Verizon plays up 5G for Super Bowl

Verizon spent more than $80 million to prepare its network in Miami for this weekend’s big Super Bowl LIV, so it clearly wants to show the world how great its 4G/5G works.

The operator is touting the event as the first time customers will be able to access its commercial 5G Ultra Wideband network, which runs on millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, with commercially available 5G devices inside the stadium during the Super Bowl.

To the emphasis on the “commercial” availability aspect, some folks may recall when that wasn’t the case, and Verizon used the Super Bowl in 2018 to highlight a 5G prototype. Former Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam and Korea Telecom (KT) CEO Chang-Gyu Hwang conducted a video call using prototype 5G tablets during the Super Bowl that year.

A lot has changed in two years and Verizon has been using the week leading up to the event to show off what 5G can do, including live in-stadium wayfinding apps, live-streaming via multiple camera angles and football-themed mobile games.

But it’s also using older technologies like the under-seat antennas that Verizon developed to disperse coverage throughout the stadium. The under-the-seat antennas are a Verizon invention that it started deploying in stadiums years ago, going back to Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco. Some 1,100 of the 1,500 antennas in the Hard Rock Stadium bowl area are actually under the seats.
Antennas under the seats are about the size of lunch boxes. (Verizon)

Verizon Senior Vice President of Technology and Product Development Nicki Palmer said they’re useful for several reasons. These types of stadiums tend to be tough to serve wirelessly, with a lot of steel and concrete to block signals. Meanwhile, attendees expect to be able to share and upload content, which they tend to all do around the same times, such as during the kick-off or during the half-time show. The MIMO antennas under the seats help make that all happen.

Here are a few other stats about what Verizon has deployed at the stadium and surrounding area:  

  • New indoor and outdoor distributed antenna systems (DAS), with more than 250 antennas with 4G LTE
  • 2,000 Wi-Fi access points
  • Over 230 miles of fiber laid throughout the Miami area
  • Added capacity at the Miami International Airport and the airport in Fort Lauderdale

The DAS deployments are based on 4G; commercially available DAS for 5G isn’t here yet, although that will be coming soon, according to Palmer.

Coverage questions

Although speeds are super-fast, one of the familiar knocks about mmWave spectrum is that the signals don’t travel far, which spells bad news for coverage. Earlier this month, Verizon received high marks from Signals Research Group (SRG) for its 5G coverage in the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The SRG team wasn’t able to test every seat in the stadium, but they concluded that the 5G coverage in the stadium was “near ubiquitous.”

Palmer said she could not promise that every seat in the Hard Rock stadium is capable of getting a 5G signal, although the prospects sound fairly good if it’s anything like the U.S. Bank deployment.

“I think the customers that have a 5G phone will get a 5G signal,” she said, declining to say every nick and cranny will get a signal. “I’m proud of what the team has deployed.”

RELATED: Verizon’s SA rollout will be multi-year effort

A strong case could be made for Verizon leveraging standalone (SA) network architecture in venues such as stadiums, allowing the operator to offer new and compelling applications beyond what it can do with the non-standalone (NSA) version of 5G NR, according to SRG’s Mike Thelander. A Verizon spokesperson could not say when the operator might introduce standalone 5G NR in the Hard Rock stadium.

Most fans are on 4G

For now, the vast majority of Verizon’s customers are carrying 4G LTE phones, not 5G phones, so it’s a bit of a challenge to show how great 5G is going to work for fans attending the game.

Verizon has a partnership with the NFL, and they developed the NFL OnePass app that will allow users to take advantage of augmented reality (AR) overlays of big plays, stats and other moments of the game. Many app features will be available to all game attendees across 4G, including new features such as in-stadium wayfinding and AR experiences.

Another app was developed exclusively for Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband customers attending the game, and that offers multi-camera angle streaming so fans can choose which angle they want to watch the action on the field, and switch between camera angles if they want.

To be sure, Verizon isn’t the only carrier prepared for the onslaught of traffic during and surrounding the game.

T-Mobile added millimeter wave to the Hard Rock Stadium to complement its low-band spectrum for 5G and added new DAS and small cells. Sprint, whose  hometown Kansas City Chiefs team is in the game, lit up Sprint True Mobile 5G service in some areas of Miami, including the stadium, where it’s using Massive MIMO radios on its 2.5 GHz spectrum and a “split-mode” feature to enable it to simultaneously deliver LTE and 5G.  

AT&T upgraded its portion of the in-stadium DAS and made other network enhancements, like adding 5G+ and Band 14 spectrum, to provide over 300% more LTE capacity than what was available at the start of the football season. It’s also making noise about a 60-foot monster wall powered by AT&T 5G—which ties in with Lady Gaga’s performance Saturday night as part of what they’re calling AT&T TV Super Saturday Night.