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Here's how every major carrier is bracing for data-hungry fans ahead of Super Bowl 51

Why it matters to you

Super Bowl 51 will draw tens of thousands of fans to Houston in early February, and mobile carriers are making sure they're prepared to handle the onslaught.

The Super Bowl: A time-honored tradition in the United States in which two football teams face off in a nail-biting fight for the championship. More than 117 million are expected to tune into this year’s festivities, and TV networks are prepping for the coming onslaught. But those in attendance pose a bigger infrastructure challenge — especially when it comes to wireless service. At last year’s Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, the big game’s 71,088 attendees downloaded nearly 16 terabytes of data across all major networks.

It’s no surprise, then, that carriers are taking steps to beef up wireless coverage in and around the Houston, Texas NRG Stadium well ahead of time. T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T are leading the charge.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has been laying the necessary groundwork for the past year. On Thursday, the carrier announced that it has permanently increased 4G LTE capacity nearly 20 times around NRG Stadium, and by more than 10 times at nearby airports, venues, and hotels, including George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston Hobby Airport, Discovery Green, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center, Rice Stadium, and George R. Brown Convention Center. T-Mobile says that overall, the greater Houston area now has 5 times more capacity than before.

That’s not all the self-styled Un-carrier’s done. It’s beefed up the area’s LTE spectrum with Extended Range LTE, a type of signal that travels twice as far from T-Mobile’s towers and is four times better in buildings. It rolled out carrier aggregation, a feature which combines multiple LTE signals to supercharge connectivity. It deployed new antennas in “trouble spots” — specifically, inside buildings and in “spots where regular towers don’t reach as well.” And it installed antennas in Houston’s underground tunnel system.

Sprint

Sprint hasn’t been resting on its wireless laurels, either. It has installed more than 100 small cell sites in and around NRG stadium, which it says should boost capacity by nearly 500 percent. It has worked to enhance coverage at the Wortham Center, Discovery Green, Rice University Stadium, Minute Maid Park, Marriot Marquis Hotel, and “other locations.”

The Now Network is also rolling out portable cell sites on wheels (COWs) — a truck trailer loaded with an antenna and radio transceiver — to boost coverage at locations like The Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Houston Stadium, the Westin Hotel, and at the ESPN Broadcast Desk. Sprint says its COWs use speed-enhancing technology that delivers “more data traffic” at “higher rates” on supported devices, in some cases doubling capacity.

AT&T

AT&T has invested $40 million in Houston-area network improvements ahead of the big game, it says. Those include a distributed antenna system (DAS) — multiple antennas that distribute the wireless network coverage throughout a large area — with 770 antennas, which the carrier says can handle 100 percent more LTE connections than the old network. It has upgraded or installed 549 cell sites at 13 locations, including hotels, arenas, airports, and convention centers, throughout the Houston area.

Like Sprint, AT&T is rolling out six COWs to handle increased traffic during the week leading up to the game: One near the stadium in Houston, two downtown, and one at Club Nomadic for DirecTV Now’s Super Saturday party.

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“Many of the network enhancements in Houston don’t stop after the Big Game,” AT&T South Texas VP and General Manager Jorge Vazquez said. “They’re permanent and will continue to benefit customers after. It’s just one way we’re continuing to invest in our Houston wireless network.”

Verizon

Not to be outdone by the competition, Verizon said that it has invested more than $40 million to construct and activate its own DAS at Houston’s NRG Stadium. The beefed-up array, which comprises 783 antennas placed strategically throughout the stadium, has increased capacity by 4 times.

Elsewhere, the carrier deployed an outdoor distributed antenna system (ODAS) in the stadium parking lot and tailgating areas. It’s rolling out COWs and in-stadium Wi-Fi. In the Discovery Green area, it set up 79 small cells, 22 permanent access points, and 88 access points mounted on light frames, three COWs, and 10 smaller cell sites.

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Verizon built new cell sites in the Houston area, too, including 226 permanent small cells and 26 portable antennas. It rolled out aggregation and other technologies to “more than double” capacity through major routes in and around Houston’s downtown area.

“We know people attending the Super Bowl and the incredible events surrounding the game will want to share their experiences with friends and loved ones around the nation, will use their wireless devices to gather information and navigate throughout Houston and will use their devices to capture every exciting moment of their experience,” said Nicola Palmer, chief network officer for Verizon. “Our engineers have been working tirelessly to ensure our customers have a great wireless experience with Verizon.”