It’s inauguration day, and as well as expecting excitement and crowds, if you’re in Washington you can certainly expect some cellphone network issues. And that’s information coming directly from the carriers themselves.
It’s simply an issue of dense crowds conflicting with the way cellphone towers work: They’re designed to cover an area with signal proportional to the “usual” load–with more dense tower deployments in city centers versus the suburbs, for example. And when large crowds congregate and try to use their cellphones it can simply overload the network, since individual towers can only support a certain number of concurrent live connected phones. When more than that number attempt to connect you’ll get non-optimal behavior, like dropped connections and the inability to dial out or in from your cell.
To deal with the expected problems, carriers are deploying extra temporary cellphone antenna masts. Dubbed Cells on Wheels and Cells on Light Trucks these are parked near to where crowds are likely to amass, and hook in to the existing network to spread the communications burden a bit–you may have seen them used at music festivals.
Steve Largent, President and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association is still warning of problems though. “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,” he notes.
And to that end, there’s a call going out for people in D.C. crowds to resist using their cellphones to call–a text message places a lighter burden on the network, for example. As for data-heavy uses like video-calling–that’s a definite no-no. There’s no word on mobile Facebooking or Twittering, but since these don’t necessarily rely on continuous data connections with your nearest cell tower, they might work. Best of all, just snap some pics and wait until afterward to get in touch with your friends.
Yet since this is the first proper internet/mobile technology Presidential inauguration, and we’re all carrying potent portable communications devices in our pockets, expect many a person in the crowd to ignore that advice.