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Wireless delays likely at inauguration

Carriers are optimistic they can handle load, noting large capacity increases in recent months

December 17, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Spectators attending the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan. 20 in Washington should expect some delays when making calls on their cell phones, according to the major industry group representing wireless network carriers.

The association, known simply as the CTIA, issued a statement yesterday noting that despite millions of dollars in spending by major carriers to increase wireless network capacity along the parade route and the National mall, Wireless voice calls and text messages might be blocked or dropped.

Despite the preparations, "there is only so much [carriers] can do with the [wireless] spectrum and sites available to prepare for what could be an unprecedented occasion," CTIA President Steve Largent warned in the statement. "There will likely be some delays."

Spokesmen for two of the major carriers gave a slightly more optimistic outlook, however, noting they have been making preparations to boost network capacity for many months.

"We're ready. We know how to do this. We know how to provide service for mega events," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T Mobility, noting that AT&T Inc. successfully handled both of this year's national political conventions as well as the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan in June.

John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel Corp., said the crowd size will be a major factor in the number of disruptions to wireless networks. Various government agencies and media reports have put the expected crowd at 2 million to 4 million people, he noted, based largely on the record-breaking voter turnout and interest in the election.

"If we see attendance at 2 million or below, people will have a great experience on our network, but if there are more than 2 million, then they may see delays in calls and delivery of [text messages] with dropped or blocked calls," Taylor said. "The general public should be prepared for some disruption."

However, Taylor said even if the crowds reach 4 million and an emergency occurs, first responders will get priority for their wireless communications over the general public. That policy is followed by all the major carriers, he said, although Sprint also operates a separate iDEN network with Nextel service, which is heavily used by first responders and bypasses the GSM network of AT&T and the CDMA services of Sprint and Verizon Wireless.

But Taylor said that physical space along the parade route and at the National Mall allow for only about 1.5 million people, which would push spectators into other neighborhoods and onto other cell sites to help increase network capacity. Another factor limiting the crowd size is that Washington only has 90,000 hotel rooms.

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