Inauguration Taxes Mobile Phone Networks

Mobile phone networks around Washington, D.C., experienced periodic overload during inauguration ceremonies for U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday, but by mid-afternoon the congestion seemed to dissipate.

Several mobile phone networks seemed to be overwhelmed during the late morning and early afternoon surrounding Obama's swearing-in ceremony at noon. One T-Mobile customer near the inauguration ceremonies reported that he was unable to receive or make mobile phone calls for much of the morning.

Nonetheless, major mobile phone service providers said they were generally happy with their network performance during the inaugural events, given that more than a million people attended the celebration. AT&T Wireless' mobile network experienced "some congestion" during the morning's events, but customer were usually able to complete their calls a few minutes later, said Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman.

AT&T was preparing for the inauguration for months, Siegel added. The telecom provider had bumped up its 3G (third-generation) wireless network capacity by 80 percent and its 2G capacity by 69 percent along the inaugural parade route, he said.

AT&T and other mobile phone providers had encouraged Washington-area customers to use text-messaging to communicate during inaugural events. Text messages take significantly less capacity than voice calls.

Basically, text messages don't need an end-to-end open connection, noted independent telecom analyst Jeff Kagan. Text messages and e-mails seemed to go through more frequently during the morning, he said.

Kagan called the mobile networks' performance "a success, with a hiccup here and there."

Mobile-phone networks were generally overloaded during the inauguration events, he said in an e-mail. "So many people, all using cell phones, in a small area, was the recipe for disaster," he said. "At least we knew it was coming."

Many calls did get through, however, he added. "In situations like this there simply cannot be enough capacity," Kagan said. "So if the network is busy when you try your call, then just hang up and try again. As soon as someone else hangs up, another call can be taken. These situations happen. Sometimes we know in advance like with this Inauguration and can plan like this. Other times we are surprised like with hurricanes or totally surprised with terrorist incidents."

Verizon Wireless reported that most calls went through Thursday. Verizon's network was handling five times the normal network volume as of 2:30 p.m., said Debra Lewis, a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman. "Even in the most crowded spectator areas nearest the Inauguration stands at the U.S. Capitol, the vast majority of calls are going through on the first attempt," she said.

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