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It's Go Time for the San Francisco 49ers' New Tech-Infused Stadium

Preseason is over for the stadium, too.

Kurt Wagner/ Re/code

With the San Francisco 49ers set to host the Chicago Bears for Sunday Night Football, the nation will have its eyes on Levi’s Stadium — and not just for the players on the field.

Sunday signals go-time for the 49ers’ new tech-infused stadium, a $1.3 billion project entering its inaugural season. With extensive Wi-Fi access, a stadium-specific app for ordering food and merchandise to your seat, and nearly 1,200 solar panels, Levi’s Stadium is befitting of its Silicon Valley surroundings.

That is, when the technology works.

Through two preseason games and a handful of other events and practices, the Niners’ staff has been fine tuning the stadium’s tech features for the opening kickoff. Like any Silicon Valley tech startup, that process has included a few speed bumps along the way, according to Dan Williams, who built the stadium’s network as VP of technology for the 49ers.

Spotty wireless has been a minor issue, he says, but the team is fixing that, adding new Wi-Fi access points to the stadium’s entrances and promenades. Fans have also run into issues connecting to the Wi-Fi when using older phones, like the iPhone 4 which has weaker Wi-Fi capabilities (2.4 GHz) compared with the iPhone 5 (5 GHz).

“We didn’t really educate a lot. We just promised Wi-Fi or we promised good cell [service],” said Williams. “We didn’t say, ‘Oh by the way, you should have a modern device.’ We just had these expectations folks would have a modern device.”

The app, which lets fans order food or concessions to be delivered to their seat, also hit some snags when users had to re-submit orders at one point when the system went down, says Martin Manville, the Niners’ manager of business operations. The team also added language in the app to help confused fans understand what “Express Pickup” meant — a way to pre-pay for food in order to skip concession lines.

Perfecting the human element of the app — the runners actually delivering the goods — has also been a work in progress. At one point during a preseason game, runners on one side of the stadium were overwhelmed with orders while runners on the other side were standing around with nothing to do. “It’s preseason for us, too,” said Manville.

The good thing about the new technology: Issues are easy to fix thanks to the data accumulated by the app, he added.

Manville uses heat maps to determine which areas of the stadium are most active with orders, and after just a few preseason games the team is already changing staffing to accommodate ordering trends. Built-in ticket scanners at each gate make it easy to see which entrances experience the most traffic. Williams was able to quickly identify the Wi-Fi issue thanks to fan feedback, he says.

None of this fan data was available at Candlestick Park, the Niners’ old stadium. With more than 80,000 app downloads, Manville says the team has been surprised by how quickly fans have adopted the new technology. The switch in venue has helped, he added.

“It’s hard to tell someone who’s been coming to Candlestick for 28 years to try a new experience,” he said. “Here, people came in like sponges.”

That ready-to-learn mentality has been evident over the first two preseason games. In addition to the 80,000 app downloads, more than half of all season ticket holders have linked their seats to the app, says Williams, allowing the team to know when they arrive for a game and which concessions they’re purchasing.

Fans have already used more than 5.1 terabytes of mobile data, the equivalent of roughly 18 million 300-kilobyte images. During the Niners’ first preseason game against the Denver Broncos, fans used 20 percent more data than what was used during the last Super Bowl, he said.

Mobile data in that quantity requires massive infrastructure to support it, and Levi’s has partnered with Comcast to try and accommodate heavy use. Levi’s has a Wi-Fi access box for every 100 seats in the stadium and more than 70 miles of Wi-Fi cabling.

With everything in place for a nationally televised game, Sunday will mark the end of preseason for Levi’s Stadium, too.

“I’m pumped,” said Williams. “Startups fail sometimes in the beginning. That’s the only way to learn and grow. As long as we can grow from it — great. I’m confident that we can recover from anything.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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