One of the most consistent reports to come out of Boston in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in the crowds of spectators during the Boston Marathon is that their cell phones wouldn't work. Immediately a few reporters in the media speculated that the authorities had ordered the cell phone networks to be shut down, perhaps to prevent further bombs from going off. But it wasn't true.
True or not, these rumors continued to circulate as the reporters for the television networks said that this might be happening. Their speculation was supported by a story that appeared on the Associated Press newswire saying that such a shutdown did, in fact, take place. Reports of government action remained rampant after this, despite the fact that the AP quickly retracted the story.
In fact, while there were cell phone outages in Boston in the minutes after the bombings, this wasn't the result of some government agency action, such as the time when managers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco pulled the plug on cell phone service within its system in an attempt to quell protests.
Instead, what happened is what occurs whenever there's a big emergency. Everybody tried to call at the same time, and the phone system can't handle that. The same thing happened in August 2011 when the East Coast was rattled by a major earthquake and the phones went out.
Mobile phones went out in Boston for two reasons. The first was that everybody anywhere near Boston who knew someone who might conceivably be near the bombing site called to make sure that person was OK. Meanwhile, those people not calling their friends or relatives were trying to send out photos or videos of the event. The cell phone network gets overloaded in situations like that, and this happened in Boston.
The other thing that happened is that law enforcement and other first responders have a priority code that lets them get access to the cell network even if it means blocking another caller. First responders depend heavily on the wireless networks for emergency communications, which is another reason they didn't order the networks shut down.
And in fact, the cell phone outage in Boston was much less severe than it has been in other emergencies. The reason? Cell companies had already added a huge amount of capacity in the area of the Boston Marathon and in other areas along the route of the race, and as a result the overload was brief. Sprint Nextel, a favorite service of first responders, explained it to eWEEK in an email from spokesperson Crystal Davis.