Spectators crowd the Mall and wireless networks

Wireless traffic was three to five times higher on the National Mall during Barack Obama's swearing-in, as people tried to reach loved ones during the historic event.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
3 min read

WASHINGTON--Cell phone traffic near Capitol Hill was three to five times its normal levels late Tuesday morning, just as Barack Obama was set to be sworn in as president.

Even with high traffic, most calls continued to go through, wireless carriers said--a good thing for the many spectators on the National Mall who were depending on cell phone service to get through the day, despite carriers' warnings of dropped calls.

Gridlocked crowds of people swarmed the perimeter of the Mall early Tuesday morning in an attempt to watch Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Some inauguration-goers near the west end of the Capitol even began to trample over a perimeter fence, Capitol Police said. As the crowds stood shoulder-to-shoulder, just about every other person grasped a cell phone, trying to contact others nearby.

Carol Moore, center, tries to reach her husband and children via cell phone before walking farther to the National Mall on Tuesday. Stephanie Condon/ CNET News

Eileen Lewis, here from Atlanta, received scattered service on her prepaid Motorola TracFone during Sunday's "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial but still found herself trying to keep track of her son with it on Tuesday morning.

Crowds were barely able to move on D St. NW, near the Capitol Building, and Lewis' son had gotten ahead of her. She wasn't concerned, as she tried to inch closer to him, that she may not be able to reach him.

"We're just trying to get to the Mall," she said.

There were scattered reports of others, like Lewis, who lost service on the Mall during Sunday's concert.

Sprint's traffic more than doubled that day, according to John Taylor, a Sprint spokesman, with more than a million extra calls.

By 11:30 a.m. local time Tuesday, Sprint was handling three times its normal traffic for voice calls and roughly five times its normal traffic levels for data usage. On top of that, many of the calls going through tied up the network for significant periods.

"People are not making quick calls," said Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge-Walsh. "They'll call people and share the experience with them for many minutes."

Verizon Wireless also reported three to five times the normal traffic level around 11:30 a.m., with most calls going through on the first attempt.

AT&T was experiencing heavy volumes of traffic as early as 9 a.m., but the networks were running smoothly in the morning, said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel.

Carol Moore, however, found her daughter's iPhone unreachable by 8:30 a.m. Moore and her husband, who were visiting from England, had to separate from their children because they had tickets for different areas of the Mall.

Moore also had to separate from her husband because a bad knee kept her from trekking to the back of the line to pass through the security gate. She was able to use her Sprint service to let her husband know where exactly she was waiting for him. If she cannot reach her daughter during the ceremony, Moore said she suspected she would not reach her until the day is done.

"We are borrowing a house three blocks away, so that is the contingency plan," she said.

Patty Brink's family, also attending the inauguration, planned to separate during the swearing-in and reunite during the inaugural parade in the afternoon. She and her son parted ways with her husband, equipped with T-Mobile service on Brink's BlackBerry and Verizon service on her cell phone.

"We're going to the swearing-in, and he's going to go save us parade seats, and he'll let us know if we can actually get into the parade area," she said. "I don't know what we're going to do if we can't text or BlackBerry."

"If we can't get in," Brink said turning to her husband, "we'll see you at home."