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Wireless companies boost signal at Heinz Field

| Friday, July 12, 2013, 10:31 p.m.

If going to the game just isn't enough, wireless companies will make it easier for fans to text, tweet, post photos and update their Facebook status during Steelers games this fall.

Verizon booted up its upgraded wireless network at Heinz Field in time for last week's Taylor Swift concert. After seeing a significant spike in traffic during the concert, Sprint decided to make similar upgrades and will wheel in a portable antenna in the meantime.

“It was a trigger event for us,” Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter said. “There was a huge crunch for us, and we needed to add capacity.”

Too many people on cellphones in a concentrated location can overload the capacity of nearby towers and antennas, said Alex Hills, a distinguished service professor in engineering and public policy and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

The explosion of smartphones and people texting, sending photos and videos — and posting to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social networks — floods towers with data.

“When it's full, it's full,” Hills said, adding that people must wait for a spot to open on the tower before connecting a call or sending a tweet.

To address the problem, wireless networks install dedicated antenna systems at venues where large crowds typically gather. AT&T installed hundreds of small wireless signal transmitter/receivers at Heinz Field to build a “distributed antenna system” in October.

Verizon followed suit, building its antenna system in time for the Swift concert, said Don Carretta, executive director of Verizon's network in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Sprint will roll out its antenna system in six to eight months, Schlageter said.

The upgraded systems are not foolproof, however. Some AT&T and Verizon customers reported problems at the Swift concert.

Shanna Canarini, 20, drove from Lowell, Ind., about 45 miles south of Chicago, to see Taylor Swift at Heinz Field. She has AT&T service and tried several times to send photos and texts to family and friends before giving up.

Brittany Williams, 21, of LaPlace, La., about 30 miles west of New Orleans, did not mind her limited connection to social media. She wanted to enjoy the concert.

“However, when I touched Taylor's hand, I tried texting my mom and aunt, because I was so excited and wanted to share it instantly,” she said.

The text did not make it, and Williams, still excited but a little frustrated, had to wait to tell them after the show.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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