Friday, January 19, 2018
Politics

Republican National Convention prepares for tsunami of data

TAMPA — Forget, for a moment, other potential problems for the Republican National Convention: epic traffic jams, rock-throwing protesters, even a hurricane.

Instead, picture this: 50,000 visitors converge on downtown Tampa in late August with smartphones, iPads and a powerful need to share.

Their tsunami of video uploads, photos, Facebook updates, calls, texts and tweets ("Sarah Palin in Ybor!") swamps the data network.

Calls get dropped. Videos go nowhere. Just like that, some conventioneers see their high-tech party turn as old school as a stovepipe hat.

To keep that from happening, wireless companies are making multimillion-dollar upgrades at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Tampa Convention Center and major hotels.

And in many cases, those upgrades will stay behind after the convention leaves.

"For a Verizon Wireless customer, all of downtown will be like one giant hot spot based on all the stuff we're doing," Verizon Wireless spokesman Chuck Hamby said Friday.

Verizon Wireless established its top-notch 4G LTE network in the Tampa Bay area in December 2010, and Hamby said it's already plenty robust.

But to get ready for an unprecedented demand, the company is installing what are known as distributed antenna systems at key venues, including the forum, convention center and the Florida Aquarium.

A distributed antenna system consists of a series of small antennas that are placed throughout a venue, then networked to increase capacity and coverage, Hamby said. It's like having a series of miniature cell towers throughout the building, each servicing small areas of the venue.

These distributed antenna systems, sometimes referred to as DAS , carry voice, 3G and 4G LTE data, and they're meant to stay after the GOP leaves. The legacy would mean coverage reaching every nook and cranny of a venue.

For example, Hamby said, that could mean going to a Metallica concert at the forum and uploading video from any spot in the arena, even the restrooms.

The company also is working to upgrade existing systems or install new ones in major hotels like the Hyatt Regency Tampa and Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.

There, Verizon Wireless engineers have used sophisticated equipment to test signal strength inside the hotels. The distributed antenna systems use network repeaters to boost coverage.

Verizon Wireless isn't saying how much it's spending on these upgrades. "It's a significant investment," Hamby said.

But Verizon Wireless is not the only company making upgrades.

AT&T has said it is working with Tampa officials, venues and convention organizers to ensure its customers stay connected, though it's too soon to discuss details.

But a top convention official said AT&T also is investing in DAS technology.

"They're going to put $20 million of infrastructure upgrades into the community," Tampa Bay Host Committee president Ken Jones told a business group in February.

"If you drop a call on an AT&T network in August, I will be shocked," Jones said. And "when AT&T goes home after the event, all that network improvement stays here."

For the Republican Party, a robust network is central to having a successful convention.

Conventioneers will be socially networked like never before, and organizers want them to share the sights and sounds of the convention with voters nationwide.

"We're going to work with industry leaders to ensure that we're going to be able to handle that high volume transfer of data," convention spokesman James Davis said.

Organizers in Tampa are not alone in pondering such issues.

In London, officials have worried aloud about having enough bandwidth for all the photos and videos fans will try to upload from the finals of the men's 100-meter dash and other marquee events at the Summer Olympics.

Charlotte, N.C., the site of the Democratic National Convention, saw firsthand how a data network can wobble under the pressure when a big crowd performs the digital version of the wave. The occasion was a 2010 soccer match featuring a top team from Mexico.

Charlotte city official Charles Robinson said he doesn't know what happened inside the stadium. Maybe someone scored a big goal or committed an atrocious foul. But more than 60,000 people felt a simultaneous need to tweet or call or send a photo.

"All of a sudden, everybody was on their cellphones," he said.

That overloaded an antenna near the city's command and control center, briefly causing a communications outage.

As a result, Charlotte is using a federal grant to establish a dedicated 4G LTE network for its first responders, with the first phase scheduled to be done before the Democratic convention.

In March, Tampa police announced a similar initiative. A $750,000 pilot project scheduled for July will ensure law enforcement smartphones will be on a wireless spectrum dedicated exclusively to first responders.

There is another scenario where the telecommunications network could perform flawlessly, leaving officials with a different problem.

In that scenario, anarchists use smartphones and social networks to disrupt the convention with uncanny speed and coordination.

Sound familiar?

It should.

British officials say looters used text messages to whip up violence during widespread rioting in England in August.

Tampa officials say they are factoring this into their plans.

"We already are monitoring it," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "The way these folks communicate is by Twitter, by text messaging, and we need to be as conversant in it as they are and as engaged in it as they are."

Richard Danielson can be reached at d[email protected] or (813) 226-3403.

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