On Inauguration Day, will my cell phone work?

About 2 million people are expected to be in Washington, D.C., texting and calling friends and family to share the historic moment. Will the cell phone network be up to the task?

When I head to Washington, D.C., this weekend for the 44th president's inauguration, there's one major question burning in my mind: Will my cell phone work?

I am one of the 240,000 people with free tickets attending President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol next week. And like the other 2 million or so people descending upon Washington, D.C., this weekend for the festivities, I am counting on my cell phone to not only keep me informed of important traffic alerts and happenings around the nation's capital but also to help me meet up with many friends and family I plan to see while in town.

The last presidential inauguration I attended was back in 1993 when Bill Clinton had just taken office. Back then I didn't even know anyone who owned a cell phone. I had to make plans ahead of time, if you can believe that, to make sure I could meet my sister, who had my ticket.

Nowadays, nobody makes plans ahead of time. Instead, we rely on our cell phones to allow us to plan on the fly. I have already exchanged cell phone numbers with at least six different "friends" on Facebook to meet up this weekend. I don't have solid plans with any one of these people. So I am simply crossing my fingers that the cell phone network holds up.

Just to put things in perspective, four years ago just over 200,000 people showed up for George W. Bush's inauguration. About 1 million people were in Times Square in New York City on December 31, 2008, to watch the ball drop. The only other crowd of this size that has assembled in recent times is the yearly Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which this year topped out at between 2 million and 3 million visitors.

While cell phone carriers are constantly upgrading capacity in their networks and have routinely prepared for major events in Washington, D.C., such as inaugurations and state funerals, this will likely be the largest gathering of Americans in one place at one time. And given that most of the 2 million people expected to be in D.C. will be carrying a cell phone, it will certainly put a strain on the network, especially if everyone decides to call, text, Twitter, update Facebook pages, watch live video, or send video clips to friends and family at the same time.

What could make cell phone networks particularly vulnerable this year is the proliferation of new smartphones , like Apple's iPhone or the various Research In Motion BlackBerry phones , that use 2G and 3G networks to access the Web and provide data services.

"We can only bend the laws of physics so much," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA). "If there are 4 million people on the mall streaming video, sending pictures, or calling, there could be congestion."

And network congestion means that cell phone users might experience, dropped calls and delayed text messages. Smartphone users, like me with my Apple iPhone, might also see mobile Web pages load excruciatingly slow or not at all. And for people with video services like Verizon's VCast, Sprint TV, or MobiTV , watching live video of news broadcasts while standing thousands of people deep in the crowd may be impossible.

Best to text instead of talk
The CTIA is advising people to text and not talk. Text messages and e-mails travel through the network much more easily than voice calls, especially during peak traffic times. Users should also snap, and save, and send photos later. Sending pictures via the cell network eats up valuable capacity, so CTIA suggests sharing those special moments later. And finally, the trade group advises all people to have a back-up plan. Think old school, and pick a rendezvous place and time to meet friends and family in case the cell network is so clogged you can't communicate.

That said, the big four wireless operators--AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile USA--say they've spent millions of dollars and months of time increasing capacity on their networks to ensure that their customers have a good experience throughout the inauguration weekend.

Each carrier has deployed Cell On Wheels throughout the city where cell phone usage is expected to be high. And each carrier has already deployed at least one Cell On Light Truck right near the Capitol, where Obama will take the oath of office as the 44th president of the U.S., to boost capacity. These mobile units use satellite and microwave technology to increase the capacity in a cell site. They are often deployed at disaster sites when cell towers have been knocked down or taken offline.

In addition, all four of the major mobile operators have also increased capacity at permanent cell sites throughout the Washington, D.C., area.

All told, AT&T says it has boosted its 3G network capacity along the parade route, where between 300,000 and 350,000 people are expected to be, by 80 percent and its 2G capacity by 69 percent. Sprint Nextel says it has increased capacity on its Nextel iDEN network by about 90 percent and capacity on its Sprint CDMA network by about 40 percent. The other major carriers, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA, have also increased capacity. T-Mobile USA says it has increased capacity at about 100 of its cell sites in D.C.

AT&T also said it has boosted cellular signals in many hotels throughout the city, including the Hilton and Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill and the Renaissance on M Street. Sprint Nextel also said it has increased service capacity in and around tourist attractions, such as the Smithsonian museums, Union Station, and other places where inaugural balls will take place.

The mobile operators also say they've upgraded what's known as their backhaul networks, which carry wireless traffic from cell phone towers to the wired telephone infrastructure where calls are connected throughout the country and the world.

Operators have also upgraded capacity for emergency first responders. While network congestion may cause problems for regular cell phone subscribers, these first responders will not encounter issues, representatives from the major carriers assured me. Calls by emergency responders such as police, firefighters, and medical crews will be given priority over other wireless traffic. And new interoperability standards among the carriers' networks and devices should eliminate communication issues, such as the ones that occurred during the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Quality of service will depend on numbers
As for consumers, representatives from the carriers say they feel confident their services will operate with only minor hiccups. But they all agree that the quality of their service ultimately depends on how many people show up in D.C. this weekend. Early estimates pegged the number around 4 million to 5 million people. But more recently, estimates have fallen to between 1 million and 2 million.

"We feel comfortable with all we've done to prepare for this event," said John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel. "And our customers will have great service. But if more than 2 million people show up, there will be blocked and dropped calls. And text messages will be delayed. "

Taylor said that even if the crowd stays below the 2 million mark, there could be delays and dropped calls at critical moments during the swearing in ceremony or along the parade route if hundreds of thousands of people send text messages at the exact same moment.

"We saw this happen on New Year's Eve," he said. "The network was flooded with phone calls and messages all at the same time. And some of those messages were delayed a bit."

I'm crossing my fingers that the bitter cold we're experiencing on the East Coast will keep the numbers below 2 million, so that all my wonderful plans for this historic inauguration aren't shattered by crummy cell phone service. If AT&T's network is up and running, I'll be Twittering all weekend on my iPhone. If you want to follow me, check out my feed on Twitter, maggie_reardon.

 

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