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Fans fill stadium air with cell calls

At average Penn State game, a half million might be made

Saturday, September 28, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Stuff a hundred thousand college football fans into a confined area and you'll get an explosion of noise, a rush of adrenaline and an avalanche of something else -- cell phone calls.

Half a million of them, or more.

Just ask the people who scramble to meet demand during Penn State University home games.

Maybe it's a sign of how pervasive wireless technology has become, or just the urgency of finding the right tailgate party, but whatever the cause, if today's midday match against the University of Iowa is like any other football Saturday in State College, the airwaves will be as overstuffed as either team's front line.

Beaver Stadium has 107,252 seats and sometimes draws a few thousand more -- making it, for several hours at least, the third biggest population center in Pennsylvania, behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

"I would be very comfortable saying that on all the networks combined -- and it's an educated guess -- you'd get in excess of a half million calls in the area of the stadium," said Don Carretta, executive director-network with Verizon Wireless, one of several firms handling wireless calls in the area. "That includes calls that are incoming and outgoing."

Demand on his own firm's system increases sevenfold on game days and reaches into the hundreds of thousands of calls, though his firm does not divulge exact totals.

Imagine all the vital information being shared with the aid of satellite-era technology:

We can't cook up all this red meat!

I don't see any SUV with a Penn State flag. You sure I'm in the right lot?

Yes, I have the tickets.

These seats are so high I'm getting sick!

Carretta said it's probably not uncommon for a single user to place half a dozen calls while attending a game.

Beth Honzo, 21, a Penn State senior from Palmerton, Pa., said she's placed as many as 10 herself while attending a game and tailgating.

"I had no idea it was that many calls," she said when told about the half-a-million total. "But I guess the more I think about it, it doesn't surprise me. A lot of my friends also carry cell phones. We all go to different tailgate parties and try to meet up."

Just finding friends among a sea of revelers that spreads a mile or more around the stadium can require five or six calls, she said.

A monitoring site in Bridgeville is used by Verizon to gather data about call demand so the company can see how its system responds.

Carretta's area of responsibility extends from Lancaster in Eastern Pennsylvania west to the state of Indiana and into Kentucky and West Virginia. He sees a similar spike in phone usage during events like the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby.

In Pennsylvania, he said the Penn State crowd, given its size, probably creates the largest surge in cell calls for an event, followed by a Steelers home game.

At Beaver Stadium, and the immediate area surrounding it, calls to people miles away account for some of the demand. But so do calls between people only footsteps apart, trying to find each other.

"The largest spike [in phone calls] will occur an hour or two before game time," Carretta said. "I equate that to people trying to look for people at tailgates."

There is another surge at halftime and after the game, he said.

And it's not just voice communication.

Carretta said some phones equipped with text messaging are being used to bounce greetings within the stands and beyond.

Carretta said that during halftime of last week's Louisiana Tech game, he exchanged one such message with a colleague and Penn State alum who was vacationing on Nantucket Island.

"I text messaged him "We are ...' and he text messaged me back '... Penn State' and then he asked what the score was," Carretta said.

There are seven towers or antennas in the general vicinity of the stadium to help the company handle the demand. That's not to say there are never problems getting a dial tone, though.

The Penn State-Nebraska game, played Sept. 14, drew 110,753 people -- the largest crowd in the stadium's history, Penn State spokesman Tysen Kendig said.

"At the Nebraska game, no one's calls would go through. It was just a constant busy signal," Honzo said. "That was a night game and we started tailgating in the morning and it was difficult to get through all day. Even after the game."

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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