Verizon’s Big Bowl Bet

The Super Bowl has become a proving ground for new wireless technologies

This year, US carrier Verizon plans to use the power of 5G to enhance the viewing experience of the Super Bowl, bringing a multi-angle virtual encounter to this mega sporting event.

Verizon has fitted the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida with networking equipment to support its 5G Ultra Wideband service. Verizon often uses the Ultra Wideband label to refer to 5G running at very high, millimetre-wave frequencies, offering greater throughput and very low latencies. In its press release, Verizon said that live events like the Super Bowl are “one of the best use cases for 5G”.

The 2021 Super Bowl will take on place on Sunday 7 February, between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs. The annual championship game of the US National Football League (NFL) tends to be the most watched event on TV in the US each year, and the host stadium is usually filled to capacity. But this year, things will be different, with only 22,000 fans allowed into a stadium that can hold 65,000. Perhaps this is the perfect time for 5G to prove what kind of new experiences it can enable.

Like the Olympic Games, the Super Bowl has grown into a major proving ground for wireless network operators. In 2020, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon used the sporting event to flaunt their latest network technology and applications. A packed stadium is an ideal venue to show off the large bandwidth of a network given the tens of thousands of fans keen to share their game experience instantly over a stadium’s wireless network (see 5G Makes Its Super Bowl Debut).

Verizon has been concentrating on stadiums and other venues in dense urban areas for its millimetre-wave 5G deployment, which is certainly the type of environment that high-frequency 5G was designed to support. The carrier says that during the past year it expanded service to 52 stadiums and arenas, offering speeds of up to 4 Gbps.

For this year’s game, Verizon said it spent $80 million on Super Bowl-related network upgrades, including the installation of 70 miles of fibre, an upgraded distributed antenna system and 281 small cell antennas in Tampa.

The carrier is also providing a dedicated app that enables NFL fans to view the game from various angles; those at the stadium can pick from seven angles, and those watching remotely can choose from five different angles.

To further improve the fan experience, Verizon is offering a free Watch Together mode in the Yahoo Sports app, so people can chat with friends and family at the same time as watching the game. It’s a similar concept to BT’s own Watch Together, which was unveiled as part of a series of new immersive features for the BT Sport app in October 2020 (see Instant Insight: EE Unveils Match Day Experience).

Additionally, the carrier has built a virtual Verizon 5G Stadium in Fortnite’s Creative mode, allowing users to compete for prizes and interact with NFL players and professional gamers in football-inspired games.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, Verizon’s Super Bowl app is only available for Apple’s 5G-ready iPhone 12 series, which launched in November 2020. This could be an indication of the expanding relationship between Apple and Verizon, and could certainly cause some heartburn among smartphone-makers that have been developing and providing 5G devices to Verizon for the past couple of years.

Verizon isn’t the only US carrier looking to make an impact at this year’s blue-ribbon sporting event. T-Mobile has also announced significant upgrades to its 5G network in the Tampa area, mostly through its prized mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum. In and around the stadium, it’s using a combination of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum as part of its “layer cake” approach to 5G network roll-out. T-Mobile also says it has equipped Tampa International Airport with millimetre-wave 5G spectrum.

Super Bowl LV could be the event that kicks off US consumers’ interest in 5G in earnest.