Will My Cell Phone Work at Inauguration?

OK, so it's Inauguration Day and you're standing back 10 rows deep along the parade route. You've lost your family members who stopped somewhere a block or so away. Is your cell phone going to work? 

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OK, so it's Inauguration Day and you're standing back 10 rows deep along the parade route. You've lost your family members who stopped somewhere a block or so away. You're supposed to meet up with friends afterward for a celebratory toast, but you haven't spotted them anywhere. And you've managed to grab some cool pictures and video that you are itching to send home to friends to prove that "you were there!" Is your cell phone going to work? 

Maybe not.

Cell phones are essentially radios and require transmitters to carry the signal. Different from walkie-talkies or CB radios, cell phones are full-duplex devices, which work on two radio frequencies simultaneously: one for talking and one for listening. In order for cell phones to—well, be cell phones—the device is linked to a carrier, which operates thousands of towers. These carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, etc.) divide cities into hexagonal grids of about 10 square miles each, and each cell contains one tower with radio equipment. In normal operation, this grid system works well and allows cell-phone users to travel across cells and maintain a connection.

On Inauguration Day, however, millions of people will be crammed into a very small space, with a limited number of cells. The grid system simply cannot support such an imbalance. The nation's cell-phone carriers are working to mitigate the expected high volume of simultaneous cell-phone users. The companies are expanding their capacity and providing additional technical support. But service will likely be unpredictable.

AT&T is planning to increase its 2G and 3G networks by 69 percent and 80 percent, respectively, along the parade route and surrounding areas. To do this, it will bring in six mobile cell sites carried on trucks, which will mitigate the strain on existing cells in the area. The company will also increase staffing by 60 percent on Inauguration Day to provide additional support.

Sprint Nextel will provide additional support to both its regular and its walkie-talkie services. It will boost its regular service by 40 percent and plans to nearly double its walkie-talkie service. This service is popular among emergency first responders and has proven successful in the past (Sept. 11, political conventions and after Hurricane Katrina) when other communication methods failed. Sprint Nextel has also made provisions so that emergency responders will have first priority on all of their networks.

Verizon Wireless is the only carrier that provides service in the Washington Metrorail system. This capacity will also be increased. 

CTIA, the international association for wireless telecommunications, has been working with the nation's major carriers and the Presidential Inauguration Committee for months. But, there is only so much that they can do. So if you want to reduce stress on the systems and increase your chances for successful communication, text more and call less. Simply, text messages take up less bandwidth. On the backed-up communication channels, text messages are the bobbing and weaving motorcycles whereas phone calls are cars stuck in traffic. And wait to send your pictures and video until everything is over. You might even consider going back to ancient, pre-cell-phone methods of coordinating activities. Set up meeting times and places for the day in advance so that you really only need your phone in case of emergency.

The Root Explainer would like to thank CTIA, Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint Nextel.

Matthew McKnight is a graduate student at Georgetown University and a writer for The Root.