With banks of big screens high along three walls and a huge TV on the fourth, it could be a great spot to watch The Super Bowl. But when the Denver Broncos take on the Carolina Panthers on Feb. 7, the people in this room won’t be concerned with touchdowns, running yards and time outs. They’ll be analyzing gigabits, latency and capacity to make sure Verizon’s cellular network holds up for fans.
This is Verizon’s Super Bowl command room — a temporary, purpose-built nerve center in the shadow of Levi’s Stadium that pulls in data from permanent and temporary base stations near the site of Super Bowl 50 and the fan area in downtown San Francisco.
The sites are in areas where it anticipates a high additional number of users — for example, the many who will want to snap and share a selfie at the Moscone Center with the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the downtown area where a series of free concerts are being held.
From the control center, around 100 engineers will oversee the network through realtime feeds that indicate the number of phones connected and the total amount of data being used. If a cell site is getting overloaded, its power level can be remotely adjusted so that phones on the edge of its coverage area are prompted to switch to other base stations.
Verizon’s planning for Super Bowl 50 began two years ago and each Levi’s Stadium home game this season has served as a dry-run for the engineers and network.
“We make sure we do a lot of drilling for disaster recovery,” said Phillip French, executive director of networks for Verizon’s Western Territory. “For example, how would we prepare for a massive power outage, how would we respond, how would we systematically go through and make sure we are doing the right things to prepare the network.”
Some of the staff will be from Verizon partners, such as infrastructure provider Ericsson, and there will also be staff from Houston — the scene of next year’s Super Bowl 51 — to watch how it’s all done.
The game is important not just because of its high profile, but because it really does test cellular networks like no other NFL game.
“The difference between a Super Bowl versus most other events is we’ll see probably 5- to 6-times the traffic in the stadium,” said French. “Last year, we were really surprised by how much data grew.
At Super Bowl 49, Verizon saw fans in the stadium consume 4 terabytes of data on its network alone. This year, it’s expecting that to rise to 6 terabytes.
And the big takeaway from Super Bowl 50 for those engineers from Houston? The importance of small cells, said French.
The micro cell sites can significantly help boost overall network capacity and keep fans happy, but there’s lots of positioning and tuning needed to make sure they don’t interfere with each other.
French, a football fan himself, said he’s already working on that for next year’s game. But one of his first jobs once things pack up in Santa Clara will be to watch the game.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I will miss 98 percent of the game,” he said. “I will record it.”
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Martyn Williams produces technology news and product reviews in text and video for PC World, Macworld, and TechHive from his home outside Washington D.C.. He previously worked for IDG News Service as a correspondent in San Francisco and Tokyo and has reported on technology news from across Asia and Europe.