Super Bowl 54: 49ers and Chiefs matchup will be the first 5G Super Bowl in history

Every year, fans consume more data at the Super Bowl as they try to capture pivotal moments and post on social media. This will be the first time they can tap into a 5G network during the big game.

Super Bowl LIV - Previews

Image: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

Super Bowl Sunday is around the corner and it's set to make history with more than just an intense game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, as 5G is expected to play an important role.

Many experts predicted that last year would be the last 4G Super Bowl in history. They weren't wrong. This year, there will be plenty of 5G features at Super Bowl LIV, with Verizon providing 5G connectivity in the stadium bowl area for fans, and plenty of 5G features throughout the stadium on February 2.

Experts at Verizon, AT&T and Extreme Networks all agree that the preponderance of 5G connectivity at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida will make Super Bowl LIV the first 5G game, whether fans have 5G devices in hand or not. 

SEE: How the NFL and its stadiums became leaders in Wi-Fi, monetizing apps, and customer experience (TechRepublic free download)

The matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs will offer fans plenty of opportunities to experience a commercial 5G network.

"The Super Bowl offers a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the teams playing, for the League, and most importantly – for the fans. Maximizing the combined advancements in 5G and Wi-Fi, we plan to revolutionize what fans will experience at the stadium this year – from food and beverage, to ticketing, to the in-seat experience. These enabling technologies and new mobile applications will allow our fans to immerse themselves in next-gen game-day experiences like never before and we expect sky-high data consumption in Hard Rock Stadium," said Michelle McKenna, chief information officer of The National Football League.

SEE: 5G: What it means for IoT (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

Super Bowl 54 fans expected to use more data, new AR/VR experiences

Through Verizon, there will be an overlay of data onto live plays, real-time VR and AR to give fans a player's eye view, live in-stadium AR wayfinding and directions, live on-field graphics through AR filters, live-streaming via multiple camera angles, and more.

AT&T is offering fans a chance to experience 5G activities at the 10th annual AT&T TV Super Saturday Night, with Lady Gaga headlining the iconic concert the night before the big game. At the concert, there will be a 5G-powered 60-foot digital wall that allows fans to use their phones to make digital graffiti and turn into "little monsters."

SEE: 13 NFL stadiums will offer Verizon 5G for the 2019-2020 season (TechRepublic)

Getting a city Super Bowl ready isn't something that the carriers take lightly. Verizon has invested over $80 million throughout Miami to prepare for the Super Bowl, and AT&T has invested over $85 million in the city in preparation.

This is necessary because fans have been consuming data in ever-increasing amounts. Every year, fans use more data as they upload photos and videos at pivotal moments, and the same is expected at Super Bowl 54. Last year's Super Bowl 53 game between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots was the sixth year in a row that data usage broke records. Fans consumed 24.05 terabytes of data over Wi-Fi last year inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, with 9.99 TB used pre-game, 11.11 TB during the game, and 2.95 TB post-game, according to Extreme Networks.

Hard Rock Stadium is an Extreme Networks facility, meaning that they provided all of the Wi-Fi, the switching infrastructure, the authentication, the integration with Verizon and the analytics for the stadium, said John Brams, director of hospitality, sports and entertainment for Extreme Networks. And his team has spent two years prepping for Super Bowl 54 to make sure the stadium is ready to handle the 65,000 fans on game day.

Brams said that, as the official Wi-Fi solutions provider of the Super Bowl, he's starting to see some interesting micro trends where usage peaks when something interesting happens on the field, but eventually there will be a limit reached where data usage will stop climbing at every Super Bowl overall. But he doesn't know if that point has been reached yet.

"It used to be halftime was always the peak. It was for a football game. It always happened. And now these micro trends where you see a big play, or in the case of New England they unveiled a Super Bowl banner or a big decision happens at the game or there's an overtime. In Super Bowl 50, overtime was actually the time between the end of the game and overtime was actually the peak. So you're starting to see these new little trends exist, which just means it's a different way that people are utilizing these networks," Brams said.

Super Bowl LIV - Hard Rock Stadium Miami

Image: Mark Brown/Getty Images

Verizon upgrades 5G and LTE at Hard Rock Stadium for Super Bowl 54

To prepare for the data usage, Verizon added a new indoor and outdoor Distributed Antenna System (DAS) at Hard Rock Stadium, with more than 250 antennas for 4G LTE. There are 5G nodes in the stadium and around the stadium to give fans 5G Ultra Wideband Service, said Verizon Senior Vice President of Technology and Product Development Nicki Palmer.

"The $80 million enhances the network inside of the stadium, outside the stadium, in the greater Miami area. The great thing is that all of these investments that we make, they're not one and done. We don't pull them out. They're here to stay long after the Super Bowl champion is crowned," Palmer said.

"We've got over 1,500 antennas in the stadium bowl seating area, 2,000 Wi-Fi access points that enable our customers to seamlessly get to the Wi-Fi system, as we balance traffic between Wi-Fi and cellular. And we also have unique antenna technology that goes under the seats," she said. In the bowl seating area, 1,100 of the 1,500 antennas are under the seats. Throughout Miami, Verizon laid more than 230 miles of fiber, she said.

Verizon also doubled capacity on the 4G LTE network at the Miami Convention Center, and added capacity to nearly 300 existing cell sites, as well as to the DAS at the Miami International Airport. There's also a new indoor and outdoor DAS system at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, she said. 

"It's not just about the stadium, as I know you can tell here, but we have about 30 in-building systems that we put in around the cities and in popular hotels, and that serves the customers," she said. "We've got small cells, 4G and 5G small cells in the Bayfront Park area, and that supports where the NFL Super Bowl activities and events are, as well as our own Super Bowl live showcase. So, that's where the money went, and where the money, and that investment stays."

Palmer said the reason that Verizon invests so much into the city to prep for the Super Bowl is because it's impossible to predict how much data will be used. "One thing I've learned in my career is never to bet against data growth. Customers are always finding new ways to use the network. And when people are at the Super Bowl, and even not just during the game, they want to share their experience. So, it's very much about grabbing content, curating content, sharing content, posting, Tweeting, so we have to be prepared for that."

AT&T boosts Miami 5G and LTE service for Super Bowl 54

AT&T utilized the $85 million-plus that it invested in the Miami area to boost 5G and LTE service, said Chris Sambar, executive vice president, technology operations for AT&T. 

Some of the enhancements include:

  • Improved coverage outside the stadium with DAS at 29 locations throughout Miami and 6 Cell on Wheels (COWs) to handle increased wireless network demands.
  • Deployment of Band 14 spectrum giving priority coverage and capacity for first responders with a VIP lane for public safety.
  • Enhanced network coverage for the 10th annual AT&T TV Super Saturday Night. The deployments will include a Super COW capable of 5G+ at Meridian Island Gardens to enhance coverage for all the fans headed to see Lady Gaga perform the night before the Big Game.

"We've updated and upgraded all of those towers in the area with additional spectrum, specifically the Band 14 spectrum, the FirstNet spectrum. So we put that on all of the macro towers over the last six months in that area, that was the first thing we did. And then we went in and started looking at installing individual nodes, 5G nodes, 5G Evolution, and 5G Plus nodes, which is the millimeter wave. We identified 715 individual places where we were going to install nodes, so we've done that," Sambar said. 

He added, "So we've got just over 750 individual nodes, that's a radio and an antenna, to augment coverage. And that's throughout the entire area, including those 29 locations. And the 29 locations are places where either there's an event happening, where we think there's going to be large gatherings of people, like hotels and other venues, or where there's significant public safety presence."

"And the twist you get from us that's probably a little different than other carriers is, because of the FirstNet contract and the number of FirstNet subscribers that we have, public safety subscribers, and we have a significant number in this area down in Miami, we've done a lot of work to augment the network and upgrade the network. So that Band 14, that's their specific spectrum for public safety, it's on all the towers down there. And then a lot of those 750 nodes, 50 of them specifically, we've gone and installed Band 14 on those nodes as well."

There are a minimum of four carriers on each node, and the poles the antennas are on are not allowed to be any higher than a palm tree. "So it was not only a technical challenge to get enough radio waves in there, but it was also an aesthetic challenge to make sure that things looked nice in the area," he said. 

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By Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is Associate Managing Editor at TechRepublic. She oversees TechRepublic's news team and TechRepublic Premium. She focuses on tech and business and how the two worlds intersect. Teena's lifelong journalism career has included writing on s...