Verizon Upgrades Wireless Network for Pope Visit, Takes Inspiration from Super Bowl, New Year’s Eve

Center City just got $20 million in wireless network upgrades.

Ken Wolter /

Ken Wolter /

Will cell phones work during Pope Francis‘ visit to Philly next month? That’s the question on plenty of people’s minds as the date rapidly approaches.

To prepare for the estimated one to two million people descending on Philadelphia, Verizon Wireless examined how its network responded to other large gatherings like the past two Super Bowls and New Year’s Eve at Times Square in New York.

Armed with that knowledge, the company invested $20 million in its Philadelphia network to prepare for the increased demand.

The company has built new cell sites, boosted capacity on existing sites, activated other small cell towers, and will deploy several mobile cell sites (they’re about the size of a van.) It also installed a distributed antenna system near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The company says the moves will increase network capability five-fold in Center City (an area roughly the size of the “traffic box.”)

Clint Pagano, director of system performance at Verizon, said the dynamics of an audience play a key role. At Philadelphia Eagles games, the most popular action is typically video sharing. (That takes up lots of bandwidth.) For concerts, it’s typically updates to Twitter and Facebook.

“For the Papal visit, we’re expecting a mixture of all forms of communication. There should be a fair amount of picture messaging via text and low-bandwidth Internet posting,” said Pagano. “I really don’t think it’ll be a big video draw unless you happen to be close to the Pope.”

Aside from the mobile cell sites, the network enhancements and increased capacity are permanent. But that doesn’t mean its wireless customers will be able to text or send photos any faster because speeds are determined by a number of variable factors.