“Can you hear me now?” For the thousands of smartphone customers descending to the Mall for Monday’s presidential inauguration, the answer might be no.
Smartphone carriers such as Verizon and AT&T have been preparing for this year’s inauguration since the last one ended, but critics wonder whether the networks will hold up with hundreds of thousands of Obama supporters calling and texting their friends.
But it’s not just the smartphone companies. This also could cause problems for social networks such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook that rely on speedy mobile Internet connections for people who want to post comments, photos and videos from the inauguration.
“Obviously, the same way hotels and restaurants are expecting a lot of business, I think a lot of that will spill over into the smartphones and social networks,” said Chris Dornfeld, co-founder of DownRightNow.com, a website that tracks outages and delays. “A lot of it really comes down to the shoulders of the cellphone networks. If they aren’t able to handle the load, then maybe you won’t see a huge surge on sites like Twitter and Instagram. So it’s much more pressure on cellphone companies.”
In 2009, nearly 2 million people attended President Obama’s first inauguration. This time, city officials are expecting a smaller crowd upwards of 800,000 people.
But that won’t make things any easier for smartphone carriers. There may be fewer people at the inauguration this time, but a much greater percentage of the populace has smartphones than did four years ago — there are 130 million customers versus just 41 million in 2009, according to wireless association CTIA.
That puts a big strain on the networks. Data usage has increased by 1,600 percent at AT&T since the past inauguration and Verizon has seen a 12-fold increase in data usage since then.
“The way they’re using their devices to communicate has changed,” Verizon spokeswoman Melanie Ortel said. “In addition to voice and text, they’ll send and receive video, they’ll communicate on multiple social media platforms.”
So there’s much more pressure on companies to deliver this time around.
“The issues that they had the last inauguration, even though they’ve made improvements, people’s demand for data has just increased, so they’re barely able to keep up,” Mr. Dornfeld said. “I would expect to see one or two hiccups that day. Even though they’re used to handling millions and millions of users, this event is so unique that you really don’t know until the day of the event what will happen.”
Nevertheless, the carriers have given it their best effort to upgrade their networks for the inauguration.
Verizon said it enhanced coverage by adding new cellphone towers, upgrading old towers, and even bringing in temporary mobile units known as “COWs,” or cells on wheels.
“The Verizon Wireless network performed very well at the last inauguration, and we expect our performance this year to be very similar to that,” Ms. Ortel said.
AT&T has spent more than $815 million upgrading its networks in the Washington area since the 2009 inauguration and has doubled mobile broadband capacity on the Mall. The company also will deploy nine COWs.
Sprint has invested more than $300 million in local upgrades to its wireless network since then. Data capacity is up 37 percent, and voice capacity is up 25 percent. The company is deploying three COWs.
Smartphone carriers suggest texting, rather than calling, because it is more likely to go through. “So if they make a voice call, they may have to make a second attempt for it to go through,” Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis said. “So we recommend they text instead of call.”
If the networks get too congested, customers can also look for WiFi networks at coffee shops.
During the past inauguration, Twitter’s traffic increased fivefold, and in some cases, users noticed delays of up to five minutes.
Instagram, which was around in 2009, and YouTube are in for a particularly difficult challenge, because their websites rely on sharing photos and videos, which takes up much space, whereas Twitter relies on simple text.
“Instead of a 140-character tweet, it’s an entire photo or set of photos, which require much more data to share,” Mr. Dornfeld said. “So if you’re a spectator at the Mall trying to tweet about the event, that requires a smaller amount of data.”