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Cell overload

The bay area's wireless providers have prepared for a cell phone onslaught, putting in more than $1-million worth of equipment and improvements.

By JEFF HARRINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


Those who want nothing to do with Super Bowl XXXV probably know to avoid the traffic around Raymond James Stadium this weekend. But their cell phone calls still may get caught in gridlock.

Some Tampa Bay area cell phone users say their calls haven't been going through the past few days as thousands of fans, media, technicians, celebrities and gawkers converge on the area with wireless devices in hand.

But the area's wireless providers say they haven't logged any complaints yet. And they're doing their best to keep the calls moving, with help from the largest gathering of COWs ever mustered for a football game.

That's COWs as in "cells on wheels," temporary towers set up to handle excessive cellular phone traffic.

AT&T Wireless set up three COWs near Raymond James Stadium and one more in Ybor City for today's Gasparilla festivities. Verizon Wireless set up one large COW outside the stadium, put another in Ybor City, and upgraded all 10 of its permanent towers in the vicinity of the stadium. Cingular Wireless, formerly BellSouth, and most of the other five wireless providers in the bay area are likewise setting up temporary towers around football's ground zero.

AT&T Wireless engineers could not recall setting up more than one or two COWs for a big event before, let alone four, said company spokeswoman Mary-Helen Keen. Each COW, towering about 50 feet high, can handle about 180 calls at a time.

The fear is what lies ahead.

Given the surge in the wireless industry over the past year, wireless providers are bracing for an unprecedented number of cell phone-packing fans and media Sunday inside and around Raymond James.

A typical phone call lasts two to three minutes, and there ought to be enough capacity. But not necessarily if all those people in and around the stadium try to phone relatives, friends and business associates during peak times -- such as halftime or right after the (presumably defensive) play of the game.

"It's all math," said AT&T's Keen. "There might be times when they get a network busy (signal), but if they keep trying eventually they'll get through."

If there are any disruptions, it won't be for lack of trying on the part of the telecom players off the field.

"I didn't even realize the extent of some of the things we've done," said Chuck Hamby of Verizon Wireless, which runs the main network through which wireless calls in the area are funnelled.

As part of a $192-million statewide enhancement of its network, Verizon tripled the capacity of all 10 permanent towers near the stadium, including a 120-foot tower in the stadium parking lot.

Inside the stadium, Verizon installed more than 1,600 voice lines, 50 high-speed integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines and 36 video feeds capable of transporting huge amounts of digital data and video. Plus, it prepped the Tampa Marriott Waterside, Wyndham Westshore and Tampa Convention Center, all cogs in the Super Bowl network.

"There is a huge difference between this year's game and Tampa's first Super Bowl in 1984 and even in 1991, when almost all of our extra capacity was for voice," said Jim Wolfe, Super Bowl project manager for Verizon.

"Today, we are transporting a staggering amount of data in addition to voice and video transmission."

The price tag for Verizon, including permanent improvements, was a little more than $1-million. It spent $300,000 alone on the large, temporary COW built specifically for the Super Bowl.

Keen of AT&T Wireless estimates the cost to her company in the tens of thousands of dollars. It's just the tip of the investment iceberg as wireless use continues to grow. "This is not something that is going to go away,' Keen said.

- Contact Jeff Harrington at harrington@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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