Cellphone Users Told To Expect Delays

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pre-inauguration concertgoers who flocked to the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday sent about 10 times the volume of wireless calls, text messages, pictures and videos as on the busiest hour of a typical day, causing scattered outages that customers who gather for President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in should expect again today, company officials said.

About 400,000 people surrounded the Reflecting Pool for the three-hour concert, according to some estimates, but much larger crowds are expected to fill the Mall and inaugural parade route today. Major wireless carriers urged customers to expect minor delays and to reduce their usage, but they said networks are expected to handle the surge in use.

"The vast majority of calls went through on the first try," Verizon Wireless spokesman John Johnson said. "We'll be making every adjustment we can make. I don't believe there's any critical capacity we can add, but [Sunday] did help us to do some fine-tuning."

"We did experience some mild call-blocking, as was expected, but with the capacity we added and the number of calls we got on the network and the amount of activity, our network worked about as well as we expected," said Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for Sprint Nextel.

The industry has prepared for months to boost capacity, anticipating record-breaking demand. Companies have spent millions of dollars to add radio channels, install mobile cell towers, expand in-building wireless coverage and bolster network capacity.

But just as adding lanes on a highway won't stop congestion if too many people get on the road at the same time, the changes might not prevent problems, industry spokesmen said.

In a statement, Steve Largent, president and chief executive of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, urged customers "to do their part in decreasing network demand by texting instead of placing voice calls, and holding off on cell phone pictures or video until after the events are over."

The CTIA also suggested that users "have a backup plan" in case communications are disrupted. Any interruption will grow worse in an emergency, when key government users have priority access to land and wireless networks.

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