Verizon braces for GOP voice/data storm, plus a hurricane

Verizon braces for GOP voice/data storm, plus a hurricane

Verizon Wireless is gearing up for two possible storms in Tampa next week, as the Republican National Convention, and attendant demand for voice and data access, arrives on Monday and Tropical Storm (or possibly Hurricane) Isaac may also arrive with it.

The carrier has had more than 300 network specialists at work since last March in downtown Tampa and surroundings, prepping and fine-tuning its 3G and 4G/LTE networks. The work has been in expectation of a flood of voice and data traffic when Republicans, along with an army of reporters and another army of service workers, arrive for the four-day event to nominate Mitt Romney as the party's 2012 presidential candidate, and Paul Ryan for vice president.

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Tampa is the company's regional headquarters for the Southeast, and site of one of five Verizon Wireless "super-switch" processing centers, which services all wireless traffic in the region. Both its 3G and 4G networks in Tampa had already been densely deployed. Instead of new cell towers, the engineering team has been maximizing capacity at each existing cell site in the area, covering not just the convention center, but also venues the GOP will be using to host a variety of events.

But at various locations, Verizon Wireless has been deploying new distributed antenna systems (DAS), according to spokesman Chuck Hamby. As the name suggests, these are wired networks of antennas, linked with an on-site cellular base station, to carry a strong cell single deep into arenas, hotels, conference centers and similar structures. Working with partners, Verizon has set up two DAS deployments at the Tampa Bay Times Forum hockey arena, which is hosting the convention, and others in nearby hotels and other sites.

The carrier also is stockpiling a variety of portable cellular infrastructure systems, such as "cells on wheels" dubbed COWs, or on light trucks (COLTs), along with portable generators. These units will let Verizon quickly bring up extra 3G and 4G capacity in especially high density areas.

Most of the cellular traffic stress may be on the 3G network. In theory, LTE offers 10 times the speed of 3G, potentially reaching 5-12Mbps on the downlink and 2-5Mbps on the uplink. And currently, it's all data traffic. Yet despite the fact that Verizon has aggressively and widely deployed LTE, the number of subscribers with LTE accounts is still a fraction of its 3G accounts.

3G usage will vary also, with most tablet users, for example, having to rely on Wi-Fi for their broadband connectivity. A recent report on tablet shipments, by ABI Research, found that of 25 million tablets shipped in Q2 , only 27% were fitted with a 3G or 4G modem; the rest were Wi-Fi only. These users will be dependent on the quality and capacity of Wi-Fi networks at the convention center, their hotels and other venues.

Much of this planning, and all the expectations, could be turned upside down and inside out if Isaac strengthens into a hurricane, which is expected by Friday, and turns toward Florida, which on this past Thursday afternoon was uncertain. U.S. forecasters at the National Hurricane Center say Isaac will likely become a Category 1 hurricane by Friday as it nears the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Heading toward Cuba, it may weaken somewhat. Currently the storm is projected to turn toward Florida on Monday, but some computer models show it moving farther west into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tampa has 400 buses on hand to shuttle conventioneers and guests from the arena to other locations if an evacuation is ordered, NPR reports. The arena is in an area where an evacuation is mandatory if winds reach 96 miles per hour. Contingency plans involve the city, the state, the GOP convention team and the U.S. Secret Service.

Verizon has its own emergency plans in place, from years of experience with hurricanes, according to spokesman Hamby. A separate team would be dedicated to working with the GOP if the convention itself has to be relocated elsewhere. The "super switch" is architected to endure a Category 5 hurricane, he said. But cell sites and other infrastructure elements could still be affected by the storm.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: Email: Blog RSS feed:

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