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From Strike Zones to Dead Zones: AT&T's Paula Doublin on Connecting America's Ballparks

Wiring up ballparks and arenas has become big business for AT&T and other carriers, but keeping up with demand remains a huge challenge.

AT&T

Paula Doublin hoped at one time to be major league baseball’s first female umpire.

 Paula Doublin
Paula Doublin
AT&T

Instead, she is changing the face of sports in another way, aiming to make the country’s stadiums more tech friendly. Doublin is the head of AT&T’s efforts to make sure all those selfies and Instagrams and Vines go through from places like Busch Stadium in St. Louis and SunLife Stadium in Miami.

Avoiding congestion at ultra-crowded places like football stadiums and hospitals is a huge task.

Different stadiums handle things differently, with some choosing to let all the major carriers install their own equipment and others relying on one to act as a neutral party, offering up capacity to their rivals. AT&T is often the one installing the distributed antenna systems that ensure data gets through.

And it’s big business. Equipping a stadium can cost anywhere from $6 million to $11 million. If things work smoothly, the wireless carriers benefit as all those pictures and videos get shared by fans. A bad experience, though, can leave fans crying foul.

This time of year is extra busy, as Doublin and her team of about 200 rush to get upgrades in place before the start of college and pro football season. Among stadiums, football venues are the trickiest because demand is so high and capacities can reach 100,000 fans or more. Among this year’s new installations were projects at Tulane’s stadium in New Orleans and the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. In all, AT&T said it launched 10 stadiums over the last 10 days with new systems or upgrades.

“I’m still concerned over do we have enough capacity in the stadiums,” Doublin said in her strong Missouri accent during a telephone interview from her home office — an office that features a mural of the space shuttle cockpit, along with a 42-inch 4K television, a data console made up of four 32-inch monitors and several hundred technical manuals in various bookcases. Doublin spent Sunday reviewing network performance stats from various stadiums while also catching up on four college football games she had recorded the day before.

 Busch Stadium, one of many ballparks that AT&T has wired up and home of Doublin’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals.
Busch Stadium, one of many ballparks that AT&T has wired up and home of Doublin’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals.
AT&T

Keeping up with demand for data in the stadiums remains a challenge. At the college football championship in January, for example, customers sent a record-breaking six terabytes of data in just that game. Carriers like Verizon and AT&T are testing technologies like LTE-Broadcast to handle things like video replays, but that still won’t help with all the custom photos and clips those at the game want to send back to their friends.

While Doublin and her group always plan to add more bandwidth than they think a stadium will need, they have at times underestimated just how much fans want to do on their devices.

During one set of football stadium installations, AT&T put in what it thought was enough capacity to last three years. By the preseason of the second year, it was already starting to run into bottlenecks and had to go back to add capacity.

Doublin said fans’ thirst for data still sometimes amazes her. She was watching a game at Baylor’s stadium last year and noticed a nearby fan streaming four different videos on his iPad and another on his iPhone.

“In our wildest dreams did we ever plan that? I don’t think so,” she said.

And it’s not just about cramming in enough antennas to handle the wireless traffic. Eventually all that data has to go onto the wired network. That means that AT&T and others have to build what are essentially data centers inside each stadium, a challenge as space is at a premium inside sporting venues.

“It’s prime real estate,” she said.

Football, though, is easy in some ways. Games are typically only played on the weekends, meaning AT&T and other providers can typically work from a few hours after a game until noon on Thursday.

The toughest places, Doublin said, are hospitals, which are of course always in operation and the networks there are also mission critical. While at one time hospitals banned cellular devices, they now rely on them for their own use, along with Wi-Fi and other networked gear.

“You literally have to shut down part of the hospital,” Doublin said. “It’s a real ballet dance.”

And Doublin is more a fan of baseball and cricket than ballet.

Doublin joined AT&T in 1982 after spending years as an umpire for fast-pitch softball. The career was not only fun but lucrative, Doublin said, noting that she could make $25 per game — a pretty decent take in the 1970s and ’80s.

She participated in the sport as well, until breaking her wrist while playing on an AT&T team shortly after joining the company. She also remains a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan even though these days she resides near Dallas, Texas.

Since 2009, Doublin has led the construction and engineering teams dedicated to large venues, a category that includes airports and high-rises along with stadiums and hospitals. In the past couple months she has also taken over responsibility for about 125 more people working on small cells — one of many technologies that aims to make it easier to handle the intense demand for data in urban areas.

Doublin says it always comes back to making sure that customers can do what they want on their devices and watch the latest game wherever they might be.

“They really don’t care,” Doublin said of all the complexities involved. “They want their devices to work.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.