TAMPA — Not uncommon for sports arenas, Raymond James Stadium is notorious for poor internet connection on game day.
For a crowd of 65,000, that often means pictures won't send. Shapchats don't load. Live-streaming is nearly impossible. Facebook? Instagram? Twitter? Forget it.
In preparation for the College Football Championship in Tampa on Jan. 9, AT&T has spent $9 million and deployed a team of about 10 engineers over the last year to upgrade its digs in the stadium as well as a handful of hotspots around Hillsborough County, including Amalie Arena, the Tampa Bay Convention Center, Tampa International Airport and Curtis Hixon Park. About 100,000 people are expected to be in town for the championship game, making it one of the biggest sports events in Tampa Bay's history.
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Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, said it had made "significant investments" to upgrade its network locally, including doubling the number of antennas in and around the stadium, though the company declined to be more specific.
Sprint also permanently added to its LTE service within the stadium, and made other improvements to increase the network's capacity and speed in the area around the stadium, the company said.
T-Mobile said that it doubled network capacity in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and upgraded the tower serving the stadium and parking areas.
The local network improvements will remain beyond the championship game, making it easier to watch replays of the Bucs game on your phone or post live videos from big concerts.
AT&T has installed 452 suitcase-sized plastic antenna boxes all over the stadium, painted to blend into light posts, the big screen support beams and even built into the stands. In total, those antenna boxes have a network signal equivalent to about 14 cell phone towers.
The backbone of AT&T's antenna system is an indiscrete concrete bunker beneath the stands of the stadium. The room, humming with servers and a hardworking air conditioner, is filled with new green, orange and gray wires sticking out of rows of gray boxes, plus miles of thick black cables.
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The upgrades mean that about 95 percent of AT&T's system is now set up for LTE connections, compared with about 15 percent from when the system was last updated in 2012. The majority at that time was 4G. Verizon says it has gone even further with its LTE Advanced network, which it launched earlier this year and allows for even faster service than the standard LTE.
For those who are unfamiliar, network speed is an international standard measurement, set by a United Nations agency called the International Telegraph Union. LTE service has a minimum connection speed of 300 megabites per second. It's an upgrade from the 4G standards, which started at 100 megabites per second.
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Essentially, faster network speeds impact how quickly data (which makes up everything from selfies, cat videos and spreadsheets) moves between your phone and your network's bunkers, like the one under the stadium, which in turn routes that data between your phone and social media network servers, other cell phones, or wherever.
Watching and sending videos puts a greater strain on the system than just about any other use.
In the age of live-streaming and constant connections, people are using more data now on their mobile devices than ever before. According to a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, the average monthly data usage per smartphone in North America was 1.5 gigabytes in 2014. By mid-2015, it rose to 2.4.
"People are actually at the game and they're looking at their phones to get replays," said Kirk Parsons, a senior director of technology, media and telecom services at J.D. Power and Associates. "The networks have definitely gotten better not only in terms of quality of the connection but also with the consistency of service."
And with that, mobile users are demanding more and more from these networks. The FCC pointed out that smartphone users with LTE service suck up twice as much data as those without.
"In the last two (Bucs home) games, over 1 terabyte of data was uploaded and downloaded," said Rick Powell, senior construction manager with AT&T (a terabyte is equivalent to 1,000 gigabytes). He said data usage over the last four years has likely quadrupled.
AT&T spokewoman Karen McAllister said network customers used about three terabytes of data at the Outback Bowl in January. The stadium is adding about 9,000 new seats to accommodate fans during the championship game, so data use will likely be huge.
"Any time there are a lot of people in one stadium in a busy area, demand is concentrated," McAllister said. "We wanted to enhance coverage wherever we could."
Editor's note: A terabyte is equivalent to 1,000 gigabytes. An earlier version of this story misstated that fact.