How the Super Bowl Spurred Sprint’s 5G Rollout In Atlanta

This article originally appeared on Hypepotamus by Holly Beilin.

The Super Bowl will likely have many lasting impacts for its host city — economic, cultural, and even political consequences sticking around long after the big game. Super Bowl LIII may also have spurred a technology improvement for Atlanta, in the form of permanent 5G-compatible broadband hardware across the city.

At least one network — Sprint — has been working to install new, permanent technology to both increase network capacity ahead of the Super Bowl, and provide the infrastructure for 5G when it’s ready to be rolled out later this year.

The new innovation, called Massive MIMO (multiple input/multiple output), is an antenna system that uses many more radios than traditional equipment — 128 transmitters, compared to the current eight. That allows the network to reach more people, penetrate deeper into buildings, and send signal on many more levels. 

In other words, these boxes — which, despite their name, are actually smaller than current equipment — will allow the hundreds of thousands of visitors descending on downtown Atlanta for the game to have access to better, faster broadband in more places. 

“We start planning for a Super Bowl a year in advance,” Cyril Mazloum, Network Manager for Sprint in Atlanta, tells Hypepotamus. Beyond the installation of Massive MIMO technology across the city, he says that Sprint has also doubled network capacity at the airport and added to its capabilities on MARTA, in major hotels, and on the major highways leading into the city.

But it’s this Massive MIMO hardware, what Mazloum calls a “small box with a massive impact,” that will be employed later this year when Sprint makes the shift to 5G. The antenna can be upgraded through software to essentially “turn on” mobile 5G, operating in split mode to serve both 4G LTE and 5G users.

Heather Campbell, Sprint’s network director for the southeast, calls it a “gateway to 5G.” 

“We are really leveraging our 2.5 [GHz spectrum] to get to 5G,” Campbell says.

The promise of 5G is a big theme for technology pundits this year — the new broadband has already spurred controversy, most recently prompting conversations about AT&T’s “5G E” icon, which indicates not actual 5G, but just faster speeds on 4G. 

But what will 5G actually mean once it starts becoming commonplace? 5G frequencies promise improvements in speed, coverage and capacity, and a decrease in latency (the lag time between action and response). 

That all sounds great when you think about FaceTiming your grandma or downloading photos, but the real benefits of 5G are its potential to improve the capabilities of IoT devices — the network of smart physical objects that promises to connect our homes, cars, and cities.

Atlanta officials have often touted their investments in smart city and IoT infrastructure, but as the number of connected devices increase, current broadband networks could quickly become saturated. 5G therefore becomes more of a must-have, than a nice-to-have.

Sprint has committed to turning on Massive MIMO’s 5G capabilities in Atlanta within the first half of this year. AT&T said in December that they had rolled out 5G network capabilities in “parts” of Atlanta (though they have not yet released a commercially-available phone that uses 5G), and Verizon and T-Mobile have dropped hints about their respective 5G devices becoming available later this year.

Georgia lawmakers addressed the impact 5G could have on the state during last year’s session, with some extolling the benefits for not only urban, but rural Georgians.