Phew, Super Bowl 50 did not break the wireless infrastructure!

10 Feb 2016 Stephane Teral

Last Sunday at Super Bowl 50, the sky was blue, the weather was exceptionally warm, the beer was flowing, and during Coldplay's halftime show, 71,088 people were shooting photos and video clips to feed their FaceBook page with "See, I was there!"

Well, think about the impact on the wireless infrastructure. Levi's Stadium DAS (distributed antenna system) vendor JMA Wireless must be very proud of the performance and, to some extent, very relieved that everything went so smoothly. Although I'm certain the user experience was very uneven among fans crammed in the stadium depending on their mobile operator and where they were physically seated, service providers did not miss a chance to brag about their solid performance measured by various tools.

T-Mobile US led the charge with CTO Neville Ray posting a blog that shows T-Mobile's network slightly superior performance. However, the difference between T-Mobile and AT&T and Sprint is so tiny that it is hardly noticeable on a device. What's shocking, though, is Verizon's poor showing in this test!

But as we know at IHS, this is all about methodology, and on this front things get seriously flawed. T-Mobile conducted the test itself using Ookla (i.e., instead of a more advanced and up-to-date mobile-specific network test like our RootMetrics tool. And just measuring average LTE (Long Term Evolution) speeds is the other immediate visible flaw for the comparison because a high throughput doesn't explicitly guarantee the greatest user experience. For example, the distinction between downlink and uplink performance in a particular location is needed, and the signal strength in that particular location is also fundamental because you can have strength but limited bandwidth!

All this is the unabated service provider battle about claiming the best-performing network. But at the end of the day, does this really matter when you are getting a 38Mbps+ throughput? What matters to me is that the wireless infrastructure survived another great moment of tremendous stress and pressure. Let's look at some staggering numbers:

  • AT&T broke another record for on-network data usage by its customers at an event when customers feasted on 5.2TB of data during Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California. The data total is 205% more than what was used at Super Bowl 49 in Phoenix and 882% greater than the average per-game usage by AT&T customers during the 2015 NFL regular season.
  • T-Mobile customers at the game blew through 5 times more data streaming, surfing, Facetiming, Facebooking, and Instagramming than they did at the Big Game last year.

Both AT&T and Verizon spent millions of dollars to shore up their networks. While we heard Verizon spent $70 million, AT&T told us they spent $25 million in enhancing their portion of the neutral host DAS at Levi's Stadium, installing or upgrading DAS at 26 venues throughout the Bay area, setting up 9 COWs (Cells on Wheels) at strategic locations in the region, and activating 39 new or improved cell sites throughout the region.

Now I guess you understand why this world-class wireless infrastructure did the job, but you will likely continue to struggle with a flurry of unabated performance claims. At IHS, our unbiased, independent RootMetrics tool will certainly help you sort this out.

Stéphane Téral is a Sr. research director, mobile infrastructure & carrier economics for IHS
Posted on 10 February 2016


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