Verizon, AT&T, T-Mo and Sprint boost capacity, coverage for Republican, Democratic conventions

By Monica Alleven

The Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland received a number of cellular upgrades ahead of the RNC. (Image source: Verizon)

All four of the U.S. nationwide wireless carriers say they've made the necessary preparations to handle the spike in traffic that will happen when delegates convene for the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland July 18-21 and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia July 25-28. Each city is expected to play host to about 50,000 attendees.

In Philadelphia, carriers already had made upgrades to handle Pope Francis' visit to the city last fall, but they made even more improvements for this month's events. For example, Verizon boasts that it installed a system at the Wells Fargo Center, the main DNC venue, to improve capacity by more than 550 percent, which is equal to more than six times greater capacity than before.

Planning for these events began months ago, but likely no one could have predicted just how high-profile these two events were going to be in an election year that has seen more drama than recent memory. And while carriers can plan for the times when traffic is expected to be extra high – like during those famous acceptance speeches when the balloons drop – they also have to plan for all the higher-than-usual traffic in the locations that surround the actual venues where the speeches are taking place. That usually means placing small cells in strategic locations.

AT&T's Luneberg Lens at
Coachella (Image source: AT&T) 

All the carriers have experience preparing for big events like the Super Bowl. During those types of huge sporting events, there's no way of predicting when the big touchdown or play is going to occur and trigger traffic, notes Christy Moore, AT&T area network manager who is overseeing convention preparations in Cleveland. But it's not necessarily easier to prepare for an event in which the time of the main speech is known beforehand. Each of them have their unique characteristics, and "you have to prepare for the maximum in every scenario," she told FierceWirelessTech. "It's a 24/7 event" when you consider the areas surrounding the main venues. When attendees are waiting in line to get into events, they still expect to get a good wireless coverage wherever they happen to be.

AT&T has no plans for Wi-Fi offloading in Cleveland or Philadelphia. It was something it considered in Philadelphia, according to Mike Katra, AT&T RAN area manager, but companies like Comcast already provide Wi-Fi inside the arena. AT&T is using small cells in Cleveland where it makes sense; there's an outdoor parking garage, for example, that's being converted into a media hub and it will be covered aggressively with small cells, Moore said.

AT&T engineers Bob Matthews and Gary Chow are the brains behind some unique antenna designs that AT&T has used at big outdoor music venues like Coachella, and AT&T adapted one of their inventions, the Luneberg Lens, to provide coverage in the Wells Fargo Center. It's hard to conceal antennas in some of these multi-use stadiums, so they worked it out such that the Luneberg Lens antenna, which looks like a giant eyeball, is mounted up high just under the catwalk, so that it acts like a sort of spotlight down onto the floor to provide additional capacity for attendees.

Multi-carrier DAS – but not everywhere

Some events are taking place at the Pennsylvania
Convention Center. (Image source: T-Mobile)

While the main venues in both cities are getting massive upgrades both for capacity and overall RF coverage, all these improvements also spell good news for the smaller venues surrounding them, said Ken Sandfeld, president of DAS technology provider SOLiD Americas. "We're seeing an uptick in the last year" for smaller projects like hotels, hospitals, universities, he told FierceWirelessTech. Distributed antenna systems (DAS) often get criticized for being too expensive, but Sandfeld said new technology is leading to lower costs of installation and lowering the overall cost of ownership.

Venue owners want to serve all their customers so they're usually pressing for multi-carrier DAS. Oftentimes, one carrier like Verizon will install a DAS and the other operators will come on board as well, according to Sandfeld. But that wasn't the case for an in-building network at the Pennsylvania Convention Center (PACC).

While the Wells Fargo Center is the primary venue for the convention in Philadelphia, some events will be held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where only two carriers are connected to the in-building network that InSite is in charge of there, according to Joe Mullin, CTO at InSite Wireless, SOLiD's partner on the project. T-Mobile covers the full facility on all 15 coverage zones using six RF sectors and operators UMTS on 1900 and LTE MIMO on AWS. AT&T covers only the lower level of PACC and the lower level of the adjacent Reading Terminal market using two RF sectors on five coverage zones and operating LTE MIMO on 1900 MHz PCS, Mullin said.

Mullin said he could not comment as to why Verizon and Sprint did not connect to the network InSite configured inside the convention center.

Verizon spokesman Chuck Hamby said Verizon has operated and maintained an in-building network system at the PACC for many years and made significant upgrades to the system just last year.  "We're confident that our current network system at the PACC will continue to reliably handle all planned events there," he said in response to an inquiry from FierceWirelessTech.

Sprint didn't say specifically why it's not part of the InSite network but implied it's focused on other areas. "For the Democratic National Convention we chose to focus our resources on providing a great customer experience at the main venue by upgrading the 4G LTE indoor wireless system at Wells Fargo Center," said Sprint spokeswoman Adrienne Norton. "The convention center will be served by our surrounding triband macro sites."

SOLiD says the PACC deployment includes 58 SOLiD Alliance 20-watt remote multi-carrier DAS units installed for RF coverage, and 29 remote nodes are configured in 15 coverage zones with 2x2 MIMO using 221 antennas. 

At the Quicken Loans site in Cleveland, the venue owner made the decision to up the game and increase the RF power of the SOLiD system from a 1-watt to a 5-watt system. "It was a major upgrade for this event," accommodating all the tweets and live streaming expected to occur, Sandfeld said. Verizon owns the neutral-host DAS at that location and the other carriers – AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile -- are now connected to it, so the system was upgraded to accommodate all of them.

The Quicken Loans site now has 76 SOLiD Alliance remote multi-carrier DAS units installed throughout the arena. AT&T was added to the arena last spring in advance of the Cleveland Cavaliers going to the NBA finals, according to SOLiD. The first half of 2016 was focused on adding equipment to support Sprint and T-Mobile joining the system in advance of the RNC, and additional zones recently were added to the DAS to cover foot traffic on the floor of the arena.

Sprint's COW in Cleveland. (Image source: Sprint) 

Part of Sprint's recent network investment included upgrading hundreds of 2.5 GHz cell sites in Philadelphia and Cleveland with the addition of carrier aggregation, the LTE-Advanced technology that doubles speed and capacity and delivers peak speeds of more than 100 Mbps to capable devices, according to a blog post by Mark Walker, Sprint regional vice president, Network.

In Philadelphia, Sprint's engineers bolstered service at Wells Fargo Center by upgrading the system to add 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.5 GHz 4G LTE service. In addition, "we're adding two-channel carrier aggregation to our 2.5 GHz service in the venue, effectively doubling speed and capacity by creating a wider lane that enables more traffic to move at faster rates," Walker wrote.

In Sprint's Central Region, led by network regional vice president Scott Santi, the carrier is lighting up indoor wireless systems at both the Quicken Loans Arena (the main Republican National Convention venue), and at the Cleveland Convention Center with LTE service. In downtown Cleveland it's also deploying a new outdoor wireless system slated to be on air prior to the convention and bringing in temporary capacity with COWs.

COWs and more COWs

T-Mobile is also using a COW near Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center, where the opening night takes place for the RNC, and it's adding more COWs at key outdoor event sites throughout Cleveland, including a new cell site at the Cleveland Public Auditorium. It also made a lot of other upgrades in Cleveland, adding more mid-band spectrum to support increased capacity in the immediate area, upgrading the DAS at the Convention Center, the Hilton Hotel at the Convention Center, the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field.

In Philadelphia, T-Mobile said via a fact sheet that it upgraded two additional DAS systems at the Wells Fargo Center and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and it's increasing its fiber backhaul connections at some hotspots at both locations. It's also building on last year's network enhancements for the pope's visit, with improved fiber connections to its cell sites and new outdoor DAS systems from City Hall up to Ben Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Verizon says it invested millions of dollars and worked for several years on upgrading its networks and adding capacity for these events. New indoor wireless DAS were installed at the Cleveland Convention Center (including the downtown Hilton Hotel), the Ritz Carlton, Tower City Center and JACK Casino facilities. Network optimization and new small cell sites are being used to enhance Verizon's network peak speeds and capacity in key convention areas, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Also in Cleveland, it doubled the network capacity to its neutral host DAS at Quicken Loans Arena. Specifically for the RNC, new on-the-floor antenna sectors are being added to provide coverage for delegates. Verizon's existing small cells covering the surrounding areas – including the arena parking lots – also were upgraded to double the network capacity.

Upgrades like the type Cleveland and Philadelphia are seeing are happening in venues across the country, notes SOLiD's Sandfeld. They just happen to be happening faster in these two high-profile cities. Of course, most of the upgrades in both Philadelphia and Cleveland will remain long after the events, giving locals and visitors alike a better overall experience.

Update: Article updated July 12 to reflect that changing the wattage from 1 to 5 in the SOLiD system at the Quicken Loans venue involved more than a simple firmware upgrade.

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mo and Sprint boost capacity, coverage for Republican, Democratic conventions