Companies Try To Prevent Inaugural Phone Jam

For weeks, cell phone service providers have been getting ready for the crowds of people expected to attend the inauguration in Washington. The companies are expecting millions of people to be using their phones for a lot more than voice calls.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. It's time now for our weekly technology segment, All Tech Considered. Today, technology and the inauguration. Washington, D.C., is, of course, bracing for record crowds, traffic jams on the roads, and pedestrian jams on the sidewalks. And yesterday, it became clear that we can expect traffic jams of another order - on cell phones.

Hundreds of thousands of people converged at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday for the inaugural concert, and many of those people found that their cell phones weren't working. Well, that doesn't bode well for tomorrow, when more than a million people are expected to crowd on to the National Mall, many with cell phones or Blackberrys in hand wanting to share the moment with friends and family across the country and the world. NPR's Tamara Keith reports on how cell-phone companies are preparing for the invasion of the mobile devices.

TAMARA KEITH: Freelance journalist Renee Gettel(ph) was out on the National Mall yesterday, interviewing tourists at the "We Are One" concert.

Ms. RENEE GETTEL (Freelance Journalist): I tried to make some phone calls, and I just got a message saying immediately that the call failed.

KEITH: One of the people she was calling was me. Renee is a friend who's staying at my house to cover the inauguration, and she's been worrying about the cell-phone situation for weeks. Yesterday's failed calls pretty much confirmed her worst fears.

Ms. GETTEL: I'm going to be using my cell phone for just about everything, I'm going to be filing live reports for various radio outlets, as well as Twittering the events that are happening. If my cell phone doesn't work, I'm going to be in a world of hurt.

KEITH: She's warned her editors she might not be reachable.

Mr. JOHN JOHNSON (Spokesman, Verizon): The Verizon wireless network in the area of the Lincoln Memorial carried as much as 10 times the normal call volume of an average day.

KEITH: John Johnson is a spokesman for Verizon, and says the vast majority of calls on his company's network went through yesterday on the first try. He says cell networks are kind of like highways, and cell providers have added as many lanes as they possibly can.

Mr. JOHNSON: We were able to do some fine tuning in the network yesterday that I think is going to help us perform even better on inauguration day. But millions and millions of customers could still have a traffic jam if they head out at the same time, and that still is the case.

KEITH: All of the major cell providers have spent millions in recent months boosting their networks in Washington, and they've all brought extra fire power into the area around the National Mall.

Mr. KEVIN HEDRICK(ph) (Executive Director of Network, AT&T Mobility): You see the antennas poking above the trees there.

KEITH: Those antennas belong to a COW; that stands for Cell on Wheels. Kevin Hedrick is the executive director of network for AT&T Mobility. He says the COWs will help.

Mr. HEDRICK: We know where the folks are going to be, and we supplement and augment our coverage with the COW.

KEITH: In addition to just the sheer number of people expected, at least part of the congestion comes from people using their phones in new ways. For instance, on election night, Steve Hodges, AT&T president of the Northeast region, says his company's networks saw a 44 percent spike in text messaging.

Mr. STEVE HODGES (AT&T Regional President, Northeast Region): Just about the time that President-elect Obama was selected, we saw one of the biggest spikes we've ever - actually, the largest spike we've ever seen in our text messaging network.

KEITH: This was much bigger than any "American Idol" finale. And now, many of the same people who texted their friends on election night are going to be crammed into the National Mall tomorrow. They'll be calling, texting, sending pictures and video, and updating their Facebook status - all to say, hey, look where I am. That is, if there's enough room on the network for all that data. For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith.

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