As March Madness peaks with the Final Four games on Saturday, the wireless carriers are working to bring their own A-game when it comes to network coverage.
High-profile events such as, South by Southwest or the National Collegiate Athletic Association's men's basketball tournament have become chances for the wireless carriers to show their mettle. With such huge crowds, it's easy for coverage to collapse against the sheer amount of videos, Facebook updates and Instagram photos that are fired off at the event.
With the wireless carriers clashing over the perception of network superiority, none can ill-afford customers dropping calls or losing bars. Which is why they bring extra ammunition.
The semifinal games and finals of the tournament will be held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a venue with a capacity of 67,000 people. Depending on how the carriers swing it, that could mean a lot of fans excited by the game -- or frustrated by the coverage.
A giant eyeball
AT&T isn't taking any chances. The nation's second-largest wireless carrier rolled out a Luneberg Lens Antenna, which looks a bit like a giant eyeball atop a metal frame tower, specifically for the event.
While the Luneberg has been used at a few outdoor music festivals, Saturday marks the first time AT&T will use the antenna for a sporting event. AT&T only has a handful of the special antennas, which have only been around for about a year. It's also not proprietary to AT&T; the other carriers also have access to the unusual equipment.
The Luneberg is ideal for these crowded venues because the antenna can increase the efficiency of the spectrum nine-fold, giving every AT&T customer a stronger signal even if everyone is close to each other, according to Scott Mair senior vice president of network planning and engineering at AT&T.
"Anywhere you have a dense number of people, it's really effective," he said.
The Luneberg is attached to a vehicle with a portable cellular tower, known in the industry as a COW, or "Cell On Wheels." Mair refers to the one parked by Lucas Oil Stadium as a "Super COW."
While Mair wouldn't guarantee full bars for everyone, he said to expect "a great experience."
Floor level coverage
One area of focus for many of the carriers was special attention to the floor.
Verizon said it was adding temporary antennas to cover the temporary seats set up on the floor of the stadium by the basketball court, which will be laid over what is normally a football field for the Indianapolis Colts.
The nation's largest carrier said that it will have employees walking the stadium during the game to test the network performance and relay information to nearby facilities, where technicians are on standby to tweak the networks for any needed increase in capacity.
Sprint likewise expanded its existing distributed antenna system, which is an indoor set-up that boosts cellular coverage, to cover the floor seating.
AT&T also made sure to focus on coverage on the floor, and said it has doubled the capacity in the stadium thanks to 382 antennas.
T-Mobile said it deployed additional hardware, as well as deployed low-band spectrum -- frequencies that provide better in-building coverage -- to improve the experience for its customers.
Did all of their efforts pay off? If you're at the Final Four, sound off on which carrier you're using and what the coverage is like.