When Barack Obama takes the stage this week to accept the Democratic nomination for president, the thousands of avid mobile phone addicts at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver won't have to worry about missing a call, email or photo opportunity.
That's because most of the major mobile service providers have banded together with local venues and national law enforcement to make sure INVESCO Field at Mile High and other key locations have the ability to support the influx of thousands of party faithful and the national media.
Part of the solution was spending millions on numerous infrastructure upgrades, both permanent and temporary, which ranged from installing distributed antenna systems to creating a centralized multi-agency communications center (MACC), shared by telecoms, public safety and law enforcement and overseen by the Secret Service.
For service providers, however, the expenditures were a no-brainer, said Dan Shey, principal analyst with ABI Research. For one, many of the most popular wireless services that convention goers will be using – picture, video, and text messaging, for example – are among the highest average revenue per user (ARPU) services telecoms offer, translating into a spike in potential revenue for each snapped photo or video clip successfully uploaded.
But beyond that, the quality of service during flagship events like the DNC can leave a lasting impression on end users trying to share the moment with others back home.
"It's a wise PR move for [operators]," Shey said. "There was an economic analysis of this, where carriers [asked] what [they would] gain by providing great wireless coverage. And they all said that at the top of the list was having a great impression made … and that would push any stakeholders to go forward, even if the economics don't work out like they would want."
Shey said service providers typically seek to recoup infrastructure investment costs like the upgrades in Denver within about a year and a half.
For some providers, however, that goal was easier to meet simply by accelerating existing planned infrastructure upgrades.
Sprint, for example, had for some time been planning infrastructure upgrades for both Denver International Airport and Colorado Convention Center, according to spokesperson Kathleen Dunleavy.
She said the accelerated infrastructure upgrade schedule was a result of dialogue between the network's engineers and the city of Denver.
"Our engineering folks keep calendars for events like this," Dunleavy said. "Like with the Super Bowl, we'll go in and ascertain how good the coverage is and how it will meet the demand for additional calls."
The return on investment, she said, is customer satisfaction with sustained coverage during these high-network-stress times.
In many of the venues, Sprint and other service providers used distributed antenna systems to ensure blanket coverage in traditionally thorny wireless areas, like the interior of the Pepsi Center.
Sprint and other carriers declined to discuss which vendors they used, but John Niedermaier, general manager of wireless systems for ADC, said his company worked with the major operators in the Denver area (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile) and helped prepare several key venues, such as INVESCO Field, the Pepsi Center and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, for the influx.
Niedermaier said such events can prove to be very profitable for network providers, particularly as out-of-town visitors call out.
"They make sure there's ubiquitous capacity," he said. "And they're rewarded with high-profitability minutes, often roaming minutes."
An event like the DNC is also challenging because each participant is more likely to use services for longer periods of time.
Niedermaier contrasted the usage patterns likely at the DNC with consumer patterns at a hockey game, where a typical consumer is likely to have one device that he will use a few times to make short calls: checking on the babysitter, updating a friend on a great play, or being reminded to stop and pick up milk on the way home.
At the DNC, however, users will be regularly snapping and sending pictures, tuning friends into a speech on speakerphone, and live-blogging the events on their data connection.
"During a convention like this, you'll have slightly more people, all of whom may have multiple devices and all of whom will be using them for a longer duration of calls and data use," Niedermaier said. "That's the big difference from even four years ago, when 3G networks weren't that prevalent."
The DNC and the Obama campaign's emphasis on mobile and text message communications made the event particularly interesting to telecoms, Dunleavy said. But Sprint is also deep into preparations for the Republican National Convention set to begin Sept. 1 in Minneapolis, and it has spent more than $2 million in infrastructure upgrades there.