EXCLUSIVE Rocketboom Tech Coverage: Increasing Network Capacity at AT&T

This year was different in many ways for SXSWi compared to the last few, one of them being the sheer amount of people attending (rumored to be up over 40%), the gorgeous weather, and probably one of the most important things- my cell phone coverage.  

With so much data transfer happening all in one place, last year was a bit of a nightmare for AT&T subscribers, me included while trying to use my Blackberry Bold, purely because of the overloaded service.  It’s one of those things that makes or breaks an event, and yes, even a long weekend, especially in a crowd of the technically inclined.  

Surprisingly, my phone worked pretty well this weekend, saving me the frustration of getting clusters of texts at 4am that were sent the previous day, mysterious voice messages popping up without any calls, and no connectivity to check in on foursquare or twitter.  

Running the gamut of applications with my charger on hand to stay juiced throughout the day, I tested the system to see how it would fair. I must say, it did well!  What was different about the AT&T network this year compared to last?  

I got an exclusive interview with AT&T rep Mike Barger who not only explained how they improved their system specifically for SXSW, but he also let me inside their COW  (their name for a cell-on-wheels) to get a closer look at all the hardware and wiring used in the system.  

Here are a just a few specs of the overhaul: 

-  Used A Distributed Antenna System (DAS) inside and around the Austin Convention Center, where SXSW Interactive is held to provide the equivalent coverage of eight cell sites with 50 antenna nodes.

- Moved from one radio network “carrier” to three, which enables support for more traffic over the existing spectrum.

- Expanded capacity using high-quality 850 MHz spectrum, offering improvements to in-building coverage via a signal that can better penetrate walls than signals at other frequencies.

- Deployed HSPA 7.2 software at all 3G cell towers nationwide. (This upgrade is not expected to provide a noticeable immediate boost in average speeds until Ethernet backhaul is in place but it does improve consistency in accessing data sessions. It also prepares the network for faster speeds and increases network efficiency.)

- Erected three temporary outdoor cell sites around downtown Austin.

- Added fiber-optic connections to more than quadruple the backhaul capacity of each of the eight cell sites that serve the event area.

I have to admit that AT&T certainly ramped it up this year and it seems as though they’ve learned from seasons past how to keep their data heavy customers connected.

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