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Olympics: A cell phone nirvana?

Three years and countless dollars have been devoted to turning a Utah dead zone into a cell phone caller's utopia, but some say the carriers may not be able to deliver.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
Three years and countless dollars have been devoted to turning a Utah dead zone into a cell phone caller's utopia, a promise from carriers that will be tested by 1.5 million visitors during the Winter Olympics.

The job of turning a large swatch of the Wassatch Range into the hottest spot in the United States for cell phones was so big a task that the Salt Lake Olympic Committee designated two official Olympic "sponsors" for telephones. It marks the first time the telephone duties have been shared.

AT&T Wireless and Qwest Communications have described how they'll transform this piece of Utah into a place reminiscent of the mythical city referred to in the Broadway play "Brigadoon." That city existed for just 24 hours each century, and inside its walls everything was perfect.

The carriers' version of utopia for cell phone users is a nationwide network where 98 percent of all calls get through, even if the call is made in a car traveling through a 12,300-foot high mountain pass. This utopia will last for 18 days. Some of the new Utah network is temporary, and will be removed after the Olympics end.

"Are we ready for the Olympics? We really are," said Becky Potts, vice president and general manager of AT&T Wireless.

But others think the carriers should start admitting they aren't able to deliver on their own hype. "Operators are very good at convincing us that we are going to have this nirvana," said Robin Hearn, an analyst at wireless consulting firm Ovum. "Stop telling us it's great. Between the you's and I's, we know it doesn't work like that."

"Is it possible that we've raised expectations too high?" said Travis Larson, a spokesman for The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), which represents the telephone industry. "Given the fact that wireless signals are subject to interference by everything from sun spots to the weather, we will never be able to provide 100 percent perfect service."

Qwest and AT&T Wireless have devoted most of their staffers in the Utah area to the Olympian task since 1999.

Notorious dead spots on the roads between Provo, where dozens of hockey games will be played, and Ogden, where nations battle in curling, were isolated and fixed, said Bonnie Anderson, Qwest vice president of local networks for Utah.

The carriers added 177 more cell phone antenna sites and have 35 temporary antennas on tractor-trailers to mobilize during peak calling times, like the height of the opening ceremonies, Anderson said.

She studied cell phone traffic patterns for the Nagano games. The air around the Opening Ceremonies was filled with electricity and with the most cell phone calls made at one time during those games.

"People just use their cell phones, calling to tell people, 'I'm on TV'", Anderson said. "It's just amazing. Who knows why they call?"