Something shocking happened at the recent RNC and DNC: Mobile networks worked.
More than 20,000 delegates, politicians, and members of the press packed the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Outside the arenas, thousands of people gawked, leered, and protested. Data networks buckled under the strain of thousands of simultaneous connections, but remained entirely usable.
To connect consumers and companies, AT&T updated Cleveland and Philadelphia's existing data infrastructure, tripled the 4G coverage, placed transmitters in strategic locations inside each arena bowl, and patrolled the streets with roaming data towers.
"Coverage operated smoothly because we planned ahead, then were able to monitor event traffic in real-time," said AT&T's DNC lead Mike Katra. "In Philly we transitioned towards LTE, and were a bit unsure about how much traffic would be on the legacy 3G network. As [the DNC] occurred, 3G traffic actually rose. We made changes on-the-fly, and kept customers on both 3G and 4G well served."
In the past, at big events cell networks would crumble as consumers competed with media companies to share thousands of video streams, photos, and messages. Floor coverage at big events is particularly challenging, said Katra.
"At previous events, like hockey, or basketball games, or concerts we didn't have great coverage," he said. "We came up with a personal solution at Wells Fargo Center. We used a Giant Eyeball to create a data spotlight on the floor."
The so-called Giant Eyeball is a Luneburg Lens Antenna, a cellular device that can handle ten times the data transfer of a traditional antenna. The high-capacity, fisheye lens was the perfect tool "to give users good throughput," Katra said.
Extensive planning, said AT&T avp Patrick Zimmerman, helped keep thousands of people, and hundreds of media organizations, online during the peak hours of each convention.
"We planned bigger," Zimmerman said. "We refined our [network] design based on [business and consumer] requests and requirements. Because we had shared knowledge from previous big events, things worked as expected, with no major surprises."
DNC Network Metrics, according to AT&T:
- Nearly 5.4 terabytes (TB) of traffic move across our mobile network inside the arena alone.
- 5.4 TB is equal to more than 15 million convention selfies.
- Average traffic per day was up approximately 387% on our network compared to the average 2016 pro hockey playoff game at the same arena in April.
- Data usage peaked at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, July 28th when more than nearly 1.5 TB crossed the network.
- Across the major venues supporting the DNC—including the arena, convention center, along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and surrounding areas—we saw approximately 64 TB cross our mobile network during the DNC.
- 64 TB is equal to more than 182 million convention selfies.
- During the Pope's visit to Philly last year, we saw 12.6TB cross our network in Philly.
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RNC Network Metrics
- We saw nearly 2.8 terabytes (TB) of traffic move across our mobile network inside the arena alone.
- 2.8 TB is equal to more than 8 million convention selfies.
- In addition, average traffic per day was up approximately 250% on our network compared to Game 6 of the pro basketball finals at the same arena in June.
- Data usage peaked at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday, July 21, when more than 797 gigabytes (GB) crossed the network.
- Across the major venues supporting the RNC—including the arena, convention center, Rock and Roll rock and roll hall of fame, baseball field, and nearby hotels—we saw approximately 9.4 TB cross our mobile network during the RNC.
- 9.4 TB is equal to more than 26.8 million convention selfies.
Katra explained that data teams are already planning on major events like the inauguration, and the Super Bowl. "We want consumers to have a great mobile experience," said Katra, "but much of our business is making sure other businesses stay connected."
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Dan Patterson has nothing to disclose. He does not hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Dan is a Senior Producer for CNET and CBS News.