Atlanta boosts cell capacity to keep Super Bowl fans connected

It's Super Bowl week, and about the only thing worse than a dropped pass in the end zone on Sunday might be dropped calls or spotty internet service.

In the ramp up to the big game, major telecommunications companies and broadband providers have spent millions of dollars making permanent and temporary upgrades to their networks to handle the crush of fans, workers, and public safety personnel descending on downtown and other hotspots in Atlanta.

The extra bandwidth is an issue not only of convenience but also of public safety. Virtually everyone inside and outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium will have a smartphone. Networks will need to be robust enough to handle the multitude of data from calls, texts, photos, videos, social media sharing and e-commerce lighting up Atlanta's digital infrastructure.

Heather Campbell, network director in the Southeast for Sprint, said planning for the Super Bowl started more than a year in advance. The data and voice needs aren’t only at the stadium. Cell carriers have boosted capacity along major metro-Atlanta highways, the airport and near the city’s hotels.

Data usage from one Super Bowl to the next grows exponentially, Campbell said. Fans at the game posting video to social media, which didn’t happen a few years ago, she said, and “now it’s just the normal.”

Customers also are posting about the game in real time on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as sending texts and hailing rides.

Verizon Wireless, which is an official sponsor of the game, said in a news release it has spent $97 million to upgrade its network throughout the city in the run up to the Super Bowl. Some of that spending includes temporary deployments of cell on wheels or COWs, which function like mobile cell towers. The spending also includes new permanent infrastructure.

AT&T officials said the company spent $43 million to added temporary and permanent capacity for the big game. The upgrades will improve not only the customer experience, but also the reliability of first responders’ communications.

AT&T is also a sponsor of the stadium and helped build its data infrastructure. The company said it expanded its 4G LTE capacity by 300 percent compared to the start of the football season. AT&T also is deploying COWs and five Cell on Light Trucks or COLTs to buttress the existing network.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes,” said Venessa Harrison, state president of AT&T Georgia.

Comcast, meanwhile, launched free wi-fi at various times Super Bowl week at eight MARTA stations and several top Atlanta destinations, including State Farm Arena, SunTrust Park and at points near Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Companies also are using the visibility of the NFL title game to show off next generation technology. Both Sprint and Verizon held demonstrations of 5G equipment.

A 5G network, which is capable of accommodating driver-less cars and other next-generation technologies, would boost the speed and reliability of wireless service. Speeds, said to be about 10 times faster than the current 4G or fourth-generation networks, will also allow consumers to download movies in seconds.