Wireless carriers may be hard pressed to meet President-elect Barack Obama's campaign slogan of "Yes, We Can" when it comes to completing what is expected to be a record number of wireless messages containing voice, text, videos and photos sent from Washington for the presidential inauguration.
No one is quite sure how many people will actually gather in Washington for the Jan. 20 swearing in of Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Estimates range from 2 million to 4 million people, which would shatter the U.S. record of 1.2 million people for Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 inauguration.
What everyone seems quite sure of is that a large percentage of the crowd will be armed with cell phones, smartphones and not-so-smartphones alike, and the drain on Washington wireless spectrum capacity will be profound.
"For months, wireless carriers have been working hard to prepare for what could be an unprecedented Inauguration week," Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, the principle wireless trade association, said in a statement. "Companies are going to extraordinary lengths investing significant amounts of time and money, and are doing everything within their power to boost network capacities in Washington, D.C., for this historic event."
Hence the COWS (Cells on Wheels), COLTS (Cells on Light Trucks) and SatCOLTS (Satellite Cell Sites on Light Trucks) that have been deployed to meet the anticipated demand for spectrum. Carriers are expecting wireless traffic more than four times the norm.
In addition to the light cavalry of cell trucks desperately trying to boost coverage of the historic day, wireless carriers are increasing in-building coverage around the National Mall, on Capitol Hill, along the parade route and in other high-traffic areas such as the newly reopened American History Museum and sites hosting the largest Inaugural balls.
They are also optimizing network capacity near Washington area train stations, airports, highways and other high-traffic areas like Dupont Circle, Georgetown and Adams Morgan. AT&T is planning for an 80 percent boost in 3G capacity along the parade route in addition to a 69 percent jump in 2G capacity. T-Mobile is juicing up capacity at more than 100 cell sites in the Washington area.
In anticipation of Obama's whistle-stop train trip from Philadelphia to Washington, Sprint Nextel is enhancing its networks at key locations in Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore, where more than a million people are expected to be texting, calling, taking snaps and sending videos.
All of that, though, doesn't pre-empt the likelihood of some of the cellular users getting a "No, We Can't" response from their carriers.
"Despite all the industry's efforts to increase network capacity, it's really important for the public to understand that unusually large crowds can generate congestion and communications delays," Largent said. "Think of a wireless network like a highway. Even though we're building more lanes, if millions of people jump on the road at the same time, there could be a traffic jam. For this reason, we want to remind Inaugural event attendees to do their part in decreasing network demand by texting instead of placing voice calls, and holding off on sending cell phone pictures or video until after the events are over."