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Michigan Stadium sees six-fold cell service upgrade

Posted August 13, 2014

By Justin P. Hicks - Michigan Live - 

 

ANN ARBOR, MI – Cellular service providers have made significant improvements to Michigan Stadium this off-season in an attempt to catch up with an ever-growing demand.

The International Champions Cup soccer match on Saturday, Aug. 2, was the University of Michigan’s first test of its updated cellular capacity. Providers reported an increase in cellular traffic six-times the capacity of football games last season.

“It’s a dramatic increase, but the capacity isn’t outrunning demand,” said Andy Palms, executive director of communications systems, data centers and research at U-M. “You have a medium-sized city in a relatively small space, and it’s a very difficult engineering problem to try and get increased capacity in that state.”

Verizon and AT&T each had the cellular capacity equivalent of two towers last football season. As of Saturday, both had the capacity of four towers and plan to further expand to seven inside the stadium this season.

U-M officials also hope to improve tailgate cell service, with Verizon increasing the capacity of its 13 antennas around the stadium.

“That just means people will try to use more, so whether people’s experiences are in line with that or not, we’ll have to see,” Palms said. “Not everyone got as much capacity as they wanted (Saturday) but in total they got more than six times what they got last year.”

With a US-soccer record 109,318 people in attendance Saturday, cellular experience varied. Some praised the improved service, while others expressed their displeasure in the lack of signal inside and around the stadium.

Plymouth resident Bill Hickman, 30, said he noticed an improvement from U-M football games he’s attended in recent years. He said he was able to text with little problem throughout the match.

Doug Helmriech was not so lucky. The 44-year-old former Ann Arbor resident said his phone was “basically a brick” throughout the game, not receiving signal until he was miles from the stadium.

With attendees today trying to do more with their mobile devices, including sending pictures, posting to social media sites and streaming other games, Palms said the demand is growing faster than the technical infrastructure.

“The hope is the technology eventually catches up,” he said.

Wi-Fi an option, but not a perfect one

Colleges around the nation are exploring the potential of providing full Wi-Fi to spectators at sporting events.

In 2012, Penn State's Beaver Stadium (107,282 capacity) was the first Big Ten school to add full Wi-Fi. More recently, Wisconsin and Nebraska have followed suit and others are exploring the option.

Palms said U-M continues to consider the technology, though it’s not a perfect fix.

“Other stadiums have implemented Wi-Fi and I’ve talked to a lot of them,” he said. “There’s no end of problems with Wi-Fi. If it were a clear solution, I think Athletics would do it. Right now, it’s not.”

For example, individuals with personal hotspots can interfere with stadium Wi-Fi systems and cause connection problems.

“Athletics wants to have a great wireless experience for people,” Palms said. “It’s just, in a stadium that dense with people and devices, I don’t want to call it impossible, but it’s extremely difficult to achieve with current technology.”