It's not going to be perfect. It's not going to be what it was in the past. It's probably going to be similar to what our competitors were -- we're all going to be in the same boat. Before, we had a leg up on the competitors because we invested so much money to have multiple [portable antenna units] at the track."

The two main track operators, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp., have outfitted select tracks with distributed antenna systems (DAS) -- permanently installed towers that cover the area of the track. They then do deals with carriers for placement on the towers. There is no limitation to the number of carriers that can be on the tower.

SMI had six of its eight tracks outfitted with the system last year and all will have them for 2017. SMI and Verizon have a deal and SMI continues to seek deals with other carriers. ISC has six of its 12 tracks with the permanent tower system and they have a deal with Verizon for all those tracks and AT&T for most.

"The places where those carriers are on the DAS, they should see great, great coverage," SMI Senior vice president Michael Burch said. "Based on the reports we get after every event, the dropped calls [for Verizon) have been minimal. ... The data has been phenomenal -- it's been on Super Bowl level in terms of fans using it.

"Verizon customers shouldn't see any issues. If you are having a problem at the speedway, I'd encourage people to call their carriers to get on the DAS at whatever speedway their visiting. Where Sprint hasn't joined, I would imagine there will be a decline."

Sprint so far hasn't reached a deal for an acceptable price to join the system. It hasn't needed to pay in the past because through deals formed when it signed its Cup sponsorship, Sprint was allowed to bring in its portable antenna units -- known as COWs (cell sites on wheels) -- to every track.

Sprint spent millions to bring COWs to the track each week, Meesters said, and Sprint sought to strike a deal with the tracks to continue to bring its COWs (some other cell companies brought COWs to select tracks) but those talks have fallen through as well.

According to Meesters, Sprint views the DAS systems as not the most up-to-date technology and would rather pay less to bring its COWs to the tracks.

"It is not realistic that our company can [bring in portable units] at every sporting event across the country every weekend, nor can any of our competitors," Meester said. "We were heavily invested in NASCAR so we did invest on bringing those towers every single weekend to the track.

"We also did other major events -- some college football, the Super Bowl -- but there are also a lot of major events that we can't go to. As we look forward starting in 2017, NASCAR will be very much like all the rest of the sporting events we're evaluating. Super big special events, large, large crowds, Daytona 500 type, you'll likely see us around hopefully. The other smaller events, probably not."

ISC chief development and chief digital officer Craig Neeb said ISC is working closely with American Tower Corporation on some future technology that combines WiFi and cell connectivity that will drop the cost significantly of trying to have hotspots and cell service throughout a motorsports facility. ISC is looking to incorporate that technology into its Phoenix overhaul (scheduled to be completed in 2018) and if it works, it could be incorporated at other facilities over the next three to five years.

Tracks have faced a continuous quandary when trying to work on connectivity through both cellular and WiFi. The price for what would be necessary to cover an entire facility for only two or three days a year is much more than the tracks would want to pay, especially at a facility where there is a lot of concrete and a lot of noise. Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles said an estimate for WiFi for the entire facility a few years ago was more than $40 million.

"For a majority of the events, we will have good cell coverage and we feel good about that," Neeb said about cellular service. "We hope before the season starts, we'll even have more. ... I don't think you will see a significant difference of coverage of what you saw before."

Meesters said she couldn't reveal Sprint's numbers as far as the number of people using its phones at the track because those are proprietary. It wouldn't be a stretch, though, to believe that NASCAR fans supported the sponsor.

Sprint and the other cell carriers obviously would want their customers to have service. But who has the leverage in these talks is questionable, considering whether fans would blame tracks or carriers for lack of service.

There are several ways to look at the benefits for tracks working toward having better cell service. The first would be to serve their customers who need to make calls or look up emails. The tracks also like to push content and information to fan's phones -- and the only way to do that is to make sure the fans have service.

The other benefit is social media. Fans learn about what is happening during the race through their social media feed, enhancing the experience. And fans posting on social media is free marketing for the tracks themselves.

"The world of venues and managing connectivity is a challenge not only for our sport but all sports," Neeb said. "We're all sharing information back and forth among each other as to what's working and what's not working.

"In the next few years, the realization from our technology partners is they've got to solve this. I think there are some good solutions out there that are coming in the near future."

Burch and Neeb said they focus on common areas, suites and premium campgrounds. Daytona has WiFi on the concourses of its new main grandstand. Burch also said SMI is toying with an idea of a self-contained WiFi router unit with a generator and antenna that could be moved from track to track so that they can be used more than a couple times a year.

Fans in some ways are used to knowing that big events have connectivity challenges. With Sprint no longer the series sponsor, it might make other carriers more interested in supporting the sport's customers as they were locked out of Cup team and race sponsorships as well as branding at the tracks.

"Both Verizon and T-Mobile have definitely raised their hands to see what else they can do with us," Neeb said.