The Real War At SXSW: AT&T Versus 15,000 Data-Crazed Velociraptors

We’ve talked a lot this week about the so-called “Location War” brewing at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas starting tomorrow. That war will happen, but actually, there are likely to be a lot of winners because a few of the location-based services should be able to leverage the exposure to gain usage after the conference. Those with real bloodlust should probably be watching another war: AT&T versus everyone in Austin on their network.

AT&T’s struggles to stay up last year are well-documented. CNN recently ran a piece about how AT&T hopes to avoid a similar fate this year. But actually, “struggles” is way too kind of a word. If you were at SXSW last year and happened to be on AT&T’s network — like, say, if you had an iPhone, like many festival-goers did — it was an absolute nightmare. You couldn’t make a call. You couldn’t send a text. Data? Ha. At a few points early on I seriously wondered if I had forgotten to pay my bill and AT&T had simply shut my phone off — except that it was happening to everyone.

AT&T has a funny word for the failure, they like to say it was “unprecedented.” As in, the usage of its network was at levels previously unseen, as a strong percentage of the over 10,000 festival goers (just the interactive part) were using iPhones. Well guess what? Word is that is year, there will be some 15,000 people there for the interactive part. As Samual L. Jackson’s character, Mr. Arnold, says in Jurassic Park, “Hold on to your butts.”

I’m leaving for Austin tomorrow and I’m terrified of what the AT&T situation will be when I get there. So much so, that I have a back-up plan (which Sprint sent me just in time to test out during SXSW after reading some of my rants against AT&T). With attendance up as much as 50% from the previous year, the number of iPhones in use is sure to be through the roof as well. Did I mention that just about every location-based service known to man is launching an app at the event and hoping every single one of those 15,000 people use it all the time? And based on the early signs, they intend to.

You’ll remember that after Mr. Arnold says the above line in the movie, he’s savagely ripped limb from limb by a velociraptor.

But there may be hope for AT&T. They’re clearly well aware of the failure last year, and did try to solve the issue to minimal effect towards the end of the conference. I asked a company representative what they’re planning to do this year, and they have a plan of attack.

Much of what they sent me is fairly technical, but basically, they now have a system around the Austin Convention Center (where SXSW takes place) that’s the equivalent of 8 cell sites, with 50 antenna nodes to cover the whole venue. Also, they’ve greatly expanded network capacity, moving from one radio network carrier to three, boosting the spectrum available for phones to use. They also say they’ve expanded the capacity of the so-called “high quality” 850 MHz spectrum, which works better indoors because those signals can go through walls more easily. They also have the new HSPA 7.2 software installed at all of the 3G cell towers now. But don’t be confused: that doesn’t mean their network has been upgraded to 7.2 Mbit/s speeds (sadly, at the peak, it’s still half that in almost all of the country), it just means that the upgraded software is in place and should be more reliable and efficient.

But there’s more. AT&T has brought in two Cells on Wheels (the so-called COWS that they brought in to help last year), and also a third rooftop temporary cell site. Each of these are equipped with both 3G and WiFi networks to help alleviate overall network strain. AT&T says these three cells are placed in optimal positions around the city of Austin where they expect the most strain.

All of that sounds great, but I’m still terrified. Why? Because I live in San Francisco. AT&T has known for months that the network is awful here, and while there have been baby steps taken to improve it in some areas, more often than not, it’s still awful. Take tonight, for example. So if AT&T knows it’s bad here, but still can’t seem to fix it, why should I believe Austin will be any different? I don’t. I’ll just have to hope I’m wrong.

Or I’ll have to kick back, relax, and take joy in the bloodbath as iPhones are magically turned into glistening bricks being hurled in anger left and right. As I boot up the Sprint Hotspot, of course.

[photo: universal pictures]