Three years ago AT&T took a hit at SXSW with terrible coverage due to unanticipated demand on their service from the then-new iPhone. I was there, and while I didn’t have an iPhone at the time (I was still rocking a BlackBerry on Sprint) I did see the slow-to-nonexistent coverage iPhone users suffered. But AT&T learned from the experience and began boosting their coverage by using portable cell towers called “Cell On Wheels,” or COWs. I got to tour one of these, parked right next to the Austin Convention Center, and spoke with a network engineer and AT&T’s Seth Bloom about how AT&T uses COWs not only for events (they’ll set them up for Austin City Lights once the SXSW music festival is over) but also when natural disasters wreak havoc on towers and power in an area.
For SXSW specifically, AT&T worked with event organizers to install permanent cell towers, doubled the number of COWs, and installed a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) inside the Austin Convention Center to provide more coverage (both inside and out) and more network capacity. Inside one of the COWs I was told they were, in this case, connected to fiber-optic Ethernet backhaul connections which carried mobile broadband traffic to the core network. These improvements, plus several AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots in the Convention Center, Auditorium Shores and along Austin’s famous 6th Street helped ease bandwidth issues.
Did it make a difference? While there were times when my phone’s data connection seemed to slow down at peak hours as people made dinner plans, I have to say there was a marked improvement from last year, and a remarkable difference from three years ago. The tech inside a COW is quite impressive, as it is a fully-functional cell tower which can connect via ethernet or relay to another tower — and can be powered by local utility or generator as needed. AT&T’s response to what has been an 8,000% increase in mobile data on its network from 2007-2010 (according to Seth Bloom) is nice to see as well. While there are certainly times when I’m frustrated with coverage (inside Austin airport I had issues, but outside there were none), it’s great the company realizes how important the iPhone experience is to its users at SXSW.