By Kim Hart
Monday, January 5, 2009
In about two weeks, the District's roads, Metro cars and bus routes will become so clogged with inauguration-goers that Washingtonians are praying they'll be allowed to telecommute rather than brave the trek into their offices. But if working remotely means relying on a cellphone, they may not get much done that day.
Wireless carriers are expecting an explosion of cellphone traffic on Jan. 20, when millions of visitors pour into Washington to welcome the new president. So many calls, text messages, photos and video clips hitting the airwaves at the same time can choke communication networks and result in delayed messages and dropped calls.
While carriers are erecting extra cell sites to boost capacity, two local companies are also trying to help traffic move along. Wireless operators are urging people to avoid making calls and instead send text messages because they take up less bandwidth.
TeleCommunication Systems in Annapolis says it works with the top carriers -- Verizon Wireless is its biggest client -- to deliver about 25 percent of the nation's text messages. Last year, users sent nearly 200 billion messages, the company estimates. Even though the carriers are preparing for the spike in use, Mark Titus, TeleCommunication Systems' senior director of product management, said consumers could still experience network congestion.
He points to the text message President-elect Barack Obama's campaign sent to 6 million voters last year when he won the Democratic nomination.
"That message blast was not properly coordinated with carriers," he said, so the influx of messages was interpreted as a cyber-attack by some networks, causing the traffic to be blocked or delayed.
Part of the problem, he said, is that many carriers store a message for a short time before delivering it. That's because, back when cellphone use and coverage areas were less ubiquitous, a carrier didn't know if a subscriber was readily available to receive the message. Now TeleCommunication Systems has a product that delivers text messages immediately to save bandwidth.
The company is also working with the Federal Communications Commission to develop a location-based broadcast system so weather alerts and public safety warnings can be sent to the cellphones of residents of a geographic area. That saves network resources by avoiding having to send millions of individual messages, Titus said.
AppTek of McLean is hoping many inauguration attendees will use its product that translates text messages into different languages. The company has licensed its technology to other online firms including TransClick.com, isec7.com and OnsetTechnology.com, and consumers can download the software to their BlackBerrys, PDAs and other smartphones.
"Everyone is going to want to speak to everyone else, regardless of the language," said Mike Veronis, head of business development for AppTek.
AppTek is also working with DARPA, the U.S. Defense Department's research lab, to develop handheld devices that can translate two-way conversations in real time. The device is intended for use by military and intelligence workers.
"Whatever starts to get funded by these government labs has the ultimate goal to become a mass-market product," Veronis said. "That shows the government is moving that way."
Both firms hope the mass text messages that helped fuel Obama's campaign success will continue long after the inauguration.
"For the first time ever, more people are texting than making voice calls," Titus said. "And the texting generation is the one Obama has been targeting."
Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.