SXSW, the annual celebration of
major brand activations music, film, and technology, attracts tens of thousands of people to downtown Austin, which isn’t a city that can effortlessly absorb that many people in the streets on a given weekday. In addition to the strain it puts on a local restaurants’ ability to seat patrons in a timely manner, it also puts a serious strain on the ability of visitors to connect to their cell network and efficiently tweet/Instagram/text/etc.
That’s a big deal at an event like SXSW, where the tweeting and Instagramming is at least part of the point. (Yik Yakking, meanwhile, seems to be at a low at the moment.) And AT&T–along with, presumably, every other cell provider–is very interested in avoiding any frustrations. So far, the SXSW crowd hasn’t broken any networks, and the reason why is clear: a whole lot of time and resources go into increasing capacity at the festival.
For AT&T, that involves cows and eyeballs–or, rather, COWs (“cell on wheels” devices that increase capacity in a given area) and the Luneburg Lens Antenna, which the company refers to in its press releases as a “Giant Eyeball Antenna.”
That name makes sense–the Luneburg lens is a big white sphere that watches over the Auditorium Shores area of Austin, just across the river from downtown. And it’s not new technology: invented in the ’40s by Rudolf Luneburg, AT&T network technician Clark Bird says, it allows the company to “propagate radio waves to add more capacity. It’s a multibeam antenna, and it shoots out a signal one way, and another that way, and it’s like a slice of a pie–and if you have a large crowd, one beam can serve one slice of the audience, and another can use another slice, and it allows us to reuse our spectrum, to increase our capacity.”
The technology might not be new, but AT&T seems delighted by how large and attention-getting the Luneburg Lens is: SXSW is the third deployment of the lens, after the Chicago Air & Water Show and Coachella, with the Final Four event in Indianapolis next on the agenda. “It’s unique to our license spectrum, so anybody with an AT&T device is able to use it,” Bird says. “It’s old technology with a new face, and we’re the first to use it in cellular. The performance we’re seeing out of it, the antenna allows us to run almost double the amount of traffic we did the year before. So what’s that mean? That means more selfies, more videos, and more capacity, and allows things to run more smoothly, without much pain to our customers.”