Wireless Carriers Readying Mobile Coverage in Capital for Inauguration

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-01-20

Wireless Carriers Readying Mobile Coverage in Capital for Inauguration

From the viewpoint of the wireless carriers that cover Washington, DC, the good news is that about 800,000 people are expected to be on the National Mall and lining the parade route when President Obama is inaugurated for his second term and then travels to the White House afterwards. That’s about a million people fewer than attended the first time. What’s the bad news?

“Data usage in the Washington, DC, area has expanded 12-fold since the last inauguration,” said Verizon Wireless spokesperson Melanie Ortel. Ortel said that increased smartphone penetration means that hundreds of thousands of people will be sending photos, videos and text messages, and they’ll be talking on their phones. This means the demand for data will be five or six times greater than the demand during the last inauguration. While that may sound like a recipe for disaster, it’s not.

Ortel said Verizon Wireless started preparing for the 2013 inauguration as soon as the last one was over. “Since then we’ve enhanced our existing cell sites and we’ve built new cell sites,” Ortel told eWEEK. She noted that Verizon Wireless will be deploying temporary assets on the mall and in surrounding areas. In addition Verizon Wireless has beefed up the company’s network to handle the increased traffic.

But Verizon Wireless isn’t the only phone company that’s been getting ready for the inauguration. AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel told eWEEK in an e-mail that the company is increasing broadband capacity by 200 percent around the National Mall, and that the company has permanently increased its capacity along Pennsylvania Avenue and around the National Mall.

Siegel said that in addition, AT&T is bringing in temporary cell sites, adding antenna sites and in-building coverage, and it’s beefing up its network infrastructure to handle the extra traffic. Both Verizon Wireless and AT&T have fully implemented LTE service in the DC metro area.

AT&T is also recommending that customers of all wireless services follow three simple steps. The first is to text rather than talk, since text messaging takes far less bandwidth than voice conversations. Next the company suggests saving photos and videos and sending them later, again because of bandwidth requirements. And finally that customers use WiFi where available. Siegel said that AT&T has nearly 60 WiFi hotspots near the National Mall that can be used to avoid network congestion.

Sprint, meanwhile, has an additional challenge. Because of the company’s long relationship with emergency services and first responders, the company’s Emergency Response Team is working closely with those and other government entities to ensure they have connectivity at all times.

Wireless Carriers Readying Mobile Coverage in Capital for Inauguration

Sprint’s steps include providing special satellite cell sites which will be available to public agencies. The company is also distributing Direct Connect phones to first responders, public safety and emergency management agencies, and its making its Wireless Priority Service available as needed.

Sprint is also increasing its data capacity for customers by more than a third, adding temporary cell sites and boosting voice capacity by 25 percent. The company is also deploying in-building cell sites and repeaters at inaugural event venues.

T-Mobile isn’t adding any temporary cell sites, according to a spokesperson, but instead has upgraded coverage in downtown Washington by adding new permanent cell sites, and by refarming all of it cell sites in the area to the 1900 MHz band so that T-Mobile’s voice and data coverage will be available to a larger number of users, including those with iPhones. This service will be compatible with the thousands of visitors expected from outside the U.S. T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network in the DC area has been upgraded to support data communications at speeds up to 42 megabits per second.

“We don’t anticipate any problems,” said Verizon Wireless’ Melanie Ortel, who noted that Verizon Wireless didn’t have any capacity problems during the previous inauguration, either. But of course some people on some carriers did have problems making calls or staying connected, which is why AT&T is suggesting that visitors to Washington use text messaging and avoid sending photos and videos until they can get to a WiFi hotspot.

But of course the bottom line is that when you have hundreds of thousands of people all trying to make phone calls from the same limited number of cell sites at the same time, there may be congestion. So ask yourself, do you really need to call your friends and tell them that the President is being inaugurated? After all, they can see it on television for themselves.

Fortunately, the wireless carriers are ready. When you come to town, you’re sure to see a lot of mobile cell sites taking up space on the mall. You may see more of them in areas around Washington where there are inaugural events, and you’ll see extra cell sites on top of buildings, if you can make them out among the crowds of secret service agents, police snipers, security agents with anti-aircraft missiles and those black helicopters you hear about but never see. Oh. Wait. We weren’t supposed to mention the black helicopters.

So if you come to Washington, enjoy the festivities, but don’t look for me. I’ll be hiding out somewhere in Virginia where we don’t have cell service enjoying some peace and quiet.

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