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Please Hold the Phone
Inauguration Day Crowd May Clog Cellphone System

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

When President-elect Barack Obama takes stage in a few weeks to deliver his inauguration address, no doubt many of the estimated 2 million people expected to gather on the Mall will simultaneously hold their cellphones aloft to snap and send photos, call friends and family, and send text messages like, "omg, yes we did!"

But please don't, wireless network operators say.

For months, the carriers have been preparing for a predicted explosion of cellphone traffic during inauguration weekend as millions of visitors are expected to gather in the Washington area for festivities. Wireless operators say they plan to boost capacity at cell sites on the mall, along the Beltway and underground on Metro so that more calls can be placed at the same time. By the time Jan. 20 arrives, they will have spent millions of dollars to add staff for the event, rolled in extra cell towers on truck beds and expanded bandwidth on wired parts of their networks.

Even with those plans in place, they predict some hiccups.

"You can add hundreds of thousands of lanes to a highway, but if millions of people go for a drive at same time, you can still have a jam," said John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "There are just so many unknowns."

The preparations for mobile devices are as much of a priority for District inauguration planners as coordinating Metro rail and bus schedules and bringing in enough portable toilets. For Obama, who used the Web and text messaging to fuel his campaign success, it will be the first inauguration in which cellphones are as ubiquitous among youth and professionals as they are among boomers and soccer moms.

Since the 2005 inauguration, the number of cellphone users in the nation has increased by 26 percent, to 262.7 million. And those users are not just talking: They are posting video from their phones to social networking sites such as Facebook, sending text messages to multiple phone numbers at a time and snapping and sending photos with a few keystrokes.

"This is a unique situation that has never happened before -- to have this kind of population increase in one particular area at one particular time," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for wireless trade group CTIA.

Calls by emergency responders such as police, firefighters and medical crews aren't expected to be delayed or dropped by congestion because they will have priority over subscribers. Responders' phones and other devices should be interoperable, said Malcolm Wiley, a spokesman for the Secret Service, so problems communicating with one another -- as was the case during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center -- are not expected.

Mall visitors seeking emergency medical or law enforcement help shouldn't have trouble getting through either, carriers said, as calls placed to 911 from cell phones will also get priority.

But to avoid congestion for regular users, the carriers offer the following tips:

· If you must use your cellphone for a non-emergency, text, don't call. Text messages take up less bandwidth than voice calls and may get through more easily.

· If you take pictures or video on cellphones, save the files and send them later. Such files are large and can clog the system.

· Coordinate a rendezvous point with friends and family in case cellphone signals are down.

The cellphone service providers have dealt with large concentrated gatherings before -- with varying success. The election night address by Obama in Grant Park in Chicago drew about 250,000 people, with only minor network congestion, carriers said. Cellphone use at the Republican and Democratic conventions this year also was mostly smooth, and local officials and carriers had no problems during President Bush's inauguration in 2005, which drew an estimated 400,000 people.

But during Hurricane Katrina, public safety experts and government officials complained of wireless communications problems, including disruptions for long periods in some areas because of power failures and a lack of backup power.

To avoid similar emergency response problems, Sprint Nextel, for example, said it signed up emergency first responders early for priority clearance on service provider networks. In addition to boosting its regular network by 40 percent, Sprint Nextel said it plans to nearly double its bandwidth on its walkie-talkie service popular among taxi drivers. It will be used by first responders. The company has said that with those preparations in place, even if crowds reach 2 million, it would anticipate a call-drop rate of only 2 percent.

AT&T said it will boost its network by 70 to 80 percent along the parade route and parts of Georgetown. It is deploying two cell sites carried on trucks to key traffic areas and boosting capacity at the Renaissance M Hotel, the Gaylord National Resort, the Hilton Washington and the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. The company will have an additional two cell towers on standby, ready to be rolled out to areas with high traffic.

Verizon Wireless, which provides service in the Washington Metrorail system, has boosted bandwidth underground "as much as it can," Johnson said.

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