Papal visit bigger than Super Bowl for telecoms

He won't be known as Pope Francis I until a successor chooses the name Francis, but the 266th pontiff is already known as a pope of firsts.

A native of Argentina, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first pope from the Americas. He is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope to be ordained after Vatican II and he is the first pope of the social media age. So, ahead of his first trip ever to the United States, telecom companies spent tens of millions of dollars to beef up the capacity of their wireless systems to make sure the selfies, tweets and shares his six-day swing along the Eastern Seaboard are expected to generate get sent quickly and without interruption.

Wireless companies have beefed up their networks ahead of Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.
Vincenzo Pinto | AFP | Getty Images

"I don't think anything we've done compares to the scale of this," said Jim Greer, a spokesman for AT&T Wireless.

AT&T has spent $25 million in preparation for the pope's visit. That compares to a budget that typically ranges from $6 million to $16 million AT&T would spend for other big events like rock concerts or the Super Bowl.

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Philadelphia is hosting the main event of the pope's visit, an outdoor mass that will conclude the World Meeting of Families on Sunday. It is estimated 2 million people will attend. The day before, on Saturday, 40,000 people are expected to attend the pope's speech on immigration and religious freedom at Independence Mall.

The money has gone toward enhanced coverage in the city's subway system and the temporary portable cell sites known as COWs, or Cell on Wheels, AT&T will deploy Saturday and Sunday. It has set up DAS, or distributed antenna systems.

"The payoff is, customers expect their devices to work," said Greer. "We need to make sure those customer needs are met."

ATT&T is using temporary portable cell sites known as COWs, or Cell on Wheels, for the pope's visit.
Source: AT&T

Verizon Wireless has spent $24 million to make sure its customers get the service they expect during the pope's visit. The company has been planning for the event for 18 months, and spent heavily to quadruple its capacity in downtown Philadelphia.

The first two legs of the pope's trip, two days in Washington, D.C., where he will address the U.S. Congress, and a day and a half in New York City where he will celebrate mass in Madison Square Garden and visit Ground Zero, while big events are not on the scale of the mass in Philadelphia. Still, with tens of thousands expected to line the streets to catch a glimpse of Francis, both companies are setting up COWs along his motorcade routes.

Or maybe for the six days the pope is in the U.S, we should refer to them as Holy COWs.

CORRECTION: The spokesman for AT&T Wireless who provided quotes was Jim Greer.