Overload Slows Texts Announcing the No. 2

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 23 -- It was the text message read round the country -- for those who got it.

Many of those who signed up to receive a text alerting them of Sen. Barack Obama's vice presidential selection had to wait minutes, if not hours, to learn that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was the pick. The problem was most likely a scaling issue, mobile experts said, with carriers' messaging systems overwhelmed by the number of people receiving the text.

"It was one message that had to reach any number of devices," said Stephanie Vinge-Walsh of Sprint Nextel. She added that traffic on Sprint's short code for the Obama campaign -- 62262, which spells O-B-A-M-A on cellphone keypads -- rose more than 250 percent within an hour of the announcement.

The Obama campaign declined to say how many texts it sent around 3 a.m. Saturday but maintained that everything went according to plan.

For more than a year, the Obama campaign has aggressively marketed its text program -- which comes with its own ring tones and wallpapers, standard fare in the mobile commercial industry -- to collect names, e-mail addresses and Zip codes. The campaign uses that information to stay in touch with potential supporters, encouraging them to volunteer and donate money.

Nearly two weeks ago, Obama sent a message saying he would notify supporters of his vice presidential choice via text, promising that they would be "the first to know."

But after news organizations confirmed around 1 a.m. Saturday that Obama had settled on Biden, the announcement was sent about two hours later -- with no noticeable glitches, said Kevin Bertram of Distributive Networks, the Washington-based mobile company that the campaign hired to send its texts.

Yet some were complaining on blogs and social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, that they did not receive anything. "What happened to the text message?" Hunter Woods wrote on the "wall" of Obama's official Facebook page.

As of 3 p.m. Saturday, nearly 12 hours after the text was sent, Micah Sifry still hadn't gotten it.

"I didn't really mind not getting it, but I do know people who got it at 3 a.m. An older friend of mine e-mailed me at 4 a.m. saying he couldn't sleep and was asking, 'Why wasn't this thing sent at 5 p.m.?' " said Sifry, co-founder of Tech President, a group blog covering the intersection of politics and technology.

"Whatever you want to think of when it was sent, you have to admit this was a really smart way for the campaign to get thousands, if not millions, of numbers. Texting is a huge new tool."

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