How will mobile nets hold up during Pope's visit?

Tom Paine

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(From Official Pope Francis Visit 2015 Website)

Both Verizon and AT&T reported having made remarkably similar wireless capacity increases in the downtown area contiguous to the Pope's visit to Philadelphia.

Verizon said it has "invested $24 million to quadruple its network capacity in downtown Philly."

Alternatively, AT&T says "its investment is nearly $23M and will more than quadruple AT&T’s mobile network capacity in the event area."

One possible explanation for the similarity in those numbers is that AT&T and Verizon will be sharing some of the same resources to meet the short-term expansion.

But an AT&T spokesperson, replying to my inquiry by email, said "Verizon and AT&T both invested in and joined the oDAS improvement, but otherwise, AT&T predominately worked independently to improve the area’s network." I assume the latter part of that comment referred only to AT&T's own investments in its network.

She went on to explain: "A DAS is a network of several small antennas designed to enhance wireless service within an area or building. A DAS is able to provide enhanced wireless coverage to customers in spaces where geographical limitations or large crowds might prevent a good wireless experience."

Both companies are relying on a variety of solutions- some temporary, some permanent- including cell-on-wheel’s, high-powered rooftop antennas, the oDAS, and upgraded cell sites in the Papal visit area.

What will remain afterwards? A Verizon spokesperson told me by email: "With the exception of about half a dozen mobile cell sites, which will be moved out of the downtown area once the papal activities conclude and will not significantly lessen local network capacity, all of Verizon’s network upgrades will remain in place permanently."

Sprint says it "made permanent capacity upgrades at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Academy of Natural Sciences, Franklin Institute, Logan Square, and along the Ben Franklin Parkway," though its not clear if all those increases are directly related to the Papal visit.

Comcast says it has significantly boosted WiFi coverage in the area.

Crown Castle, which says it is the nation's largest provider of wireless infrastructure, "installed (along with AT&T and Verizon) 37 small cell nodes on light poles between John F. Kennedy Plaza and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to provide close-proximity wireless signals," the trade website RCR Wireless reported.

Crown Castle will provide fiber-optic data hubs to help handle the data from the small cells. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile will all share the small cells, according to a Crown Castle official.

Will it be enough? No one knows for sure. Network engineers have a difficult time modeling events that have never happened before. They will reach back to similar events, such as past Papal audiences, for benchmarks. There will be peaks, which the networks may handle fairly well. But there will also be super peaks. For instance, if the Virgin Mary should suddenly appear on stage next to the Pope, everyone is going to want to shoot some video and all bets are off.