EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Like the millions of people tuning in during the Super Bowl, Michele White will be glued to her monitor.
But unlike everyone else, the big game won't be on her screen. Instead, White, the head of network operations and engineering in the New York metropolitan region for Verizon Wireless, will be staring at and stressing over something else altogether: the status of her network's ability to handle the estimated 82,000 people who will be in attendance at the game.
While the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos will be vying for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the wireless carriers will be battling for the bragging rights of network superiority during one of the more high-profile events of the year. It doesn't take much -- maybe a selfie or Instagram doesn't go through -- before one's reputation for service gets sullied.
"Stadiums have become billboards for our service," White said.
That statement doesn't get more literal for Verizon than at MetLife Stadium, where its name sits atop one of the main entrances, with an even larger sign inside among the stands.
Which is where White comes in. She will be holed up in a nearby switching facility at an "undisclosed location in northern New Jersey," which will serve as the command center for evaluating network performance on Super Bowl Sunday.
White, who took reporters on a tour through MetLife Stadium, fielded a wide variety of questions on the network enhancements as the group walked through the chilly winter winds shooting through the stadium.
Verizon began deploying the improvements to its network in the stadium 18 months ago, completing the equipment installation in October and spending the rest of the time tweaking and optimizing the coverage. The distributed antenna system, which is a mini network of antennas designed to boost coverage in crowded venues such as stadiums or malls, includes 552 antennas that are covertly hidden throughout the facility as stadium lights or under catwalks.
The result: a venue that can handle four times the amount of traffic as a year ago, according to White.
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That extra capacity will be needed at MetLife Stadium. Unsurprisingly, fans in the New York and New Jersey are active mobile users, and White said the amount of traffic at a typical Giants or Jets game this season exceeded every past Super Bowl, a surprising stat given the craziness of each big game. But it makes sense as consumers use their smartphones more than ever before, with the upcoming Super Bowl figuring to spark even more traffic than normal.
In case another blackout hits the Super Bowl, White said the network is prepared to run on the stadium's backup generators. Last year, the lack of power to the cell sites and antenna system meant fans stuck in the powerless Superdome were left without a decent cell phone signal.
The reputation for superior coverage has always been important for the wireless carriers, but never more so for Verizon Wireless, which has long staked its worth on its reliability. The carrier has traditionally charged a premium for its service, and it knows its customers are willing to stick around because of the strength of its network.
But that claim is under siege with AT&T now calling itself the nation's most reliable network, citing a study from Nielsen. Another study from RootMetrics, whose research Verizon has often touted in the past, said AT&T offered the best overall performance, noting that while Verizon is more reliable, AT&T has narrowed the gap on reliability and far exceeds Verizon in speed. Even T-Mobile has gotten into the mix, claiming that it has the fastest LTE network based on data from Speedtest.net.
Verizon, meanwhile, ran into its own network hiccups late last year, with Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo acknowledging that it has had a rough time handling traffic in some of the bigger cities. But the company said it was already working on patching things back up, with the AWS spectrum deployment part of its plan to increase capacity. Shammo said that the improvements in New York were largely done, offering compatible phones higher speeds and less congestion overall across the different spectrum bands.
Furthermore, Verizon -- like its peers AT&T and Sprint -- is starting to feel the pressure from an increasingly aggressive T-Mobile, which has offered a string of incentives and programs to entice disgruntled customers into switching carriers. While Verizon continues to add customers at a healthy clip, the latest results showed that some segment of its customer base has been looking at alternatives.
Which means there's even pressure on Verizon to deliver better service. White, meanwhile, didn't say how much Verizon spent on the Super Bowl upgrades, but said it was part of the $400 million the company invested in the New York metro area, and the total $8 billion it spends on capital improvements in wireless each year.
Over the past few weeks, and the next days leading up to the Super Bowl, White will be on full alert.
"We can't wait for [February 3] to take a nap," she said.
Not to miss out on the fun, here are the upgrades that the other carriers have been working on:
T-Mobile, for its part, said it has increased the capacity of both its HSPA+ and LTE networks by 15 times in an upgrade that began in November. The improvements include more fiber-optic lines in the ground, a distributed antenna system in the stadium, and mobile cell sites, known as cell sites on wheels, or COWs, to bulk up coverage at the practice facilities.
AT&T, meanwhile, said it has built a new distributed antenna system of its own that will triple the capacity of the coverage that MetLife had during the 2013 regular football season. It includes more than 500 antennas hidden throughout the stadium and 6.4 miles of cable. The company also deployed two permanent new cell sites in the area to provide additional coverage.
Like T-Mobile, AT&T will deploy COWs to the stadium's parking lot to handle game-day traffic.
AT&T also deployed three more COWs to Super Bowl Boulevard in Midtown Manhatttan, which is expected to get 270,000 visitors each day.
Sprint said it began its preparations as far back as late 2012. It has increased voice capacity by 53 percent and data capacity by 52 percent by enhancing its existing cell sites and adding temporary sites, including five COWs at three corners of the stadium parking lot. The company also enhanced its network along the inbound and outbound travel routes to MetLife Stadium, at NFL-sponsored venues and events, at the player hotels, and in Midtown Manhattan.