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AT&T hauling cows, cheese wheels and a giant eyeball to Outside Lands

The annual Outside Lands music and food extravaganza marks the first occasion where AT&T is deploying all three of the biggest wireless tools in its arsenal at a single festival.

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1 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

If there is one thing attendees want more of at San Francisco's annual music and food festival Outside Lands than craft beer, maple bacon doughnuts or flower crowns (and you know, hearing great bands and artists), it's reliable Wi-Fi for sharing all of that on social media.

AT&T is taking on that task with its most ambitious networking infrastructure at an event like this yet.

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2 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

Before the music starts at Outside Lands

More than 100 AT&T network engineers have been working behind the scenes and on the festival grounds at Golden Gate Park for weeks now to ensure all of the antennas, hotspots and more have been installed and optimized properly.

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3 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

Golden Gate Park's Polo Fields

AT&T has seen traffic on its network grow exponentially year after year, but the biggest leap will surely be from 2014 to 2015.

Last year, Outside Lands attendees set a data usage record on the AT&T network, consuming nearly five terabytes of data during the three-day (Friday through Sunday) event. That roughly translates to more than 15 million social media posts with photos. Attendees also used more than 241 gigabytes during the peak hour of the festival.

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4 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

From AT&T Park to Golden Gate Park

Since 2007 (or at least since  Apple’s first iPhone debuted, according to AT&T senior engineer Akash Bose), AT&T has experienced a 100,000 percent traffic increase on its network nationwide. At most festivals and sporting events (such as baseball games at the telco’s eponymous ballpark and home of the San Francisco Giants just across town), AT&T has to dedicate more “highways” to boost capacity.

Bose acknowledged Outside Lands is a different animal altogether and probably one of the company’s biggest events to take on. Bose framed this as doubling a normal 10-lane highway to a 20-lane highway to keep all those Instagrammers satisfied.

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5 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

Cheese Wheels

Outside Lands has grown wildly popular for its star-studded lineup. Past performers have included Sir Paul McCartney, Kanye West and Metallica, just to name a few. This year, headliners include Elton John and The Black Keys.

But this being food trend-crazed San Francisco, the local restaurant and wine lists are just as competitive. Perhaps then it is appropriate that one of AT&T's biggest contributions to Outside Lands is a "cheese wheel."

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6 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

The Cheese Wheel Antenna

The Cheese Wheel Antenna is able to offer ten times the capacity of a traditional, single-beam antenna.

During a tour of the festival grounds amid setup on Wednesday, I asked AT&T senior engineer Akash Bose why these structures were dubbed as cheese wheels. He replied, "Because they look like cheese wheels."

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7 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

Cheese comes from cows?

If cheese wasn't enough, AT&T is bringing along cows too.

Well, sort of.

AT&T is toting along five more Cells on Wheels (COWs), typically identifiable as roving trucks and vans running to temporarily boost cell signals. AT&T is also promising 50 percent more LTE capacity compared to last year.

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8 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

Traditional cell sites

The network technology AT&T is deploying at the festival this year is equivalent to 13 traditional cell sites. But it’s not doing all of it alone as some of the hardware and back-end network solutions are coming from partners like Ericsson and Cisco.

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9 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

It feels like someone is watching...

If cheese and cows weren't enough, AT&T is also unleashing a giant eyeball.

Before the security sirens go up, the name really just refers to the spherical shape of the Luneberg Lens antenna, which can be seen in this photo, hiding just off to the side of one of the main music stages in the trees.

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10 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

That's no moon...

That's no moon -- wait for it -- it's just the Luneberg Lens antenna (a.k.a. the Giant Eyeball), which prompted AT&T to boast it is the first communications provider to deploy it in the wireless space.

The 3D (and near-perfect spherical design save for the base) shape of the Giant Eyeball antenna is meant to help AT&T engineers on the ground at the event distribute data traffic based on the data consumption of the crowd. It’s not quite as powerful as the cheese wheels, which tout 10 times more power than traditional cell sites. But the giant eyeball can offer enough clarity on its own at a rate of nine times better service than traditional cell sites.

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11 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

Mobile traffic rushing the stage

With the Luneberg in place, AT&T explained, when a headliner is performing at a certain time and thousands of people rush over to the main stage at the same time (therefore bringing more mobile data traffic along with them), engineers can automatically balance data traffic on the antenna and prevent network overloading.

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12 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

From SxSW and Coachella to Outside Lands

The Giant Eyeball/Luneberg Lens dropped down at the annual South by Southwest tech, film and music conference in Austin earlier this year while the Cheese Wheel antennas were served up at Coachella.
Outside Lands marks the first instance where AT&T has deployed all three of its biggest wireless tools in its arsenal at a single festival.

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13 of 13 Rachel King/ZDNet

Next year's Periscope and Snapchat...

Although it will be impossible to know until at least Monday, Bose said AT&T is expecting traffic to grow from five terabytes in 2014 to somewhere between eight and 10 terabytes this year.

With the advent of Periscope and Snapchat (and whatever new social media brand pops up between now and next summer), the nearly doubling annual traffic rate is only sure to continue.

“The demand will always be there,” Bose reflected.

So long as the show goes on, so will the social sharing (and bragging).

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