Major wireless carriers are shoring up Charlottes digital network for the Democratic National Convention and the extraordinary wave of texts, tweets and Facebook postings expected from thousands of smartphone- and tablet-toting visitors.
AT&T announced Wednesday that it is investing millions in network improvements throughout the Charlotte area. Upgrades include adding Wi-Fi hot zones at popular uptown areas, and activating a dozen new cell sites from Concord to Ballantyne.
AT&T is not the only carrier getting ready. Spokespersons for T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon said their crews have been bustling around Charlotte for months.
Verizon Wireless teams walked hotel hallways to see how phones and devices worked in rooms. Sprint analyzed call connections during major uptown sporting events, and designed improvements to limit blocked and dropped calls. T-Mobile, expecting demand to be up to 10 times that of the 2008 convention in Denver, also is adding capacity to existing sites for faster connections.
And all are planning to bring in the COWS during convention time temporary towers called cells on wheels.
With an expected 35,000 visitors, the convention isnt the largest event Charlotte has ever hosted. But it could test the areas infrastructure like never before, given the unique circumstances of political conventions.
Youre more likely at those types of events to have more of a crush on the data network, notes Julie Dey, vice president of marketing for Seattle-based Rootmetrics, which tests carrier network performance in U.S. cities.
Thousands of delegates, bloggers, journalists and attendees toting bandwidth-hungry devices will be tracking events as they happen, from streaming videos to uploading recorded interviews and photos.
And theyre trying to communicate that very quickly to people in other locations, Dey said. If you cant make those things happen very quickly, that becomes a more difficult experience.
Politics can provide a jolt to social media. When President Barack Obamas campaign took the unprecedented step in 2008 of announcing via text message its vice presidential pick of Joe Biden, campaign traffic jumped 255 percent on Sprints Now Network, according to the carrier.
In Denver in 2008, AT&T customers sent more than 244 million texts during the four-day Democratic convention. Verizon Wireless experienced 10 million more voice calls and data transmissions, according to the carrier.
Cynthia Marshall, AT&Ts top North Carolina executive, acknowledged the high stakes for the communications giant, which will serve as the official wireless and wireline service provider for the convention. DNC organizers will depend on the network for wireless, Internet and landline connections.
Shes promising that wireless customers of the carrier, too, will have a superior experience.
Our reputation is at stake. This is about our brand. So we want people to leave saying What a great experience. I didnt have dropped calls; nothing went down on me; I was able to tweet when I needed to; my GPS worked when it needed to.
Experts say thats a tough guarantee to meet, given the expected digital demands of this convention.
The cellular network wasnt designed to carry as much traffic as it does, especially at dense gatherings, according to Phillip Redman, a telecom research analyst at Gartner, a Connecticut-based information technology research firm.
Even the COWs cant always help. Whenever you have any large conventions there could be some service interruptions, Redman said. The more users that are on (the network), the slower itll get.
The test on the network will come from many places. Theres the streaming of convention floor happenings. There are the moments styled for texting and tweeting, such as Obamas closing night speech planned at the 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium.
Theres the still-unknown number of Charlotteans who will be logging into their work sites from their laptops at home to avoid convention-week traffic snarls and security tie-ups.
And there are all of those smartphones packing computing power, Marshall said Wednesday, thats equivalent to what was available at the Cape Canaveral control room when the first satellites were launched. This year, 46 percent of U.S. adults have one, compared to 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.
The good news, Dey said, is carriers with consistent service during normal times are more likely to stay that way when the network is stressed. Rootmetrics studied Charlotte service this spring and found a tight race among AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon regarding data speed.
Research also shows big events pose limited impact for people away from the action, experts say.
So people who might be working from home, on traditional desktops or wired service, shouldnt notice any changes unless something catastrophic happened, according to Chip Strange of Mosaik Solutions, which maintains a worldwide wireless coverage database.
Handling large events is not a new thing for the operators, Strange said. Theyre well-tuned to these types of needs.
Despite the millions in investments being made by carriers around Charlotte, its still impossible to expect a flawless performance come convention week, experts say.
Besides, people are already braced for wireless service imperfections, even if they hate the inconvenience, Redman said.
Its still a pretty amazing technology, Redman said.
Its a testament to how valuable it is, that people are still willing to pay for it, and no one will get rid of it, because its so valuable to them.