AT&T: We did fine at the Super Bowl, but give us more spectrum

AT&T(s t) had quite the Super Bowl. At the game AT&T’s networks carried 215 GB of traffic, placed 74,204 phone calls and transmitted 722,296 SMS messages, according to its public policy blog. AT&T reported no problems in handling the traffic and had, in fact, been prepping for game day by adding permanent and temporary capacity. But in what is now becoming a common refrain, AT&T used the event to lobby regulators for more spectrum.

Here’s an excerpt from the post, written by AT&T VP Joan Marsh:

As the mobile broadband data revolution continues, the urgency for new spectrum allocations continues to grow.  Despite the National Broadband Plan’s laudable spectrum goals, we have not had a major spectrum auction since 2008 (the 700 MHz auction) and no major auctions are currently scheduled.  The spectrum legislation currently being considered by Congress has never been more essential.  And as we have argued elsewhere in our blogs, any new spectrum allocations should be assigned via auction without unnecessary encumbrances or limits that hinder any individual carrier’s ability to fully and fairly participate.

… We’ll continue to invest in and enhance our wireless networks, but more spectrum is the only long-term solution to the capacity constraints faced by the wireless industry.

It’s a bit strange for AT&T to use a one-off event as justification for more licenses, since a big annual sporting event is exactly the type of scenario where more spectrum wouldn’t help. Operators scale network capacity to meet average peak demands. If carriers built their networks nationwide to handle Super Bowl-levels of traffic, they would go broke, regardless of whether they had the spectrum to do so. If AT&T had permanently doubled it’s normal peak capacity in Indianapolis for the game, that bandwidth would have sat their idle for the remaining 364 days.

In fact, AT&T addressed the traffic increase exactly as it should have, by bringing in temporary cell sites, or cells on wheels (COWs), deployed 15 Wi-Fi access points, to offload smartphone data traffic and used distributed antenna systems to bring coverage and capacity to every nook and cranny of Lucas Oil Stadium. Afterwards the COWS get packed off to the next event, while the access points and antennas remained place as they’re a relatively cheap way of meeting huge capacity spikes at other events.

What’s perhaps most interesting about AT&T’s figures, though, is the direction that traffic headed in. AT&T reported that 40 percent more data was uploaded than downloaded during the game as customers posted photos, videos and messages. Normally traffic flows in the other direction, which is why networks have been designed to support much greater download speeds than upload speeds. This could wind up being a big network engineering problem for operators as traffic patterns become more symmetrical, especially at big events like Super Bowl. But again, it’s a problem that can probably be solved much more easily and cheaply with Wi-Fi than by loading up on macro-network capacity.