Every year, the top US wireless network operators make a big deal about the Super Bowl.
I guess it makes sense for them to do so: Big events like the Super Bowl pack tens of thousands of people into one small area, and it can be difficult for wireless networks to keep up with fans' constant demands for instant selfies and video replays. Thus, the Super Bowl represents an opportunity for operators to show off the capabilities of their latest and greatest networking technologies.
It also probably doesn't hurt that the Super Bowl is one of the highest-profile sporting events of the year in the US, and wireless network operators enjoy the luxury of having months and months of time to prepare their networks in advance of game day.
But there's a new element in play in this year's Super Bowl, scheduled for Sunday -- this year is the first time that 5G will play a big, commercial role at the big game.
This is important because there are some concerns that 5G applications so far aren't very interesting. Further, there's some debate about whether Americans will want to buy a new 5G phone right now. Thus, this year's Super Bowl is an opportunity for the nation's big wireless network operators to make their case for 5G.
So what are the nation's top wireless network operators doing for this year's Super Bowl in terms of 5G? I asked each of them that exact question, not only in terms of their network operations at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami but also in terms of their advertising plans and their marketing efforts. Also, just for fun, I ranked their overall 5G endeavors on my own totally arbitrary scale, which runs from zero touchdowns to five touchdowns. (Based on my rudimentary understanding of football, five touchdowns is much better than zero.)
Anyway, here's what I found out:
Verizon is working hard to stand out from the pack with its millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G at Super Bowl LIV. Indeed, Verizon is the only wireless network operator with an explicit 5G partnership with the NFL.
Verizon is quick to point all this out. The operator gave me a brief, Super Bowl-themed interview with Nicola (Nicki) Palmer, Verizon's chief network officer and the executive now in charge of finding revenue-producing use cases for 5G.
"This is the 5G Super Bowl. The first one," she told me.
Palmer explained that Verizon has installed its millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G network in and around the stadium, and the operator is using the network to provide specific, 5G-only services to Verizon customers with 5G smartphones. Those services run through the NFL's OnePass app and will allow Verizon 5G customers to stream video from different cameras on the field, among other services.
Verizon is also using its network to demonstrate 5G technologies to everyone else at the game. Those demos cover both business and consumer use cases, including two NFL-themed phone games built specifically to show off Verizon's 5G network.
"They can see what the future looks like," Palmer said of Hard Rock Stadium attendees. "In the long game of 5G, we're still in the first quarter. But the game has begun."
Here's how Verizon's overall 5G Super Bowl efforts break down:
- Onsite 5G signals: Yes, in mmWave spectrum (good for speed but not coverage)
- 5G demos: Several, including mobile games and streaming 8K video
- 5G-specific services: Several, including route-finding services and augmented reality offerings
- 5G advertising: According to ad-tracking company iSpot, Verizon will run a 60-second spot during the first half of Super Bowl LIV that will focus in part on 5G
- My totally arbitrary rating: Four touchdowns (comprehensive but not incredible)
AT&T is certainly trying to match Verizon's efforts at this year's Super Bowl. Although the company didn't answer my questions, in a press release AT&T laid out a fairly comprehensive strategy for the big game that ranges from $85 million worth of network enhancements to several 5G-powered demonstrations.
That said, AT&T's 5G network for the Super Bowl only works in the operator's mmWave spectrum and not the lowband spectrum it has been using to expand 5G across the country. And the company's 5G demonstrations are actually tied mostly to a Lady Gaga concert scheduled the day before the Super Bowl. Plus, they're slightly difficult to comprehend: "This experience will let fans spread the love as they draw images and write messages in the air using AR and 5G-capable devices -- creating the first 5G powered art creation in the world," AT&T wrote of its 5G Air Graffiti demo.
It sounds cool, I guess?
Anyway, here's how AT&T's overall 5G Super Bowl efforts break down:
- Onsite 5G signals: Yes, but only in mmWave spectrum and not in lowband spectrum (good for speed but not coverage)
- 5G demos: Several, including ones that use augmented reality
- 5G-specific services: None
- 5G advertising: According to AdAge, AT&T isn't running any Super Bowl ads
- My totally arbitrary rating: three touchdowns (interesting but nothing I want to buy)
T-Mobile's comprehensive press release on the Super Bowl lists the work the operator has done to prepare its network in and around Miami.
Importantly, T-Mobile confirmed to me that it will be offering 5G in Miami in both lowband spectrum and highband, mmWave spectrum. T-Mobile's lowband 5G isn't much faster than its 4G network, but its mmWave network has been clocked at almost 500Mbit/s.
T-Mobile said its customers with capable smartphones will be able to access mmWave 5G in places like Hard Rock Stadium and Bayfront Park. But the operator said it isn't doing anything special in terms of 5G demos or specific services.
Here's how T-Mobile's overall 5G Super Bowl efforts break down:
- Onsite 5G signals: Yes, in both mmWave and lowband spectrum (good for speed and coverage)
- 5G demos: None
- 5G-specific services: None
- 5G advertising: According to ad-tracking company iSpot, T-Mobile isn't running any Super Bowl ads; the company told me to "stay tuned" on the topic
- My totally arbitrary rating: two touchdowns (5G coverage ought to be good, but I was hoping for more)
Sprint's network has been improving over the past few months, according to a number of researchers, thanks to its deployment of 5G and massive MIMO antenna technology across its vast 2.5GHz spectrum holdings.
And in a press release, Sprint explained that it is deploying both of those technologies in Miami in a big way, including via new small cells.
Here's how Sprint's overall 5G Super Bowl efforts break down:
- Onsite 5G signals: Yes, with midband spectrum (good for speed and coverage)
- 5G demos: None
- 5G-specific services: None outside of its previously announced 5G services like those from gaming startup Hatch
- 5G advertising: Sprint isn't running any Super Bowl ads. But the company told me it is holding a local advertising effort in its home base of Kansas City centered on the Kansas City Chiefs, who are playing in the Super Bowl. Sprint also said it will be "very visible" in the Miami area, and that it has a national social campaign kicking off this weekend.
- My totally arbitrary rating: three touchdowns (a solid showing from the industry's longtime underdog)
Get ready for network-monitoring and testing companies like Global Wireless Solutions, RootMetrics and OpenSignal to provide reports on how each carrier's network actually performed during the big game.