Preparing wireless networks for an event like next month's presidential inauguration has become as critical as erecting the barricades and ordering the party platters.
Several hundred thousand VIPs, protesters, police officers and onlookers are expected to make cellular calls on Jan. 20 from along the parade route, convention halls and hotel lobbies in and around the District. They'll also be sending pictures, messages and e-mail -- all of which create a heavy volume of wireless traffic that eats up network capacity.
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To make sure everyone gets a share of the wireless signal, cell phone companies -- like seasoned caterers -- must estimate attendance and make sure there's enough to go around. When necessary, they're ordering backup.
For Greg Meacham of Nextel Communications Inc., preparations for such events begin at least six months beforehand, when the U.S. Secret Service calls to tell him about a pending "national security special event." Over the past year in various cities, those included the two major national political conventions and the Group of Eight summit in June.
"First, we evaluate the area for network coverage" and bolster the network in high-traffic zones, said Meacham, vice president of federal programs and homeland security for the Reston company.
For the inaugural events, Nextel will install temporary or permanent equipment to boost coverage in such buildings as the MCI Center, Union Station, the Convention Center and a number of big hotels to make sure that subscribers will be able to complete calls or send their wireless e-mails, he said. In case it needs emergency backup, Nextel also will have three trucks with satellite-based temporary cell towers mounted on them on standby in Dulles, he said.
Washington often hosts events that draw big crowds, so companies say they've already built networks to handle spikes in traffic.
The Fourth of July typically draws 300,000 people to the National Mall, according to Verizon Wireless's estimates. The dedication of the National World War II Memorial in May drew about 250,000. And then there are protest marches, the cherry blossoms and major traffic accidents, all of which tend to dramatically increase calling.
The predictability of such events as the inauguration makes them easier to plan for, said Tim Dykstra, Verizon Wireless's director of system performance for the Washington-Baltimore area. Verizon Wireless keeps usage logs of past events such as former president Ronald Reagan's funeral, then it makes adjustments after each big event, so it already has enough capacity to handle most events, he said.
Cingular Wireless LLC, which recently acquired AT&T Wireless Services Inc., should be in good shape for the inauguration because it now has double its previous network capacity and plenty of room for spillover traffic, said Frank T. Iovino, the company's vice president and general manager for the Washington-Baltimore area.
"They've got Washington pretty well covered," Frank Dzubeck, president of Washington-based telecom consultancy Communications Network Architects Inc., said of the cellular phone companies. Although there are known dead spots close to the White House and CIA headquarters in Langley where wireless signals are blocked for security reasons, he said, most callers even in the busiest areas shouldn't have problems.
Dzubeck added that pressure on cellular systems in downtown Washington should be eased because Inauguration Day will be a holiday for federal workers.
In case of unexpected problems or emergencies, Cingular said it offers some politicians and emergency workers wireless priority access -- they can dial secret codes that ensure their calls get priority even when a network is jammed.
Nextel, which has a big customer base among police and emergency workers, anticipates a quadrupling of traffic from such workers during the inauguration, Meacham said. To support them, Nextel will also keep some workers at the multi-agency police command center to coordinate public safety communications in case of an emergency.
Often what happens at the command center is more mundane, he said: Public safety personnel need help figuring out how to use their BlackBerry devices, or they want extra phone batteries.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.