Want to See the Future of Mobile Coverage? Go to a Baseball Game

As sporting events and concerts test network capacity, the evolution of carriers' 4G mobile networks will be seen at stadiums. Comerica Park in Detroit. Photograph by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty Images

Verizon Wireless is hauling COWs and COLTs to Kansas City and Detroit, but it’s not going to any livestock show. These COWs and COLTs are cells on wheels and cells on light trucks, basically mobile base stations Verizon can roll out in emergencies or at big events where it knows voice and data demand will peak. Carriers have been using these temporary cells for years, but what’s interesting about these COWs and COLTs is that they’re 4G.

These particular COWs and COLTs are being positioned around Detroit and Kansas City to flood their baseball stadiums with LTE capacity just as the Major League Baseball season peaks. It’s a sign Verizon’s new LTE network isn’t quite so new anymore. Verizon has now sold enough 4G smartphones, and those smartphones have begun consuming enough bandwidth, that the carrier’s original high-capacity 4G network doesn’t have the juice to hold its own at crowded events.

I’m not saying Verizon’s LTE network is overcrowded. It’s using 20 MHz of spectrum to support 8 million LTE connections across the country. Its network has plenty of capacity to spare. But stadiums are special cases, packing tens of thousands of people into cramped spaces, many of whom are uploading videos and photos.

Concerts and sporting events will always push the limits of the mobile network, but what’s telling here is that Verizon is already deploying 4G COWs and COLTs at these events. It means its 4G network is already being tested: Current users are consuming more bandwidth than the handful of towers around these stadiums can pump out.

It’s at these stadiums where we’ll first witness the evolution of Verizon’s and other carriers’ networks. The COWs and COLTs will remain, but they will eventually be augmented with Wi-Fi and new network architectures designed to pack tremendous amounts of data capacity into confined spaces. Verizon has already started down that path by building distributed antenna systems (DAS) into stadiums. New LTE DAS systems just went live at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Miami’s Marlins Park.

DAS setups take the capacity of a single cell and distribute it among numerous antennae, allowing a carrier to shape cellular coverage within or around buildings rather than just blast bandwidth out from up on high. Those DAS systems, however, will eventually give way to Verizon’s first small cells. Instead of distributing a single base station’s capacity among numerous antennae, a picocell or a microcell will deliver the entire base station’s bandwidth at a single location.

Then those small cells will move outside to the stadium’s outdoor seating areas and its environs, transmitting directly underneath the macro network umbrella. At that stage, all of those disparate technologies will coagulate into the amorphous mass of the heterogeneous network. At any given location our devices will have multiple options in connecting to the network, and hopefully bandwidth won’t be such a limited—or expensive—commodity.

Mobile networks are evolving, and if you want to see that evolution firsthand, you should start going to more baseball games.

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