Time-Warner Cable, carriers roll out mobile red carpet for Democratic convention

Expected spikes in mobile data use in Charlotte foreshadow growing demand expected nationwide

Service providers taking steps to solve expected mobile congestion problems at the Democratic National Convention this week are addressing issues that are likely to grow in many areas over the next few years.

Time Warner Cable said Monday it has made its Wi-Fi hotspots in Charlotte, North Carolina, free to use while the convention is in town. AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel all have added cell sites, portable COWs (cells on wheels) and distributed antennas to handle the influx. More than 35,000 people are expected to come to the city for this week's convention, which began on Monday.

Though steps to boost mobile data capacity for the quadrennial presidential conventions have been accelerated and in some cases are temporary, they are likely to be an early signal of what service providers will have to do to keep up with rapidly growing mobile use around the country. The Federal Communications Commission forecast in 2009 that U.S. mobile data traffic would grow by 35 times in five years. While the FCC and mobile industry are working on ways of devoting more spectrum to mobile, part of addressing expected shortfalls in capacity will be making more efficient use of frequencies and simple deployment of more infrastructure.

For service providers, the political conventions are not just two more large events that need service. Regulation of the Internet and of wireless spectrum are hot political issues in which carriers, cable operators and online companies all have interests. Google is also putting on its best face for the political decision-makers, setting up large gathering spaces at both conventions with cafA(c)s, fast Wi-Fi and video studios.

Time Warner has 90 Wi-Fi APs (access points) around the Charlotte area that were set up to provide wireless Internet access to its subscribers while away from home. Residents and visitors can also buy service. TWC also has about 120 APs throughout Time Warner Cable Arena, the main venue for the event. The company will make those hotspots available to convention-goers free from Aug. 27 through Sept. 10. The visitors, and anyone else in the area, will be able to get on the system without a username or password.

Wi-Fi is a critical tool for cable operators such as Time Warner to offer a mobile component to their Internet service, and also plays a role in carriers' urban capacity plans because it uses shared spectrum. But filling in densely populated spaces such as arenas poses special challenges, according to Ruckus Wireless, which supplied the access points to be used in the convention venue.

For the arena project, Ruckus developed a special version of its 7762 outdoor AP with an antenna design that creates a transmitting beam just 30 degrees wide, said David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing at Ruckus. Each 7762 can create multiple beams. The key to providing maximum service in a crowded venue such as an arena is limiting the range of each antenna beam so that those using it will get the maximum performance, Callisch said.

Ruckus has been working for about nine months on the deployment in the 18,000-capacity arena, which is intended for concerts and Charlotte Bobcats professional basketball games as well as the convention, Callisch said. Of those, the convention will probably produce the biggest demand. The baseline of users is high to start with: Ruckus estimates that at an average event, between 28 percent and 30 percent of all attendees has a smartphone that will automatically try to go onto the wireless LAN.

The company has deployed a variety of APs around the arena, including underneath some of the seats in the stands, Callisch said. This type of placement is safe and works well because the AP is right up against the concrete floor, which blocks the signal and keeps it within the arena space, he said.

But when it comes to building a network to serve a packed event such as the convention, there are plenty of unknowns until the seats are filled and people start using the system, Callisch said.

"We're both really excited and really frightened," he said.

AT&T, which has been named the official wireline and mobility provider of the convention, forecast big spikes in mobile use at the event as different speakers take the stage. At the Republican National Convention last week, for example, AT&T said its mobile data traffic in the Tampa Bay Times Forum rose 22.3 percent as nominee Mitt Romney's wife, Ann Romney, spoke on Tuesday night. Data use was 17.78GB during that hour and text messages hit 14,535. On Wednesday night, text messages peaked at 17,292 during the hour of vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's speech, AT&T said.

In Charlotte, AT&T has added 10 LTE DAS (distributed antenna system) deployments and 12 oDAS (outdoor distributed antenna solutions) for coverage and capacity in the metropolitan area. Distributed antennas extend the reach of a cell through extended wiring. AT&T has also added 12 permanent and 10 temporary cell sites, as well as an AT&T Wi-Fi Hot Zone along South Brevard Street, which runs between the Time Warner Cable Arena and the Charlotte Convention Center.

Sprint Nextel said on Friday it has added two macro cell sites and upgraded 18 other sites in uptown Charlotte, increasing its coverage and capacity in that area by between 25 percent and 50 percent. Sprint has also deployed three COWs at the convention sites and a DAS in each venue. The carrier said it has invested $14 million in adding coverage within and between the sites.

Verizon Wireless also has added permanent and temporary infrastructure as well as DAS deployments. The carrier also said its technicians tested Verizon signals in 75 hotels for convention-goers and added DAS and repeaters where needed. Verizon, which has a major switching center in Tampa, set up two DAS deployments in the Republican convention site and prepared portable cells both to handle additional traffic and handle possible outages from Hurricane Isaac. T-Mobile USA was not immediately available for comment.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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