AT&T deploys EchoBOTs to improve DAS in high-traffic venues

It might have started out rather haphazardly, with a couple dozen or so people huddled in a boardroom with hot glue guns and spare parts, but the product that has now become EchoBOT is jam-packed with all the intelligence you can fit into a 10x10-inch square.

AT&T EchoBOT

The white boxes are strategically placed in stadiums to gain insights into user experiences. (Image source: AT&T)

The impetus behind the EchoBOT started several years ago when AT&T (NYSE: T) was equipping venues such as sports stadiums with distributed antenna systems (DAS) to provide additional coverage and capacity where crowds gather. Engineers could see network performance with traditional measures, but it was more difficult to determine what customers were experiencing in the stands without actually putting human monitors in the venues.

So EchoBOT creator and AT&T Antenna Solutions Group Manager Shane Elliott decided that he and his team would sit down and write their own software and design the hardware that would enable them to track the performance of DAS and do so in such a way that the economics pencil out. Hence, he gathered the team around the conference table and started messing around with the aforementioned spare parts.

It's not too far of a stretch to see that what's happening in these individual venues is akin to what operators such as AT&T want to do on a much larger scale--that is, not relying on outside vendors' proprietary technology and using software-driven solutions to orchestrate and deliver better service to end users when and where the demand is highest.

The EchoBOT consists of software and a device that's mounted in venues, Elliott told FierceWirelessTech. The BOTs are deployed, ranging from a handful to dozens depending on the venue's DAS configuration, to measure the pulse of the network in specific portions of the venue. They simulate the actions a customer would make on a mobile network, such as surfing the web, making calls, sending texts and uploading and downloading video and text files. That includes the Facebook and Twitter activities that so many sports and concert fans want to do while they're at events.

The BOT reports its findings in real time to the Echo software, which is used by AT&T's engineers to make network adjustments where needed to deliver the best possible customer experience. With EchoBOT, the company is able to record, for example, how long it takes to launch applications, throughput, signal strength and other measurements, Elliott said. This information, carried in real time to the network-operations center, enables tweaks to the systems as necessary.

Because the data is collected in real time, technicians can react and see if a sector is down or move carriers from sector to sector. If big crowds are on the concourse during halftime, the network-operations team can move carriers dynamically in real time based on demands, he said. Instead of providing coverage 100 percent of the time, the resources can be shifted from area to area based on the needs at a given time.

It's also collecting RF information so that engineers can understand whether the ability to interact with applications is degraded because of signal strength, the noise ratio or something else in the macro network or even something that's caused by the social network that everyone is using, according to Elliott.

The project started in 2010, with the first prototype built in late 2012. A more finalized version was manufactured early this year. Charles Industries does the manufacturing, but the design is all AT&T's. Elliott is named on the patent for the device specific to DAS.

About 10 high-traffic venues, including more than a half dozen sports venues, are mounted with the EchoBOTs, with plans to deploy more in 2015.

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