AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the past, thousands of people who gather for Austin City Limits Music Festival have had to pay attention to the music instead of spending time on their phones, as that many people in one place disrupts cell signals. This year, though, there’s an effort to improve cellular connections.
The issue is bigger than just not being able to post a video of Paul McCartney or that photo of Metallica. It also makes it difficult to make calls to coordinate rides or get help if there’s an emergency. It can even affect nearby neighborhoods that also use the overwhelmed cell towers.
“Think about all the connections that are surrounding us,” said Scott Dunaway, spokesman for the Texas 5G Alliance. “Whether you’re on the other side of the river, or you live down in the Zilker neighborhood, or you’re along Barton Springs at Uncle Billy’s having a drink on the patio, everyone is carrying a connection and they’re all going to the same place.”
So, multiple major carriers hauled in portable 5G cell towers — called COWs, or Cell on Wheels, Dunaway said. The goal is to increase the bandwidth during the festival, but festival attendees will have to see if it makes a difference.
“It’s hard to project,” Dunaway said. “With 75,000 people in the park, if you’re carrying a mobile phone and you have a fitness tracker or an iWatch, something along those lines on, those are three different connection points going to that tower.”
It’s not a new idea per se; companies have been bringing in devices to boost cell signals at big events for years. But these towers specifically are the kind that will one day enable reliable and fast 5G networks, Dunaway said.
Some cities around the United States already have these services with street-level cell sites. Austin, despite its technology focus, is behind Texas cities, Dunaway said.
It has three of those nodes installed, while Dallas has more than 300 and Houston has more than 800. Wireless companies argue Austin is stalling the installation because the city is suing the state over a law that caps fees cities could collect from them. The city, and others in Texas, argue private companies should have to pay to take advantage of public resources.