cell tower in Englewood, Ohio 45322

Overloaded cell towers at soccer tournaments

Soccer tournaments are going mobile. Parents and coaches are able to get scores and standings on their phones in real time from the fields to their phones rapidly, post photos and videos from the touchlines. Everything is wonderful!

Eh, maybe.

While the number of teams, parents and fans checking for scores at the sites have remained relatively stable, the way we use the internet has changed. Every tablet and phone is competing with every other tablet and phone for a channel from the cell tower. More streaming services are available, more real-time social media features, larger files and less low-data like checking websites and apps is being done. It’s the equivalent of a Walmart on Black Friday where they only have a few televisions and hundreds of customers busting down the doors to get in. Every wireless device that is being used at the fields is competing with your HQ team for wireless internet access.

Bored siblings are playing internet games on their iPads on the touchline. Parents are streaming the latest episode of After Life as they wait for the referee to blow the whistle to start the game. The cell tower infrastructure at the parks that was designed for casual weather checks and texting for a few dozen people while feeding the ducks or strolling around the lake now has to accommodate a few hundred or thousand parents, players and their fans, all looking down at their screens. It also needs to provide the tournament staff access to their website admin modules.

While wireless providers are promising unlimited data plans, they have generally not upgraded cell tower access on their public park locations. Moreover, “value” providers like Boost Mobile and some pre-paid plans are allowed by law to access the cell towers as a common carrier, while not contributing into upgrade costs. It’s like a soccer tournament adding three more fields, 20 more teams and not planning for extra port-a-johns. Things are gonna get a bit messy and long lines will form.

How cell towers work
This is very simplified because the real technical stuff is quite complicated. But for our purposes here, this will provide a basic understanding so you can make logistical decisions.
While it may appear that cell service is freely available to anyone who wants to grab a signal out of the air, the technical reality is far from that myth. A cell tower — while an amazing bit of technology — is a hardware device that has hardware limitations.

Again, not comprehensive, but essentially each cell tower has a limited number of channel pairs, one for incoming and one for outgoing. You need both for internet data and voice to work otherwise, your cell phone would just be a megaphone. If the tower has a free pair, it links up with your device and you can make a call, visit a website, etc. If there are no free pairs at the one tower, your device goes looking for another. In sparsely populated areas like suburban parks, there may only be one the services miles. In normal day-to-day life, that may be more than enough to service the park. If there are no channel pairs, you get a spinning icon as your device waits for one to open up.

The exact number of channels available depends on the technology the cell tower uses (LTE, 4G, 3G, 2G… 5G coming) and wireless providers upgrade these on a schedule that is basically dictated by prevailing laws, community tax-base, market value… whatever it is, but suffice to say that if you are an affluent market and your local government is active and strong, you’ll get better service. Fair? Probably not, but reality.

With some exceptions, the type of communication that gets through, in order of priority are: 911 calls, SMS/text, voice and finally, data. By law, 911 calls will (should?) always get through and the tower will bump off traffic to connect. (As an aside, you should always equip field marshals and your emergency staff with radios. Do not rely on cell phones.)

Again, this is by no means a comprehensive technical description of how cell towers works, but the important thing to remember is cell towers have a limited number of channel pairs. And every kid you see playing an internet-based game on their iPad or every parent live-streaming Netflix or doing a FBLive of their kids game, they are basically holding a channel pair hostage. When these fill up, the only thing that will knock them off is a 911 call. With no channel pairs left, even your tournament HQ will not be able to log in and update scores, even as the servers hosting your website are sitting with dedicated resources.

But I have five bars!
That means little other than your device has the potential for a strong signal. If there are no data channel pairs left because several hundred parents are all video-streaming their kids to Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Snapchat or TikTok they are hogging the channel pair you need to update scores. First on gets the channel pair. Unlike regular HTTP web traffic which is a quick millisecond on and off, these live-streaming apps must keep a constant connection. The “bars” you see on your phone are basically Apple, Android-manufacturers and cell service providers’ marketing gimmicks for users to believe it is not their phones or data providers that are the problem; it must be the website servers. It is not.

But I can Google and go to Amazon
Yup. Remember the Net Neutrality fight in 2017? The larger providers are paying the data providers for priority access. As important as your soccer tournament is to you is as unimportant as it is to them. While I have no hard data on it, I suspect that if a user hits Google or Amazon.com, some random parent three fields over will get knocked off their cell tower signal. Since we have all been conditioned to accept cell signals are spotty, nobody will figure that out.

But I logged into the website at home and still could not get through
Possible. Are you using the same device as you used in the field? Your OS may still be cached, trying to use the same path to get to the website. Log out, clear your temp files, refresh your DHCP lease and then log in. Some OSs are so sticky that you may need to restart the device, reconnect to your WiFi and log in again. Also, if your home is close to the fields and you are trying to use your wireless device, you may be trying the same cell tower the rest of the parents are. Make sure you are connecting using a cable or DSL modem.

What we do at Tourneycentral
We’re always revamping our code to be as skinny as possible, to make as few calls as possible to the database and serve up as few graphics on a page load as we can. The days before the tournament weekend, we ramp up server resources like RAM and CPUs to handle the increased load. We monitor server traffic and balance the load, especially on Sunday mornings when there is an increased interest in the final pool play scores. We watch the scores coming in and make sure that team are advanced quickly and that anyone who wants to get a score can get a score. (If we don’t see scores, we’ll probably be calling you….) We especially watch for bots scraping everything or hackers attempting a DDoS attacks and rabidly block these IP addresses at the firewall.

In short, we don’t clock out on Friday night and check back in on Monday. We’re watching everything from dashboards and terminal windows throughout the tournament weekend.

Our advice
Your soccer tournament is an event, like Lollapalooza, Bonoroo, Coachella… maybe not as big, but like these festivals, part of the planning now includes ubiquitous internet access. Your attendees expect it and you need it to administer your event. You can’t ignore it, just like you can’t ignore planning your port-a-johns. Internet is not some magic that gets pulled out of the air; it is a series of hardware and software bits that have limits.

Even if you have your own wireless device or use your cell phone as a hotspot, you are still relying on the cell towers hundreds/thousands are using to get a signal out to your website admin. You want to remove that bottleneck.

Get a dedicated DSL or cable router access from your local provider for the HQ tent. If you create a WiFi zone for your staff from this connection, make sure it is password-protected and not shared with anyone except your scorekeepers. You need a path into your admin area. It is worth the extra money.

Position the scorekeeper off-site, in a facility with a hard wired router that is not part of the same wireless cell tower that is being inundated by traffic at the site. Usually voice and text messages can get through, even as the data channels are being bombarded by traffic. This could be a volunteer or tournament staff member sitting in their home, on their own internet network. Call in the scores.

Lastly, if you can, make a deal with your local wireless provider to get a C.O.W (Cell On Wheels) unit positioned at the park to handle the increased load. These are a bit expensive, several thousand dollars for one unit for one weekend and should be planned well in advance of your event. You may be able to strike an in-kind deal with a local provider. If you get a C.O.W, make sure that your provider limits it to your TourneyCentral website (we can help with IP addresses if needed.) Every other bit of traffic like to Facebook or Twitter can be handled by the cell tower infrastructure.

And follow up with your local government officials, let them know your tournament is a vital part of their community and contributes to the economic impact for local businesses using your Tournament PulsePoint™ Show them that internet at the parks is not just something “nice to have,” but a critical measure in ensuring your tournament — and their community — remains a desirable place to spend a weekend.