Most visitors to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth are probably not thinking about how they will receive cell phone service, how merchants will be contacting their banks for purchases, or how broadcasters will be sending the 10 days of rodeo and chucks out to the world.
But without hyperbole, the Calgary Stampede has build world class infrastructure that can handle the world’s visitors—and so much of it is hidden from public view that it has become a seamless part of the visitor experience.
“Everyone who comes and works on our infrastructure and our systems, they always walk away saying wow,” said Calgary Stampede Business Services Manager Mike Sikorski.
From the broadcast connections to Sportsnet and Global Television from GMC Stadium, to the conventions at the BMO Centre, the work that the Stampede electrical, carpentry, IT services, and more do is largely in house.
Hidden below manholes and behind dozens of doorways across Stampede park are the miles of fibre optics cables, servers, and antennas that allow for the regular business operations of the Calgary Stampede and the various vendors and visitors to happen.
Across 220 acres and 55 buildings, that represents over 8,000 fibre optic locations that need to be serviced. Added with the potential for 140,000 visitors on park on any given day, that is the same level of infrastrucutre as what a small sized city would have to service.
“We don’t tell these things very often. They are behind the scenes, but they are what it takes to work,” said Sikorski.
The floods change everything
Prior to 2013, the network infrastructure for the Calgary Stampede was very different. Buried under park were miles upon miles of copper cables that serviced everything from phone lines to television broadcasters.
But with the flood came massive devastation. All of that cable was destroyed, and so too were all of the third party broadcast and network capabilities that allowed the rodeo and chucks to be seen by more than just visitors to the stadium.
“I was one of the chosen people that were considered essential services. There was about eight of us, and we stayed here for the duration of the flood while they evacuated the whole park. And during that time we lost all our infrastructure—every copper cable in the ground, every fiber optic—it was all destroyed,” said Sikorski.
“Our CEO came out of a meeting [14 days to the start of Stampede 2013] saying ‘Stampedes on.’ And we all kind of looked at him and said, ‘what do you mean on,’ and he goes ‘full on.'”
For Sikorski, that meant having to re-architect the entire Stampede. From the big picture down to the smallest, from how to connect to the world right down to how to connect a microphone to the built in speaker systems.
“That’s when we went from analog to digital, 100 per cent. But we had 14 days to do this, so we started running fiber optics in the ground. All our broadcast systems were all on copper, so what we did was went and went and multiplexed it all into fibre. We drew fibre in between every building and then started to build the network up,” he said.
“At that time, Shaw stopped using analog services. We had 600 TVs throughout the park, and we weren’t going to put up Shaw boxes [on each TV], so we partnered with Bell and we said ‘well, hey, if you give a signal we’ll build our own broadcast system.'”
That’s exactly what the Stampede did. Today, they operate a world class broadcast network that rivals those in place for other sporting events, including the Olympics.
At the Stampede, broadcasters connect directly into the Stampede’s equipment. What they get in return is an unrivalled level of downtime thanks to two state of the art data centres on park, and an off-site one that automatically addresses any network issues thanks to custom in-house built software.
“You know people that do Olympics, they say they never do this and never works. When we plugged them in brought them on our network and they did 100 per cent of their network on ours. Since that day, they say only place they do it is the Calgary Stampede,” Sikorski said.
The system has the capacity to serve thousands of simultaneous un-compressed video connections to the television monitors throughout the park, but also serves in another unique capacity.
“I never get failures and whatnot in here. It just works, but we do heavily invest in it,” he said.
“I feel incredible knowing that it’s seamless, you’re watching TV, and that’s on our infrastructure on there.”
Closing out the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth with an unseen race for time
Look up to the top of the Big Four Building, or GMC Stadium, and you’ll see the usual array of cell service antenna. What you won’t see on park though are the hundreds of other cell service antennas hidden behind signs on lamp posts, or for what would be visible at other large scale venues, COWs (aka cells on wheels).
This year the Stampede did a dash to install brand new 5G antennas on park to service the anticipated tens of thousands of visitors. Unlike other projects of this scale, which would have taken over a year, the Stampede did it in just a handful of months.
“About three and a half months ago we had Telus reach out to us saying, ‘you know, during Stampede, there’s a hard congestion on our systems,’” Sikorski said.
“Usually those projects take roughly nine months of planning and another 12 months installation. But you know the Stampede way; it’s let’s figure out how to do this in very tight timelines and and deadlines. So we agreed to take that on.”
The Stampede’s using their in-house electrical services and carpentry services installed the new antennas on GMC Stadium throughout the parking lot, and on top of the Big Four building.
“We deployed roughly 450 access points within this venue, and then large scale ones on top of the roof for the parking lots and before,” Sikorski said.
“That is always a challenge in [GMC Stadium] because we have a 55 year old building that has its own architectural challenges.”
The goal was to avoid the use of COWs, which pose two problems for an outdoor festival. First, said Sikorski, they are ugly and detract from the visitor experience. Second, they don’t play nice with other networks.
“If we were trying to bring in temporary services for every major show we have it would fail over and over again. So that’s why we choose to go permanent infrastructure,” said Sikorski.
Located on one of the upper floors of the stadium, behind nondescript doors is a pair of control rooms for the new cell infrastructure.
Compared to the master control room for the entire Stampede, it is a relatively modest affair, but that appearance is deceiving because it holds some of the world’s newest cell service infrastructure—with room to grow.
The spectre of Rogers failing last year during the Stampede parade, and then causing issues throughout the park for days afterwards was a concern.
“With Rogers failing, we were at risk. One of the requirements that we had in this to say you have redundancy built all the way through,” he said.
The new system is redundant on multiple levels, and that redundancy is also system agnostic. Currently Telus has equipment installed on site, but that same equipment could service other providers as well—including Rogers and Freedom Mobile.
With a laugh, Sikorski said not Bell though. Although Bell is the official sponsor of the Stampede, that company has a sharing agreement in place for Western Canada that uses Telus networks to provide service.
Investment for the future
The other part of that continued infrastructure investment comes from the work being done for the BMO Centre Expansion, where more than a million dollars worth of Cisco networking equipment is secured by the Stampede, ready for installation.
That investment was made possible because of the partnership the Stampede has with Cisco to reduce the cost of equipment—the Stampede is a non-profit entity, and it’s world class infrastructure comes from working with partners and doing much of the work in house.
“I was able to build and develop that relationship from the ground up, and we’re about five-six years into migrating completely on to their infrastructure, knowing that it’s a great system, a great technology,” Sikorski said.
“But it takes a lot of expertise and skills to do it correctly. My team has that skill and can deliver on it.”
Many of the team members, said Sikorski, come directly from SAIT. They’ve largely stayed on team, moving up from junior roles right out of college into management positions in the half-dozen business units that he manages.
Not that the day-to-day challenges are easy for the team members, but those challenges are what keeps the staff with the Stampede for the long-term.
“You could pay people a million dollars, and they’re not going to stay engaged. I have people that are we pull out of SAIT every year, we bring them on board, and half of my team I brought from SAIT 10 years ago, and they’re still with me today,” he said.
Sikorski himself, who has been a part of the organization for a decade and a half, has remained precisely because of the growth that the organization has offered him, and the ability to address the biggest projects that any Calgary organization could take on.
And part of that is the new BMO Centre Expansion.
When visitors use of the breakout or meeting rooms inside the new Tier 1 convention facility, they will be getting the benefit of that decade of work that has gone into creating the on park network, and all of the software—162 applications on park—that keeps it running.
“Behind the scenes, if we do our job right by day one, you don’t know us,” said Sikorski.
“We find great pride in making sure that nobody sees us. Nobody hears us, nobody has those challenges.”
That means visitors, up to 60,000, can use the free Wifi on park. It means that delegates visiting trade shows now, and in the future for shows like the World Petroleum Congress will have the reliability and security that meet the highest of standards.
“Probably the highest heightened security that we’ve had, and that’s for the World Petroleum Congress. We’ve been working with them as a partner, not only auditing our controls and our security, but making sure that every delegate country gets to do the same,” Sikorski said.
“That brings us into the markets like China’s. They want to make sure that they’re bringing in their team, and they’re safe and everything. So we have extensive security protocols to validate our design, validate how we do things, And make sure that our clients feel comfortable.”
As for what it means to Sikorski and his team to get to work on something that most people will never get to see, he said it feels good to know he’s making things run without them ever knowing how.
“At the end of the day, our clients are relying on their livelihoods to put on a good show and event. And if the technology is not working, we can ruin their different events. It truly is their experience and we strive not to be a challenge to that,” he said.
“Being supportive 100 per cent behind the scenes, that’s really our goal.”