As anticipated, wireless networks, despite preparation, were inundated with traffic from an estimated 2 million people who came to the nation’s capital for the inauguration of Barack Obama. But no lengthy outages or difficulties were reported.
Most people seemed to be able to make or take calls, even if it took them some time to do so. The problem seemed most acute in the hours leading up to and right after the president's swearing-in.
“Text messages are working; it’s just the calls that aren’t working out so well,” said Matthew Schlesinger, 22, a D.C. resident who was in the Mall crowd this morning. Schlesinger, a Verizon Wireless customer, said he was able to make calls, but a friend of his from American University, on AT&T’s network, was not able to use his phone at all.
Representatives for the nation’s largest wireless carriers, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, said customers’ delays in making and receiving phone calls is what they had projected, even with a boost in network capacity.
"Our network performed well today," said Mark Siegel, AT&T Mobility spokesman. "There was some congestion, which was not unexpected given the large number of people and heavy wireless usage. In fact, between 11 and noon, text messaging volumes were six times higher than normal, and calling volumes were two times higher than normal in the D.C. area."
Exacerbating the problem was the number of inauguration-goers who jubilantly sent photos and videos using their cell phones, also posting them on the Internet, and who used social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Mobile Web and e-mail “use bandwidth as well” as voice calls, said Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Debra Lewis.
She said the carrier’s network in the D.C. area handled “three to five times the normal call volume,” but that “even in the most crowded spectator areas nearest the inauguration stands at the U.S. Capitol, the vast majority of calls" went through "on the first attempt.”
Sprint: 211 percent increase in traffic
Sprint, the nation's third largest wireless carrier, experienced a "211 percent increase for voice, text, and data services" in the D.C. area, said Crystal Davis, company spokeswoman.
"Our wireless and wireline operations are functioning well, call and data services are processing, but customers may experience temporary delays," she said. "We're still collecting numbers for the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. time period (during the main inaugural events), but expect our performance to continue to reflect the aggressive preparations we've made for the Inauguration since April of last year."
She said Sprint customers near the Mall area can charge up their phones at the company's 14th Street store, at no cost.
Text messaging recommended
CTIA, the wireless trade industry association, had asked phone users to wait until later in the day to send or e-mail images, because of the network capacity it essentially hogs.
Text-messaging is recommended as an alternative to phone calls to ease network traffic as well.
But enthusiasm and joy overtook the moment for some, including Schlesinger.
“I’ve been sending picture e-mails pretty much non-stop — I may wait to send some photos later. But honestly, if I get a nice picture of Obama giving his speech, I may want to send it to my family. So, I may be a little selfish,” he said.
Others, he said, who are having problems “are trying to find somebody who gets good service. But to honest, a lot of people are just caught up in the moment, and forgetting about calling people and being focused on what is going on around them.”
Carriers have spent millions of dollars beefing up their networks for the historic event, adding extra staff and bringing portable cell towers, known as "COWs" ("Cells on wheels") and "COLTs" ("Cells on light trucks") to the D.C. area.
AT&T spokesman Siegel said the company also brought in back-up generators in addition to COWs. Still, he said, the night before the inauguration, "the laws of physics are at work here."
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