You're at the State Fair when a brilliant idea strikes: get the dancing Snapchat hot dog on top of the Pronto Pup booth.
You wriggle your way through the crowd, awkwardly plant yourself in the middle of the street and aim your phone at the booth, pushing record during a lucky 3-second window where nobody walks by.
Except when you tap the paper airplane ... it doesn't send.
You've got no service, zero bars – but a couple of swear words for your phone company.
Here's the good news: This shouldn't happen at the Minnesota State Fair anymore, all because of a brand new, high-tech system years in the making.
"Yes, it is probably one of the highest tech systems on our campus, certainly the largest in terms of scale and overall cost," Sean Casey, the State Fair's construction manager, told GoMN.
And unless you look closely, you probably won't even see it.
Can you spot the antennae?
The most obvious changes are on the corners of the Food Building, 4-H Center and other buildings, where you'll spot big white blocks perched on the side.
These are new antennae, explained Chad Gerth, general manager of technology for MP Mobile Solutions. (That's the company responsible for building this new system, and is part of Minnesota-based MP NexLevel.) The antennae serve as the geographical step one in making sure a fairgoer can use their phone without issues.
“When you’re a cellphone user and you’re out at the fairgrounds … and you’re looking at your phone and you don’t have signal, the first thing you’re probably thinking of is ‘Oh this carrier is garbage,'" Gerth explained earlier. "You’re not understanding what the back-end is, why that’s happening."
How the system works
There are 56 of these antennae all across the fairgrounds. Many are placed outside, though some are within buildings. They're strategically set up to cover the entire area, even parking lots.
When you use your cellphone there – to call, text, tweet, snap, message, anything – it connects to one of those antennae, explained Andy Masur, director of sales for MP Mobile Solutions.
The antenna takes the signal and sends it through coaxial cable to one of the Remote Terminal Units (or RTUs) on the fairgrounds. The RTU then translates the signal to be sent underground along fiber optic lines.
Those fiber lines connect back to what's called the headend, located just off the fairgrounds in a parking lot. It's a permanent shelter filled with equipment – the blinking lights and cords backed by a constant whirring you'd expect from a server room.
“In essence this is a very complex cellular tower," Masur said
From there, the signal data is doled out to the correct carrier – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon, all of which have a shelter filled with their own equipment that's connected to the headend. The carrier blasts the data out to wherever it needs to go, and that's it.
MP Mobile Solutions had to install and build all of this – the dozens of antennae, the 36,000 feet of coaxial cable, miles of fiber lines (which happened over the past winter), and the five shelters.
A lot of it isn't visible. But you can spot many of the antennae (they're really obvious above the Grandstand seats, for example). And in the Grandstand vendor area, there's now caging material a few feet above people's heads guiding wires around.
Moving past the COWs
Cell companies have towers in the area to handle normal foot traffic, Masur explained.
"Well the 12 days of the fair are not average daily foot traffic, right?" he continued. "You have an influx of 150,000 people that are walking around the fairgrounds."
All that extra data being sent along the radio frequencies can jam everything up. It's like a system of pipes – only so much water can flow through at a time. And if you're AT&T/Sprint/T-Mobile/Verizon, it looks bad if things get clogged.
“Whether it’s the carrier’s issue or not, it’s your perception as their customer that I have bad signal, therefore [the carrier is] in the wrong," Masur said.
In the past, carriers used a few temporary solutions, according to Casey: rooftop antennae, microwave dishes, COLTs (Cells on Light Trucks) and COWs (Cell on Wheels).
The COWs from recent years could be the size of a delivery truck, Casey said. They'd be rolled in and placed in inconspicuous locations.
But those aren't custom for the fair, they're not easy to upgrade and they take up space, Gerth and Masur argued.
MP Mobile's new system is the largest of its kind in the Midwest. It's permanent, offers more bandwidth and is easily adaptable for the future, including 5G service, Masur said.
According to Gerth, carriers have 10-year contracts to use the system, and have already asked about enhancing the set-up next year.
Why the fair wanted it
The cost to the fair to install this system was "minimal," Casey said.
They lease the parking lot land to MP Mobile Solutions, which is where the five shelters are located. And MP then charges the four carriers to use its equipment and broadcast their signal through the system. The carriers funded the installation, too.
Casey said a big draw for the fair was the permanent fiber infrastructure. The fair even had extra fiber strands installed when MP Mobile was putting in its fiber lines, and Casey said those could be used in the future for data, phones or even WiFi. (Right now it's only servicing MP Mobile's antennae system however.)
"We hope that there are fewer missed calls, faster upload and download speeds and fast connection with the State Fair app," Casey said.
How'd it go the first day?
Gerth wasn't overly nervous about real people using the new system (called a distributed antenna system, or DAS) for the first time when the State Fair opened Thursday. He said they'd done stress tests, worked with carriers to make tweaks, and were feeling good.
His biggest concern was equipment failure – and most of it can be swapped out live with a functioning one pretty easily.
Nearly 118,000 people went through the fair's gates Thursday, the second busiest opening day ever.
Masur said there were some issues in the southeast corner of the fairgrounds, but they worked with the carriers to make some tweaks and accommodations, and everything is good to go now.
And if everything stays on course, fairgoers shouldn't notice anything.
"With all the interviews we’ve been doing, the thing we say is the best compliment we can get is that we’re invisible" Masur said. "You don’t even know what’s happening. It’s just happening."