Carriers plot air traffic control for Inauguration Day

With a record influx of citizens expected to flood the streets of Washington, D.C., to celebrate Barack Obama's "Yes, we can" message on Inauguration Day 2009, mobile phone users might get a different message. It's quite possible--likely, in fact--that those attempting to talk about, write about or send pictures of the historic Jan. 20 occasion will be told, "No, you can't."

If, as anticipated, things go awry and the mobile networks become hopelessly tangled, the carriers really have no one to blame but themselves. They, after all, are the ones who encouraged a generation of people to glue electronic devices to their ears. And those people expect to not only witness history, but record it and photograph it and talk about it over airwaves that they've come to believe are always available.

The potential for a mess has every carrier and the industry's trade organization, the CTIA, already doing pre-damage control, emphasizing the new layers of temporary capabilities deployed to handle additional traffic and urging public patience.

"There's no way to say we're ready for anything," said an industry source speaking on background. "Anybody who says that is just not facing reality."

Actually, no one has come right out and said anything will be easy. All the carriers have different degrees of success with big events--although the inauguration has the potential to be the biggest congregation of people in a concentrated location in cell phone history.

"We are fully expecting our macro network will support the customers that are there," said Tanya Lin, manager of operations for Sprint Nextel's Emergency Response Team (ERT).

That, she said, doesn't mean there won't be blocked text messages, delayed emails and fast busy signals. There will.

"It's to be expected when you have so many people converging on such a small area in a very short time frame (but) we are expecting that our macro network will assist our customers that will be there," she said.

The carriers know their ordinary D.C. operations can't handle a traffic load that could potentially quintuple or more average daily use. T-Mobile USA said it is adding voice and data capacity to about 100 cell sites and deploying Cells-on-Wheels (COWs) in strategic locations. AT&T said it was planning for an 80 percent boost in 3G network capacity along the parade route and a 69 percent boost in 2G capacity and deploying two COWs. It's also "investing in 11 in-building systems at poplar D.C. Metro area hotels to provide seamless coverage for their visitors and guests."

Verizon is probably taking similar steps, but a carrier spokesman said it "elected CTIA to talk for us" and asked to leave it at that.

CTIA's answer is simple: don't be surprised if your mobile service is the most disappointing part of your day.

"Wireless carriers are ramping up their efforts to prepare for millions of additional visitors to the D.C. area but we could be looking at record levels of use. That congestion could cause some communications challenges," said Steve Largent, CTIA president-CEO in a canned message.

Those communications challenges cannot, and should not, extend to public safety and all the carriers, in one way or another, made it clear that public sector communications will get top priority.

T-Mobile USA said it is partnering with government agencies ranging from the city to the National Parks Service and Secret Service along with the usual federal and local law enforcement bodies.

"If there is an emergency and somebody needs to call 911 your general consumer 911 call is going to go through a priority system," said Lin. "If there is any kind of incident, be it a twisted ankle or a major incident, we are prepared to support our public sector customers and our public sector customers will be able to make those communications that they need in order to protect the public."

Without being harsh, the magnitude of the event would dictate that. The wild card is that consumers, trained to believe that mobile is their instant-on connection to anyone, anyplace at anytime will need to readjust during potentially the most historic moment in the nation's history.

"We're doing our best to prepare to make it the most positive customer experience possible, but don't be surprised if you have some cellular blocking (or) if your text messages are delayed," said Lin. "We're doing everything we can but setting that proper expectation that there may be some delays on services but we'll do everything we can to make it a very positive experience."

Strangely, the inauguration and the potential for back-ups and traffic jams gives the wireless industry a talking point on its perceived need for more spectrum. Largent stepped into that by pointing out "there's only so much (spectrum) available for commercial use right now and the industry is quite interested in working with the incoming administration to identify new spectrum to help meet the increasing consumer demand for new wireless services."

Wireless, he inferred, is the 21st century interstate public highway system.

"Yeah," he said, "there are some private highways out there, but if you have everybody jumping on everything at the same time you have to be realistic and think you might have a problem."