Wireless carriers plan for Super Bowl Sunday
by Stephen McDill
Published: February 1,2013
A dropped call from your smartphone can leave you with a sinking feeling equivalent to witnessing a dropped pass by your favorite NFL receiver: shock, disbelief and maybe some frustration and anger mixed in for good measure.
Whether its a dropped call, a text fail or a buffering browser, two of the country’s leading wireless carriers are making sure its customers don’t experience any of this while attending Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
As the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens take the field Sunday and thousands of ticket holders fill the 72,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it will be the climax of months of technical preparation by the employees of Verizon Communications and their top rival AT&T Inc.
More than a million visitors and 5,000 media personnel are expected in New Orleans for the game and the simultaneous Mardi Gras celebrations, according to one estimate.
“We’ve been preparing for quite a while,” said Verizon spokesperson Gretchen Whitaker. “When you have that kind of influx in the city you have capacity strains.”
With Verizon being the official NFL wireless sponsor and enjoying its first year on the Super Bowl host committee, the biggest concern for the nationwide provider is that its customers are able to use their devices in and around the Superdome and that the coverage stays seamless amid all that steel and concrete.
According to a recent report from the Pew Internet Project, more than 45 percent of Americans own a smartphone and 25 percent own a tablet device like the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy.
The glut of new gadgets and their family of apps has dovetailed with a second generation of social media where people who are already connected to each other want to digitally share events and experiences. “These robust devices take lots of bandwidth,” Whitaker said.
Verizon turned on its latest 4G LTE spectrum for the Big Easy in 2010 and has grown its capacity since then.
Since the Superdome’s successful renovation following Hurricane Katrina, the 52-acre complex has undergone numerous upgrades. Verizon recently built an antenna into the dome itself and the entire building has WiFi capabilities that will be free to customers during the game. They will also have a “cell on wheels” or COW vehicle parked outside the Superdome that acts as a mini cell tower to boost coverage ability.
Whitaker said that people lucky enough to attend the game will want to share the moment with their online community. “In years past if you couldn’t get a signal then oh well,” she said. “(Customers today) want to be connected 24/7.
AT&T spokesperson Sue Sperry said the wireless carrier will also deploy COW and COLT (cell on light truck) vehicles outside the stadium. The company activated a distributed antenna system or DAS inside the Superdome last year that worked well during the 2012 national college football championship between the LSU Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The DAS project covered the Superdome, Champion Square and the New Orleans Arena and now includes all seven-convention hotels and the convention center itself.
Since New Orleans is a “walking city” and millions of tourists visit the Riverwalk and French Quarter annually, an AT&T stealth DAS system operates throughout the area. “You can’t even put a rooftop antenna there because of the historic district,” Sperry said. The stealth system instead includes hundreds of tiny white boxes that are miniature cell sites. “You’d have to have a pretty bad weather day to affect the network. A really heavy rain,” Sperry said.
Coverage isn’t flawless and Sperry likes to use a simple transportation analogy when explaining wireless technology: picture a highway covered with many lanes and thousands of cars. Now picture the same highway with a few extra lanes but with the same amount of traffic. That is what happens to the radio frequency spectrum when it’s all concentrated at one event. Coverage can be boosted but sometimes is still congested.
“Customers shouldn’t have any trouble in the Superdome- its certainly going to spike during the halftime show or trophy ceremony,” Sperry said.
Sperry suggests texting rather than calling in the stadium during the game. Messages are queued by the network so there is a delay but it uses a lot less bandwidth.
Sperry said if your phone is buffering or your data session is slowing down that if you keep trying it doesn’t help. “Just wait till the crowds thin out,” she said. If all else fails, it’s also good to have a designated meeting place so you aren’t relying on your phones to locate someone.
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