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Techs convert convention into Wi-Fi stadium show

Big new servers, inconspicuous antennas and mobile antenna trucks are brought in as AT&T prepares for heavy stadium traffic

CHARLOTTE, N.C. If all goes well, people using Wi-Fi at President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Bank of America Stadium will never need to think about the two black cabinets in the windowless bowels of the stadium.

Those 6-foot-tall cabinets hold the computer servers controlling all of the Wi-Fi equipment around the stadium for AT&T, the stadium’s exclusive Wi-Fi provider.

Company officials said their stadium infrastructure will be tested as never before with the Democratic National Convention. The DNC concludes Sept. 6 with Obama accepting his party’s nomination at the stadium.

AT&T employees are improving the network’s performance, including testing equipment, making sure antennas are aimed in the optimal direction and completing software upgrades, said Patrick Zimmerman, AT&T area vice president for the 2012 DNC.

People at the stadium can get free Wi-Fi regardless of their network provider. If they don’t use AT&T, they can still connect to AT&T’s signal and go through a simple log-in, both at the DNC and for stadium events long after the convention ends.

Several AT&T officials provided the Observer with a tour this week of their stadium operations.

Most of the recent upgrades, all paid for by AT&T, are designed to expand and enhance the capacity for the stadium’s wireless coverage, ensuring that signals are routed in the most efficient way. AT&T officials declined to say how much they are spending on the stadium upgrades.

Think of the upgrades as doing the work of a traffic cop during the busiest day of the year. For instance, AT&T added more sectors to be covered by its “Distributed Antenna System,” or DAS.

Having more sectors covered by DAS is like opening extra lanes of traffic to help move people faster and more efficiently. In this case, it helps enhance wireless coverage. And there will be more than twice as many sectors for the DNC than there were at the stadium last year.

The DAS complements the existing Wi-Fi system by easing traffic on the 3G and 4G networks that deliver phone and text services. The Wi-Fi system will take users who configured their devices for Wi-Fi, channel them off of the 3G or 4G networks and onto Wi-Fi. That eases congestion on both systems.

AT&T spokesman Clifton Metcalf said the company is expecting unprecedented usage of its system at the DNC stadium event. While AT&T does not have specific projections, Metcalf said wireless data traffic on its network alone has increased by 20,000 percent nationally over the past five years.

On Sept. 6, there will be about 7,000 to 8,000 people on the field itself, Zimmerman said. So the company needed to add portable antennas to help pick up signals from wireless phones on the field. There’s no need for that when burly football players are running around the field.

Above the field at the top of the stadium’s interior rim are a number of black and gray boxes. They contain some of the DAS equipment.

Along the concourses and suite areas are cylindrical or rectangular gray boxes holding “Wi-Fi access points” whose antennas and related equipment connect cellphones, tablets and other devices to the Internet, similar to a wireless router people use in their homes.

All told, there are 468 boxes designed to blend into the stadium. AT&T began installing them last year, with a soft launch in October. They became fully operational a few weeks ago.

Like other communications providers looking to improve service during the DNC, AT&T is bringing in 10 temporary Cells on Wheels, or COWS, which are mobile cell towers in trucks, said Scott Martin, AT&T Mobility Program Manager for the 2012 DNC. Those trucks will be located between the stadium and areas of uptown Charlotte.

Back in the stadium equipment room, technicians continue to test the machines.

In addition to the Wi-Fi cabinet, the room contains many other computer systems for the 3G and 4G networks. The room also holds equipment for other carriers, including Verizon and Sprint.

It’s unlikely people coming to hear the president speak would give the room a second thought. If all the preparations go off as planned, they won’t have to.

Bell: 704-358-5696
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