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How AT&T Plans to Keep SXSW From Swamping Its Network

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Smartphones, including iPhones, were all the rage at SxSW in 2009.

Last year, the hordes of South by Southwest-attending geeks toting iPhones (s aapl) blew out the AT&T (s T) network around the convention center in Austin, resulting in dropped calls and crappy connections for many attendees. The subsequent news coverage showed off Ma Bell’s network failures for the entire world (or at least the world that cares about such things.) This year, having activated more than 8.7 million more iPhones since last March’s debacle, AT&T is pulling out all the stops to make sure the digerati have the coverage they want during SXSW 2010. Here’s how.

  • A Distributed Antenna System (DAS) at the Austin Convention Center: This system provides the equivalent coverage of eight cell sites, with 50 antenna nodes providing coverage throughout the venue. The system was completed in recent weeks.
  • Beefing up the Cell Sites: Austin isn’t the only city to benefit from this, but AT&T has moved from one radio network “carrier” to three in the city, which essentially enables the carrier to use more of its spectrum. My sources tell me this means AT&T is using about 30 MHz of spectrum for 3G rather than the 10 MHz that one radio network carrier would offer. And speaking of spectrum, the upgrade to the 850 MHz band that was begun in a rush during the last SXSW will also help, as will the upgrade to HSPA that AT&T completed across its network earlier this year.
  • Three Temporary Cell Sites: The carrier will deploy two Cells on Wheels, as well as add a third temporary site on an undisclosed rooftop. Those sites will provide AT&T Wi-Fi as well as 3G service, and are positioned where SXSW organizers and AT&T expect to see large amounts of traffic.
  • Better Backhaul:  AT&T was scant with details but said via email:  “Compared with last year, we have added fiber-optic connections to more than quadruple the backhaul capacity of each of the eight cell sites that serve the event area, and temporary sites will also be served by extensive backhaul.”

AT&T worked with SXSW event planners to make sure the system in place will suffice, and it’s not turning its back on the event this year, either. Last year, the complaints caught the carrier off guard, but for 2010 a team of AT&T network engineers will monitor the Austin network 24/7 throughout the duration of the event to make sure it stays up.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub. req’d):

How AT&T Will Deal with iPad Data Traffic

34 Responses to “How AT&T Plans to Keep SXSW From Swamping Its Network”

  1. Yeah, AT&T is likely to get a good ole fashioned smack down again.

    I use ATT but have major complaints about thier plans and pricing options. So to me, I would love to see ATT get shaken to thier knees again.

  2. Good to hear, last year I couldn’t send a txt for six days.

    If this doesn’t work I estimate $250,000 in refunds (last year was close to $100,000).

    This is 2010 for those keeping track at home.

  3. John Todd

    I suspect they’ll do a good job this year. They spent a lot of time and energy with ensuring good voice and data coverage at TED this year, and seem to have a pretty good focus and team behind their events group at this point. They had someone on site all the time monitoring the network, and doing cursory and extended checks of the availability of components as well as end-to-end tests. I suspect if things don’t work, it will be a question of spectrum physics and protocol shortcomings at those densities, not network capacity.

  4. Chris Weiss

    I would like to see more details on the “backhaul” side of things. Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that it wasn’t local coverage that was the issue (I frequently had 4-5 bars), but rather upstream bandwidth (I could not send/receive data).

  5. Good, I hope they do the same for CTIA and other big shows in the US and I hope that it works. It has often been a pain to demo on the AT&T network at shows because I have often seen 4 Bars/No Data etc, even having to go as far as to use a Verizon MiFi to supply data over WiFi to AT&T devices. MWC doesn’t seem to have these problems, despite 50k hardcore phone nerds descending upon Barcelona at the same time.

  6. This will be great to see. Building out network coverage is a long and tedious process, but nearly three years after the iPhone’s launch is a good time to see real improvement for big bandwidth rushes like SXSW.

  7. iPhone User In Austin

    These plans sound great, but I was standing next to one of AT&T’s temporary sites on Friday night and couldn’t get anything but an EDGE connection. This was in an area that traditionally has great coverage.

    They’ve obviously still got some work to do…