US political convention sites brace for flood of mobile traffic

Distributed antenna systems are nearly in place already for the Republican and Democratic conventions

Weeks before the U.S. Republican and Democratic national conventions that will anoint each party's nominee for president, special equipment to boost cellular signals in each party's venues is already nearly installed.

The thousands of participants and armies of reporters that will flock to both events are expected to produce enough calls, Tweets, videos and other mobile traffic to bring an average cellular network to its knees. So TE Connectivity is deploying DASes (distributed antenna systems) all around the facilities where the parties will meet.

DAS is a widely used technology for extending cellular capacity and coverage in buildings and in outdoor areas where a lot of people gather. It consists of many small antennas mounted throughout an area and linked to a base station via fiber or cable. Amplifiers boost the signal over the cable so each antenna has enough power to handle the area it's assigned to cover. To get the most use out of the frequencies available, a DAS may divide a building into multiple areas, called sectors, each with its own set of channels.

The national party conventions are as big as it gets in U.S. politics, and the systems taking shape in Tampa Bay, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, aren't your average distributed antennas, according to John Spindler, TE's director of product management. Where necessary, they may create a separate sector for every two seating sections in an arena.

"These arenas will be heavily sectorized," Spindler said. The type of DAS being planned for the convention arenas can incorporate about 150 antennas, he said.

The heavy coverage is necessary because the conventions can generate much more mobile traffic than the typical professional sports game, he said. The floors of the halls are packed with delegates instead of playing host to a few basketball players, and there are far more media outlets covering the event, including all the major U.S. TV networks.

Spindler said he could not estimate the convention traffic because TE designs its DASes from network specifications provided by its clients. In 2008, when ADC supplied the DASes for the last big conventions, an executive there estimated a convention could generate five to 10 times the call volume at an average hockey game. (ADC was later acquired by Tyco Electronics and became part of TE Connectivity.) Given the growth in mobile data use, this year's events are likely to generate even heavier demand.

The DAS that ADC set up at the Pepsi Center for the 2008 Democratic convention had 24 sectors, Spindler said. After the convention, it was changed to six larger sectors for Denver Nuggets basketball games, then increased to nine sectors when the Nuggets made it into the National Basketball Association playoffs and drew increased media coverage, he said.

"These things are effectively living entities that change with the capacity requirements," Spindler said.

TE is installing DASes at the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the Republican convention and at the Time Warner Cable Arena, Bank of America stadium and Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Democratic convention and affiliated events. The Republican gathering will run from Aug. 27-30 and the Democratic event will take place from Sept. 4-7. (The event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway was cancelled late last month.)

But as far off as those events may seem, TE had to start months ahead to set up the antennas. The installations need to be finished soon because the venues are about to be closed off for security reasons, a standard part of preparations for the conventions. Spindler estimated the setup in each case took between eight and 12 weeks.

TE will use two types of indoor DAS units and one outdoor DAS product in the convention venues. The distributed antennas work with 3G networks from both the GSM and CDMA technology families, plus LTE, Spindler said. He expects at least the four largest U.S. carriers to use the DASes. In some cases the antennas are owned by one service provider and leased to others, and in some cases a neutral host provider owns the system, he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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