After the City of Seattle asked citizens around CenturyLink Field to limit their social media use in the Stadium District last Thursday during the Seahawks opening game festivities, people weren’t too thrilled. “This is a joke, right?” one user commented on our Facebook page. “Such a high tech city, can’t even use my smartphone at the stadium,” someone noted. “So ironic at the CenturyLink Field!” wrote another.
The City was concerned that too many people streaming video and uploading photos from their smartphones would clog cell networks and possibly prevent those in need from reaching emergency services. This wasn’t the first time the City issued a warning — during the Seahawks Super Bowl parade in February, the Seattle Emergency Operations Center sent an alert that asked people to wean off cell phone use to keep 911 networks open. Then at the Torchlight Parade in July, Seattle Police asked citizens to text friends and family instead of calling for similar reasons.
On Thursday, according to the city, no serious emergency issues rose as a result of network congestion. However, Seattle Police Department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb told GeekWire that City employees did notice “erosional mobile slowdown” with their personal devices throughout the afternoon.
Whitcomb also noted that the City reached out to the major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint — and while some noted congestion earlier in the day, there were no significant issues (T-Mobile did not report its network performance).
Still, the sluggishness is a concern for city officials.
“Having a network slowdown is an indicator that a network may crash, which is not good,” Whitcomb said.
Police and fire departments have a separate wireless voice network — the King County 800 Megahertz Radio Network — they use for voice communications that isn’t affected by what’s going on with a private carrier. But at the end of the day, if someone can’t reach 911 because of a clogged network, Whitcomb said that the problem becomes his department’s issue.
“The truth is, public safety is our responsibility,” he said.
That begs the question — is it the City’s responsibility to ensure that people can use their cell phone to call for help, even when they are surrounded by thousands of others at an event? Or does that job fall to the carriers, who have paying customers that expect constant connection?
Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint would not answer that question directly when asked by GeekWire. But at the very least, all three noted improvements with their network capabilities around CenturyLink Field that were made prior to the 2014-15 Seahawks NFL season (T-Mobile wasn’t available to comment).
AT&T told us that it has made “significant investments” in a LTE-capable Distributed Antenna System (DAS) at the stadium, while also adding additional cell sites in the surrounding area to handle game-day wireless demand. The company has installed a DAS at more than 55 college and professional football stadiums around the country.
For temporary events like a victory parade, the carrier adjusts cell sites to manage a temporary increase in network traffic or deploys a Cell on Wheels (COW) or a Cell on Light Truck (COLT). A company spokesperson also noted that “some venues or cities agree to work with us to enhance the network capacity by deploying additional assets, such as COWs and COLTs.”
Verizon said that during Thursday’s busiest moment, there were 80,000 LTE devices connected to its network and more than 1.1 million data connections. During that time, there were no issues reported on the Verizon voice network, and no emergency 911 calls were blocked, the company said.
Verizon also has a DAS at CenturyLink Field and this year added a Verizon WiFi network in the area. In addition, the carrier installed new Stadium District cell sites in parking lots and walk-up areas to CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field.
Sprint prepared for Thursday by adding a new sector to a site near the stadium, while also adding wider antennas to another site nearby. The carrier is also in “the last phase” of a new DAS upgrade at CenturyLink Field, which “will significantly enhance both coverage as well as voice and data capacity at future events,” the carrier said.
Sprint said that it is also already preparing to bolster its service in Tacoma for the 2015 U.S. Open.
Team officials from both the Seahawks, Sounders (CenturyLink Field), and Mariners (Safeco Field) are well aware of the increasing need to provide connectivity before, during, and after events. The NFL is actually forcing all 32 teams to meet a minimum threshold for WiFi and cellular connection requirements by the end of the 2014 season. The league recommended that each team install a DAS supplemented by a robust WiFi solution.
CenturyLink has had a neutral-hosted DAS since the 2011-12 season that was installed by AT&T. Participating carriers include AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
“Based on fan feedback, the new DAS has greatly increased the connectivity over the limited carrier DAS installations that existed in the past,” a Seahawks spokesperson said. The team also added a WiFi network earlier this year.
“We are more than able to adequately provide connectivity services for our spectator base,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile at Safeco Field, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all on the DAS, with Sprint coming on board next season.
“The DAS system has plenty of capacity to handle demands we’ve had in the ballpark,” a Mariners representative told us.
The team is also close to debuting a new WiFi network in Safeco Field. The MLB plans to install WiFi in each of its stadiums, and the Mariners are among the first batch of MLB teams receiving a network.
AT&T has also installed a DAS at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, which was ready to go for the UW’s home opener on Sept. 6. Verizon, meanwhile, will have a portable cell phone tower (COW) at the stadium and should be on the DAS by next season. UW spokesperson Carter Henderson told GeekWire last month that AT&T is working with Sprint and T-Mobile to also use the DAS at Husky Stadium.
Those WiFi networks could actually be a big help not only for those of us trying to upload a photo or check Twitter, but for voice calls as well. Just yesterday, Apple announced that its new iPhone would support phone calls over WiFi when a cellular connection is poor or not available, with T-Mobile becoming the company’s first U.S. partner.
Aside from being able to post an Instagram pic or send an email from a stadium, the bigger issue here is making sure those in need of help can get in touch with authorities immediately, and that emergency responders can communicate effectively with each other.
There’s a new government-funded organization called FirstNet — First Responder Network Authority — that is trying to build the nation’s first wireless public safety broadband network for responders to public safety incidents and emergencies. While police and fire departments already have separate radio networks, they are also using smartphones and tablets more than ever to help them accomplish tasks while on the job.
“Increasingly responders need computers and smartphones and applications,” notes Bill Schrier, a former City of Seattle CTO who is helping establish Washington’s FirstNet network. “Cops can take photos or view video or search criminal history databases; paramedics can pull up health records; transportation workers can re-route traffic — if their computers and smartphones work.”
The hope with FirstNet is to have a separate network for those responders to communicate on, regardless of how clogged the commercial networks may be. Policymakers are still deciding specifically which responders to include in the network — for example, Boeing’s firefighters or Puget Sound Energy could be included, too.
Beyond something like FirstNet, Bill Moore, CEO of Seattle-based wireless metrics company RootMetrics, said he likes the idea of a partnership between municipalities, sports leagues, venue operators, and carriers to ensure that those in need are able to connect at all times, regardless of how many devices they are surrounded by.
“There’s one issue for consumers who want to use these services, and we are all going to keep taxing the networks — that’s one thing,” Moore told GeekWire. “The other is to figure out how to prioritize response for first responders.”
Moore said that it’s “outrageous” for the City of Seattle to ask consumers to curtail normal smartphone activities, noting that it’s a “short-lived solution.”
“The volume of data usage is going to continue to go up,” he said. “If no one seeks solutions, it will get worse.”
Moore noted that the lack of capacity at events like last Thursday’s NFL game isn’t necessarily the fault of companies like AT&T and Verizon. For the carriers, it’s not exactly cost-effective to make a huge investment for these rare events. That’s why Moore thinks some type of partnership between government, carriers, and venues would work well.
“It would help make it much more economically feasible to add that capacity,” Moore said.
For now, though, the City of Seattle has resorted to asking its citizens to consider how they use their smartphones while hanging out at well-attended events.
“We’re not saying don’t use the phone, and don’t text,” Whitcomb said. “But when you are uploading large amounts of data like streaming videos or photos, it can have an adverse effect on the network.”
Whitcomb added that part of why the City issued a warning last week is due to what happened during the Boston Marathon bombings last year, when cell networks became overwhelmed.
“We want to make sure everyone is aware of the limitation of technology,” Whitcomb said. “If the [carriers] aren’t going to say it, we will. Technology is convenient and helpful, but it does have its weaknesses. It does have its vulnerabilities.”