How wireless carriers prepared for Super Bowl XLIX

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile all saw a heavy increase in data use at Super Bowl XLIX.

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Credit: Derek Walter

The important stats from Super Bowl XLIX are finally here – wireless data usage among those attending the games.

Well, those stats are at least important to the carriers. Verizon Wireless reported that its customers in attendance at University of Phoenix Stadium consumed more than twice as much data as they did at last year's game. Verizon customers used 4.1 TB of data while at the game, compared to 1.9 TB of data at Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, last year.

AT&T also released its network usage stats from the big game, measuring 1.7 TB of data among its customers, the most the company has seen at a professional football game.

Fierce Wireless, which first posted these numbers, reported that Sprint measured 754 GB of data use among its customers – a 259% increase from the 2014 Super Bowl – and that T-Mobile users generated 430 GB of data at the game. (Fierce Wireless also included the important caveat that these numbers should not be compared side-by-side, "since carriers don't measure traffic in the exact same ways.")

Not to be outdone, T-Mobile's oft-outspoken CEO John Legere responded to the Fierce Wireless report with a tweet reminding the world that Ookla data showed that T-Mobile's network operated faster at Phoenix Stadium than the other three.

Verizon says its engineers spent "nearly two years" preparing for Super Bowl XLIX, quadrupling its 4G LTE capacity in and around the stadium by building new cell sites, small cell systems, and indoor and outdoor Distributed Antenna Systems, as well as introducing XLTE technology. Verizon also says it ran "drills" to test its network performance throughout the season, and formed a 12-person network performance test team to monitor the network during the game.

AT&T, meanwhile, says it either upgraded or installed 13 new Distributed Antenna Systems, providing three-times the capacity it had in 2013, along with 24 new or upgraded cell sites both at the stadium and throughout the Phoenix area. That upgraded hardware will remain permanent in the area. AT&T also rolled out three temporary Cell on Wheels during the game and seven others at the stadium for events during the week leading up to it. The company also says the Super Bowl was the first time it deployed four-carrier LTE coverage.

A consistent increase in data use should come as no surprise, but such a heavy increase is definitely remarkable. Especially considering that this year's Super Bowl was a close game all the way through, compared to last year's blowout, you'd think more people attending this year's game would keep their eyes on the field and their phones in their pockets.

However, it appears the tighter competition simply gave people more stuff to talk about online. Verizon reported its biggest spike in activity – a 41% surge – after the Patriots scored the game's first touchdown in the second quarter. Sprint showed (in this infographic) first-half spikes in usage after Seattle's first interception and again for each team's first touchdowns in the second quarter. After a stark drop in activity late in the fourth quarter, Sprint traffic spiked immediately following the game-winning interception by the New England Patriots' Malcom Butler, and continued to climb upward as Pats fans presumably bragged online.

Still, both Verizon and Sprint reported that the highest rates of usage occurred during Katy Perry's half-time show. Those of us who are tired of hearing about the Left Shark are not surprised.

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