Modern cellular networks are akin to the circulation requirements of a living animal. Voice calls, text messages and data must be carried to and from the extremities – subscribers – in a highly organized and efficient manner. Each carrier uses similar technology, although often arranged and deployed in a different way, in order to achieve these stated objectives. There are a variety of different cell sites, or towers, in use today from the larger, macro sites, to smaller sites, including those that are very directional or designed to cover a very specific area. This deployment is suitable for everyday purposes, but there are some human activities that change how the cellular networks are used. One such example is that of a major sporting event, such as this weekend’s Super Bowl in Santa Clara.
The issue that the carriers face is not simply that of a huge number of people crammed into the one relatively small space, but instead is that of a significant number of people trying to use their device’s data network at a similar time. This creates a massive spike in traffic, which unless adequately prepared for, would likely overwhelm the networks – even today’s modern, high performance, high capacity LTE networks. Furthermore, major sporting events have a different mix of data traffic than normal conditions. Usually, the majority of data is downloaded to a device but for a major sporting moment, the amount of data uploaded is usually close to the downloaded data. This is because people are busy uploading social media updates, selfies and videos to show off to their buddies what they are missing out on. And with a million people expected to visit the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, this means an awful lot of selfies.
Each of America’s national carriers has prepared their network for the onslaught of use this weekend. Years ago, customers may have expected the data networks to crash with overload but today, customers expect their smartphones to work. The carriers have been planning their network upgrades around two years ago, with AT&T having invested $100 million and Verizon, $70 million over and above what it would have already invested. For AT&T, this includes six new macro sites and nine mobile sites. In the case of Verizon, the carrier has installed 75 new small cell sites in the Bay Area, typically sitting behind traffic signs and on top of poles. Verizon has also added another fifteen macro cell sites into the area with ten of these being in San Francisco. Both Sprint and T-Mobile report that they have improved their network capacity in the area. We are aware of Verizon having established a local network operations center, some forty miles south of the city, with repair crews on standby should any of the networking equipment suffer a technical failure.
Interestingly enough, Verizon reported that the improvements to the Bay Area were in addition to planned upgrades to the network in the area, which is experiencing high growth in demand for Verizon’s services. It is currently deploying 150 small cells into the San Francisco area, but this number will ultimately be increased to 400 over time.