Hit music, flashing lights, colorful outfits and swaying palm trees are front and center at the annual Coachella music festival, but audiences have also come to expect a high-quality experience from the network in order to share pictures and videos in real time. The Indio City Council approved an expansion of the festival's attendance cap from 99,000 to 125,000 this year, according to NBC, and that presents an annual challenge to operators to meet sudden increases in network traffic. Service providers like AT&T are tasked with preparing network capacity for times when Indio's population of 80,000 residents nearly doubles in size.
In 2009, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) began deploying additional temporary network solutions to boost capacity not only at Coachella, but at other concerts, music festivals and sporting events as well. Paula Doublin, assistant vice president of Construction & Engineering at AT&T, leads a team that focuses on researching and deploying a mix of temporary and permanent solutions to prepare for the increases in network traffic and backhaul challenges at about 500 events each year.
At Coachella 2017, AT&T deployed four Cell on Light Trucks (COLTs), which are equipped with the highest-capacity Drum Set Antennas to provide 30 times the capacity of traditional, single-beam antennas. Data traffic at Coachella has increased by 30x since 2011, and at this year's event, AT&T managed 40TB of data traffic on its network from AT&T Mobility customers on AT&T’s venue-specific mobile network -- 37% more data traffic than at last year's event.
"That's just a given every year -- you add capacity," said Doublin in an interview with Telco Transformation. "But then it's also about optimization of the total network. Do we need to make adjustments to antennas? … We also have to take a look at how the everyday wireless network -- the one that serves the area day in and day out -- how is it behaving, and we have to optimize around all that where we truly deliver a HetNet [solution]."
Doublin explained that AT&T's HetNet solution at Coachella includes macros, high-capacity antennas such as Giant Eyeball Antennas and Drum Set Antennas, and some permanently mounted solutions that are "sliced up to fit" where crowds will be in relation to stages and gathering areas. In order to prepare for surges in traffic, Doublin's team analyzes attendance data compared to crowd pictures, examines audience to stage positioning, changes to ingress and egress off the event property, and analyzes how the network has historically performed during the event.
In addition to deploying COLTs, AT&T also utilizes Cell on Wheels (COWs) at events, which tend to be larger in size than COLTs. In the last six years, AT&T has invested over $29 million to deploy more than 430 COWs and COLTs at music festivals and concerts nationwide.
"Some COLTs will have, say for example, only LTE on them, some COWS will include both UMTS and LTE, and different technologies," said Doublin. "Sometimes we will layer in WiFi on top of it, it really depends on what they're trying to solve for. It's an interesting recipe to put together -- how do you best serve the event?"
If a festival site is undergoing construction, AT&T will also examine opportunities to add permanent solutions in expectation of future capacity demand. For example, they may drop conduits in place and put fiber in, and bring shore power in to supply power to COWs or COLTs, said Doublin.
In expectation of an ever-increasing rise in traffic, AT&T is developing new technologies to provide sufficient network capacity at future events. One solution under development is Project AirGig, which Doublin describes as wireless propagation that surrounds and travels down powerlines. According to an announcement last September from AT&T, Project AirGig research is focused on the goal to "one day deliver low-cost, multi-gigabit wireless internet speeds using power lines."
In addition to providing network support to events hosted in rural areas, Doublin says this technology could be a game changer for farmers seeking to improve control over irrigation wells and pumps, and supply them with the network capacity to implement more IoT applications and sensors to monitor crops instead of driving hundreds of miles each day to monitor their fields.
AT&T is also testing Cell on Wings, or "Flying COWS," which are drones that fly over 300 feet -- 500% higher than a traditional COW -- to deliver LTE coverage from the sky to customers on the ground at music festivals or even in the event of a disaster.
— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading
(Home page image of Coachella 2017; source: AT&T)