Can you hear me now? Mobile operators beef up networks for conventions

Wireless carriers say they've got you covered with fast, reliable mobile service at this summer's big political events.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
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Comcast will deploy its Wi-Fi-on-Wheels at the Democratic National Convention to boost Wi-Fi capacity.


Here's something Democrats and Republicans can agree on during this contentious political season: a strong wireless signal.

The country's major wireless and cable carriers have invested in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the cities hosting the Republican and Democratic conventions, to ensure that the tens of thousands of political junkies at the gatherings have access to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook from their phones.

In Cleveland, AT&T tripled its 4G LTE coverage, while T-Mobile reallocated spectrum to increase capacity around the Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the Republican National Convention. Other carriers also were busy building out their networks.

In Philadelphia, the locale for next week's Democratic National Convention, carriers are taking advantage of big investments they made last year for a visit from Pope Francis. The improvements include upgrades to fiber connections to various cell sites.

Behind the investments: the knowledge that customers have plenty of options in a competitive telecommunications market. Carriers go toe-to-toe on price, with specials designed to entice individuals, overseas travelers, families, video streamers and anyone else you can think of. And they're well aware a bad experience will potentially drive a customer to another carrier.

"Wireless customers definitely remember if service doesn't work well," said Mark Walker, who runs Sprint's network in the Northeast. "It's just expected that your phone will work wherever you are and whenever you want."

Of course, the carriers have plenty of experience preparing for major events. The Super Bowl attracted more than a million people to the San Francisco Bay Area in February for a weeklong pigskin bacchanal. Even regular-season games in Cleveland and Philly attract 65,000 to 70,000 fans, more than the 50,000 attendees each convention is likely to draw.

The carriers wouldn't provide estimates of how much they've spent on improvements to their wireless networks for the conventions, but they say the work has been extensive. AT&T executives told CNET sister publication TechRepublic that the company invested $250 million in wireless and wireline network upgrades in Cleveland alone.

In the same city, Sprint added support for lower-band 800MHz wireless spectrum, which improves indoor network coverage and call quality. The carrier has done the same in Philadelphia.

Verizon doubled network capacity to links into Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. It's also beefed up small-cell coverage in the area around the arena. Small cells let wireless operators shrink the area of cellular coverage so that they can reuse the wireless airwaves to pack in more users. Verizon also added on-the-floor antennas to provide coverage for delegates.

In Philadelphia, the carriers are trying to build on improvements made for the city's last big event, the pope's visit in 2015. During that two-day event, AT&T's customers used 12.6 terabytes of data, which is equal to 36 million social-media posts with photos, the company said. AT&T also reported that traffic was 12 times greater that weekend than the average weekend usage along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where millions watched the pope's motorcade and listened to the papal mass.

Watch this: Silicon Valley represents at Republicans' Rust Belt convention

AT&T is doubling capacity for Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center, where most of the Democratic National Convention's action will take place, while T-Mobile is upgrading the cellular antennas inside the arena, as well as at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The improvements include upgrading the components of its distributed antenna system and adding fiber connections to high-traffic areas.

New Sprint technology accommodates the use of its 2.5GHz wireless spectrum, which allows for faster 4G service. Verizon says it has increased capacity at the Wells Fargo Center by an estimated 550 percent.

Outside the convention centers in both cities, the major carriers are setting up temporary cell-sites-on-wheels, known as COWs.

Comcast is deploying a similar idea with two Wi-Fi-on-Wheels units, known as WOWs. Like the COWs, Comcast's installations are temporary. Set up in vans, the Wi-Fi radios used in the WOWs can reach a range of about 500 feet, giving up to 3,000 people in that area access to high-speed internet.

Comcast, which is based in Philadelphia, is also opening up access to its 10,000 public outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots at no additional charge starting Thursday.

Correction, 6:45 a.m. PT: Sprint's wireless spectrum measurement has been fixed.