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Sports Business

Verizon brings Super Bowl-tested system to IMS

May 14, 2014
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Can you hear me now?

Verizon Wireless officials hope customers won’t have to utter the phrase made famous in their television commercials too often this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Just having their voice heard, though, isn’t enough these days for cell phone users, especially at sporting events.

Increasingly, fans want to text, tweet and post to Facebook. And when tens of thousands—or in extreme cases hundreds of thousands—of people around you are trying to do the same thing, using your phone or tablet isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Sports fans in this market and others haven’t been shy about voicing their displeasure about bad cell phone coverage, which is evident if you follow Twitter on any big game or event days.

Verizon officials think they have the solution. They admit that in the past, service at the enormous facility has been a problem.

Now the carrier is bringing to Indianapolis Motor Speedway some of the technology it pioneered at the 2012 Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium and at this year’s Kentucky Derby.

The Speedway, which encompasses more than 1,000 acres and has capacity of around 300,000, will offer Verizon an extreme test of its Distributed Antenna System.

“We think with the system we’ve installed over the last year, we’re ready,” said Lynn Ramsey, Verizon vice president of network.

With the addition of more than 200 antennas (Verizon had 29 at the Speedway last year) and a system carrying signals over fiber optic cables from a base station through managed hubs and out to remote antennas, Verizon has quadrupled its capacity, company officials explained during a tour Tuesday.

This month, IMS has been crawling with Verizon technicians—some on foot, some in cars—testing the system from every point on the expansive grounds. Verizon is even trying to make sure race fans in adjacent parking and camping areas can use their phones whenever they want.

And if there’s a problem on Pole Day, Carb Day or race day and customers tweet out a problem using Verizon in the tweet, they shouldn’t be surprised to get a visit from a Verizon technician. When I tweeted a complaint about cell reception at Lucas Oil Stadium during the 2012 Super Bowl, a rather concerned-looking Verizon representative was by my seat in the auxiliary press area in minutes. Of course, the extra attention might have been because I am a member of the media.

Still, Verizon promises to have scads of technicians monitoring the Speedway all month.

Though the Verizon antennas are everywhere, IMS visitors—unless they’re looking for them—might not even notice. The antennas are only a few feet long and sit overhead in non-descript white cases—something like an encased fluorescent kitchen light.

The system should help power Verizon’s new IndyCar 14 app, which provides a number of features including live streaming from IMS. The app also provides tons of video features and live track and team data, all of which gobbles up bandwidth faster than pedal-down drivers cover the oval.

The new system went live May 10 during the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. That event drew fewer than 50,000 fans. The supreme test will be May 25 during the Indianapolis 500.

Verizon’s Ramsey said IMS is far more challenging to outfit than other sporting venues.

“Not only are you talking about [300,000] fans, but they’re not in a bowl like an arena or stadium,” she said.

Unfortunately, the system will only help Verizon customers. It’s possible, Verizon officials said, that in the future other carriers could use Verizon’s system.

With millions of dollars invested at places such as Churchill Downs, IMS and Super Bowl host venues, Verizon is sure to begin marketing itself as the most reliable carrier at sporting events, though company officials had no details of those plans Tuesday.

Verizon wouldn’t say what it invested at the Speedway, but company officials said Verizon spent $130 million statewide in 2013.

Speedway officials appear to be giving Verizon a head start in its battle with other cell phone carriers. Given that Verizon earlier this year signed a 10-year IndyCar Series title sponsorship deal worth $50 million in cash and another $50 million in advertising and promotion, I suppose you can’t blame the open-wheel series for playing favorites.

Verizon has used similar strategies with its NFL partnership to be first to market in those venues.

Verizon officials insist this move isn’t pure marketing.

“Sure, our brand is at the forefront here,” Ramsey said. “But this is about offering a reliable service and it’s about public safety, making sure people can use their phones in an emergency situation.”

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