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How cell tower 'COW' drones will keep fans safe at the Super Bowl

Network failure is not an option amid public safety fears. So providers are getting creative.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

FirstNet flying COW


For fans in Los Angeles, host to this year's Big Game, the Super Bowl is a chance to tailgate and celebrate. For first responders in the LA region, it's a massive public safety event that's a year in the making.

One of the big concerns is network strain. AT&T is answering the call for help with a number of technologies, including the "flying COW," essentially drones that double as cell towers.

Also: How to watch the Super Bowl: All of your streaming options

The problem is acute. There's a long legacy of network disruptions during large events. That can lead to significant safety concerns. 

One striking example is the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. So many bystanders were using their cell phones that the high call volume saturated the local cellular networks, causing signal delays and failed calls that rendered mobile phones nearly useless. For area first responders on duty that day, the consequences of poor network coverage and capacity was dire -- the lack of a reliable network delayed the ability to share the images and videos that ultimately helped to identify the alleged perpetrators.

AT&T has been busy mobilizing around SoFi Stadium, and has increased its network capacity 10x compared to its capacity at the 2020 Super Bowl. Thanks to the provider's public-private-partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) -- an independent agency within the federal government -- AT&T is also delivering 5G to first responders in Los Angeles. FirstNet has been committed to revamping public safety for massive events and also during disaster recovery

The three Flying COWs (which stands for "cellular on wings") in the FirstNet fleet comprise two tethered drones and a trailer for transport that is equipped with a satellite dish and fiber connections. Southern California is a fair weather place, but the drones are capable of withstanding light rain and wind speeds up to 25 miles per hour -- while reaching heights of up to 400 feet. Outfitted with Band 14, AT&T can use the COWs to help equip FirstNet subscribers in the US with connectivity during high-usage events. 

For the Super Bowl, FirstNet will also deploy a Communications Vehicle, a therapy dog to help with first responders' mental health during stressful situations, one FirstNet Micro SatCOLT (Satellite Cell on Light Truck), six ground COWs (Cell on Wheels) with Band 14 spectrum antennas for FirstNet, and thousands of feet of fiber in and around the stadium.

AT&T has been moving aggressively in Los Angeles. From 2018 to 2020, it expanded coverage and improved connectivity by investing nearly $2.7 billion in wireless and wireline networks in the greater Los Angeles area.

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