Techcrunch asks the great question of why AT&T was able to beef up their network for the geek collective at SXSW, but hasn't done the same in badly covered cities like SF and NY. I've heard a few reasons.
John Donovan, ATT CTO said to me awhile back that each city has its own rules and regulations, and SF's particularly challenging because of the hilly topography, and NY, because of the buildings.
I've also heard from engineers that 3G usage in the US is very widely distributed, in a difficult-to-provision sort of way. Carriers in Europe have smaller pieces of land to deal with and tighter density around cities to provide towers and backhaul data for. But doesn't that mean they have less revenue and subscribers to deal with, too? Yes it does, but city density vs sprawl is a real issue. Austin is about 250 square miles—right between SF's 49 and NY's 450—but the area that SXSW takes place in is significantly smaller at just a few blocks. That's easy enough to throw some towers up in. And I suppose they just put the maximum number of towers allowed in the area, as deemed appropriate by legislative, cost, and technical limitation. Austin also is flat, and is lacking in mega skyscrapers. To do the same kind of blanketing in SF and NY would be harder. Not impossible, but harder.
Here are the official AT&T list of changes made to SXSW and the network in general which helped (or didn't hurt) network access:
AT&T network enhancements in preparation for SXSW include:
• Distributed Antenna System (DAS) at the Austin Convention Center.
• This system provides the equivalent coverage of eight cell sites, with 50 antenna nodes providing coverage throughout the venue.
• The system was completed in recent weeks.
• Dramatic expansion of network capacity from cell sites to user devices.
• Over the past year, we've moved from one radio network "carrier" to three, which enables us to support more traffic over existing spectrum.
• We've expanded capacity using high-quality 850 MHz spectrum, which also offers improvements to in-building coverage via a signal that can better penetrate walls than signals at other frequencies.
• We have deployed HSPA 7.2 software at all of our 3G cell towers nationwide. While this upgrade is not expected to provide a noticeable immediate boost in average speeds until Ethernet backhaul is in place, it does result in a better overall customer experience by generally improving consistency in accessing data sessions. It also prepares the network for faster speeds and increases network efficiency.
• Three temporary cell sites.
• Two Cells on Wheels (COWS) will be used, as well as a third temporary site on a building rooftop.
The three temporary sites will provide AT&T Wi-Fi as well as 3G service.
• These temporary sites are being placed to maximize coverage in areas of the city where we expect to see the highest levels of network traffic during the event.
Augmented backhaul capacity to cell sites surrounding the event venues.
• Compared with last year, we have added fiber-optic connections to more than quadruple the backhaul capacity of each of the eight cell sites that serve the event area, and temporary sites will also be served by extensive backhaul.
• A team of AT&T network engineers will monitor our network 24/7 throughout the duration of the event to help ensure the network's performance is meeting our customers' needs.
• We worked directly with SXSW organizers to develop and implement our network enhancement plans.
Off record, I hear some of these things will be coming to big cities. That's fine. We'll call it news and fact when I have more than zero bars in my own house in SF and when the natives notice some real improvement. Today is, however, today.