Telecommunications is one of those industries that many people take for granted. People expect their phone lines, TVs and Internet connections to work. It’s only when they don’t that people raise a stink. The upside of this is that it reflects the increasing importance of communications. It’s becoming like air or water or oil, a vital resource that we can’t live without.
But at the Democratic National Convention, the normally invisible communications infrastructure was made visible. That’s because the normal pipes and wires would not be able to handle all the communications needs of the 15,000 members of the media that have descended on Denver this week. Making phone calls, broadcasting TV and publishing Internet content required the installation of 6,000 new voice and data lines. And for that, you can thank Denver-based Qwest Communications, which is wiring the DNC (and the Republican National Convention next week.)
The crazy thing is that Qwest had to donate $6 million in services to the Democratic National Committee to earn the right to become the “Official Telecommunications Provider” of the DNC.
Why would Qwest fork over a $6 million in-kind donation for such an honor? The answer is that the company is taking a modest but calculated risk that providing communications services to the DNC is a great marketing and branding event that could generate new contracts in its corporate and government lines of business–the main source of growth for the company. Already, Qwest is making money by charging thousands of media organizations thousands of dollars for their Internet and phone connections. But the real payoff could come down the line if corporate and government customers hire Qwest for more extensive work in the future.
“This really demonstrates the capacity of Qwest,” says Robert D. Tregemba, Qwest executive vice president of network operations. “The strategy was to showcase that piece.”
So far, the reviews have been positive. While some people have complained about poor Internet connections in Denver hotels and cafes, most journalists I spoke to said the DNC’s communications services have been working pretty well. Phone calls are going through, blog entries are posting and TV shows are going live without a hitch.
It’s a pretty impressive feat of engineering that the company has been preparing for over the last 18 months. Besides the 6,000 voice and data lines, Qwest built a network operating center in the bowels of the Pepsi Center, laid fiber optic cable underground in the parking lot to wire the media tents and power several cell phone towers, and installed data and voice ports for each state delegation on the convention floor.
The really tricky part: Several weeks ago Barack Obama announced he was moving his keynote speech from the Pepsi Center to Invesco Field, and Qwest has had to scramble to wire a totally new site at the last minute. We’ll see Thursday night if Qwest pulled off this minor miracle.
Another challenge was security. To protect the network and physical site, Qwest worked with the Secret Service. Qwest engineers told me they foiled one hacker yesterday who tried to break in to the convention network through the DNC Web site.
The 3,300 miles of fiber and 140 miles of copper and coaxial cable Qwest installed provide enough Internet bandwidth to support 180,000 homes with a 20 megabyte connection and phone service for more than 200,000 homes, according to R. Dayl White, a Qwest engineer who designed and oversaw the construction of the network.
And it all has to be taken apart in two days after the DNC closes. Doh!