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Cellphone Networks Survive Inauguration, Mostly 121

Posted by timothy
from the ever-more-robust dept.
nandemoari writes "Everybody was talking about Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday morning, and it showed. According to reports, a number of mobile phone networks faced overload circumstances that day until late afternoon, when the chat sessions finally began to dissipate. Having the most trouble that morning appears to have been T-Mobile, and AT&T also had some difficulty that morning."
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Cellphone Networks Survive Inauguration, Mostly

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  • by GigaHurtsMyRobot (1143329) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:12PM (#26548971) Journal
    Please try first post again later.
    • Damn, I kept refreshing but I can't seem to get through to first post. Maybe if I keep posting I'll be WSDT's 106th poster. What do I win??
  • by damn_registrars (1103043) * <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:16PM (#26549045) Homepage Journal
    Seriously, the Cell on Wheels [wikipedia.org] installations were part of what made it possible to handle the extra traffic.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Q: What did the police man say to the CoW?

      A: You're blocking the view of the President. Mooooove along!

      (Yes, it's so bad I had to post anonymously out of shame.)

    • by powerlord (28156) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:42PM (#26549447) Journal

      Seriously, the Cell on Wheels installations were part of what made it possible to handle the extra traffic.

      Aha! I didn't RTFA but no doubt the Dept. of Homeland Security was involved in finding all those Cells.

      I hope they detained them for further questioning, although I still don't understand why the terrorists were using Heelys [heelys.com].

    • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:51PM (#26549617)
      Hardly a charitable act. Do you really think the providers were going to miss an opportunity like this? They'd have pretty much been guaranteed 100% utilization of equipment that often stands relatively idle.

      As for the content.... more does not mean better. Having millions sending vids and pics shot with crappy cellphone lenses was hardy of benefit. A few real camera crews with real cameras provided all the really useful (ie worth viewing) material.

      • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

        Hardly a charitable act. Do you really think the providers were going to miss an opportunity like this? They'd have pretty much been guaranteed 100% utilization of equipment that often stands relatively idle.

        An excellent point, and I never really thought of it as something the companies were doing out of the kindness of their own hearts, anyways. It really was more a game of one-upmanship for them, to see whose network could handle the most volume that day. I'm surprised the providers haven't put those numbers out yet to try to declare whose network was the best that day.

        Granted I was over 300 miles away from Washington DC when the inauguration happened, but it just occurred to me I didn't even make a call

      • by TheSync (5291)

        Hardly a charitable act

        "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages."

        -Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I Chapter II

      • by isorox (205688)

        As for the content.... more does not mean better. Having millions sending vids and pics shot with crappy cellphone lenses was hardy of benefit. A few real camera crews with real cameras provided all the really useful (ie worth viewing) material.

        No, but had there been an assassination if might be interesting.

        I wonder what it would have been like if there'd been modern cellphones in November 1963. Assuming that the millions of photos and frames of video could be sifted through.

      • by fbjon (692006)

        real cameras provided all the really useful (ie worth viewing) material

        Case in point: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/01/the_inauguration_of_president.html [boston.com]

  • Verizon (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Just another example of the pros and cons of different companies in the cell phone market. I went to the Inauguration with my Verizon phone, and had no trouble making a few calls or texting people right from the mall.

    On the other hand, I am still trying to find a way to get away from Verizon and onto AT&T or T-Mobile, because their phones are mediocre, customer service is below par, and they restrict their devices.

    It's all about what you want to sacrifice when buying a phone - a wide network and more ca

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Um, couldn't you just buy your own device and use whatever carrier you want?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        Um, couldn't you just buy your own device and use whatever carrier you want?

        Not from the U.S., I take it?

        • by R2.0 (532027)

          Um, couldn't you just buy your own device and use whatever carrier you want?

          Not from the U.S., I take it?

          In the US you absolutely CAN buy your own device and hook it up to whatever carrier covers the system (GSM, EDGE, etc.) It's the law. What you CANNOT do is buy a supercool smartphone for the (subsidized) price of $99.99 - you have to buy at list.

          It's not that Americans are being shafted because they can't get out of contracts they agreed to, but that we're addicted to having the latest phone and paying

          • by gad_zuki! (70830)

            In the US, using Sprint, I buy my own phones and when I try to replace my existing phone I get told "Sir, activating that phone will require a 2 year agreement." What? What the hell? I paid for this thing. Why should I sign a contract? I have no choice so I say yes.

            The problem in the US is that you have no rights with cell phone carriers. I havent gotten a subsidized phone in ages, but Im still locked into contracts. I guess there's always the option of some pay per month crap phone, but I need a smartphon

            • by Cowmonaut (989226)
              Then A) get a different provider or B) DON'T sign the contract and get a lawyer. Legally they can't keep you from using your own phone you bought if its actually compatible with their system. This is why I love T-Mobile. SIM cards make it easy and you don't even have to bother them with it.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      On the other hand, I am still trying to find a way to get away from Verizon and onto AT&T or T-Mobile, because their phones are mediocre, customer service is below par, and they restrict their devices.

      And AT&T and T-Mobile don't restrict their devices?

      • by Vegeta99 (219501)

        Not too much. My Tilt (HTC TyTN II) out of the box supports pretty much any format Windows Media Player does out of the box (I can use a full-song MP3 as any sound on the phone, etc). It asks before installing unsigned software, but doesn't care. My net connection is proxied, but i can override it.

        I am, however, banned from the "AT&T Mall". I can't buy ringtones from AT&T BECAUSE my phone is so open - I could share them!

        Find me a Verizon phone that can share its internet connection as a Wi-Fi access

  • by Gates82 (706573) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:19PM (#26549091)
    From what I heard they put up extra towers, and attempted to inform people of the potential problem. Encouraging users to not use the infrastructure is not surviving. If they had survived service would not have been interrupted based in normal use, not a reduction. Obviously I did not RTFA.

    --
    So who is hotter? Ali or Ali's Sister?

    • by iamhigh (1252742) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:41PM (#26549427)

      If they had survived service would not have been interrupted based in normal use, not a reduction

      I don't think 2M people in a few square miles all texting, pic/vid messaging, and calling is "normal use".

      Mitigating [merriam-webster.com] any *major* issues brought about with extreme usage is survival, to me.

      • by DeionXxX (261398)

        Well, it's "normal use" in Manhattan, or Boston, or most downtown areas of major cities (especially in the middle of the work day).

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Deag (250823)

          Density of Manhattan is 70,000 per sq mile, Density of Boston is 12,000 per sq mile.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jcnnghm (538570)

        There weren't even close to 2 million people. In fact it's unclear if the Obama inauguration even surpassed the record of 1.2 million previously set by Lyndon Johnson. This smells just like the "Million Man March", more media perpetuated bullshit.

        • by Deag (250823) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @02:19PM (#26550119)

          Ah but was Johnson's one really 1.2 million? How did they get that figure?

          There is a cool satellite image of it all going around, like here [washingtonpost.com], so you imagine someone could eventually come up with a good estimate of yesterdays one.

          How do they estimate crowd sizes anyway, fair enough in a stadium (80,000 seats all full = 80,000 people) but for other things it seems to be bordering on random guessing.

          • by jcnnghm (538570)

            The National Park Service produced official estimates until 1995, when they were ordered by congress to stop, after being sued by Louis Farrakhan for estimating only 400,000 attended the Million Man March. They're providing official estimates for the size of the inauguration crowd.

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Deag (250823)

              Right so after staring at the picture I linked to and allowing 2.5 sq foot per person in the crowded bits, I reckon 500,000 on the mall at the time of the picture, there was another 200,000 invited people in the capitol grounds, and then there are the people still crowding the streets. Picture was taken half an hour before and 18th street still looks crowded in that picture. So I don't know 900k in total?

              • by nasch (598556)

                I heard that the estimate is the mall holds around 1.0-1.2 million when full. I don't know how accurate that is, but I'm guessing someone who knows more about it than you or I came up with that. ;-)

                • by Deag (250823)

                  It would depend what is defined as the mall also - Is it just the bit from 3rd street to the Washington monument or do you go all the way to the Lincoln memorial.

          • by profplump (309017)
            Generally you try to estimate the total area covered by crowds, and then estimate the density of the crowd. It's very much a guess, but it can be fairly accurate if you come up with decent density numbers.
            • by profplump (309017)
              I suppose I could have mentioned, both the area and density estimates typically come from aerial photographs.
              • by theaveng (1243528)

                This morning Channel 6 in Philadelphia debunked the 2 million estimate. They demonstrated with a newspaper that in order to squeeze that many people, the citizens would have to be standing close enough to have sex with one another (i.e. 8 people per newspaper sheet).

                A more-realistic estimate, based upon video of the scene, indicates 3-4 people per newspaper sheet, which yields 750,000-1 million total.

                Also if you look at the satellite, you'll notice that not the whole mall was filled. People were clustered

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by gEvil (beta) (945888)
          No idea if it was 1.2M, 1.4M, or 2M (all figures that I've seen reported at various places), but it was easily the largest crowd I have ever seen in one place before. And the fact that there wasn't a single arrest made during all of it just shows how great humanity can be if given the right opportunity.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by niro5 (1081199)
      People certainly didn't seem to be reducing their usage. I was in area closest to the capitol (the infamous Purple section) and made four or five calls successfully. I generally needed to make two attempts to make it happened, but it always happened. The woman next to me also had Verizon and her phone was ringing...ahem..."off the hizzy" Certainly it wasn't a typical Tuesday on the mall, but I was impressed on how easy it was to make a call. I'd say of all the things that should be improved in the futu
  • lessons (Score:2, Interesting)

    by xenolion (1371363)
    I think most companies learned a lesson on 9/11 when the main cell tower in New York was on the World Trade Center, that they have to have a quick and effective way to get "Temp-Towers" up to handle the over flow and extra traffic. Guess its not something they can test to make sure it works well, lets hope they never have to use it on a regular basis.
    • Re:lessons (Score:5, Informative)

      by Detritus (11846) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @03:02PM (#26550883) Homepage
      Ref. 9/11, it wasn't just the cell towers, a huge number of high-speed data lines were cut. You can't have a working cellular system without the data lines that connect all the nodes in the network.
    • by nasch (598556)

      Sure they could test it. The only problem is stupid people would not realize it's better to test it on some random Wednesday afternoon and risk failure then, than to test it during an emergency. If they run a test and it goes badly, they get major bad PR, when they really should get good PR for trying to make sure their systems work ahead of time.

      So they end up doing exactly what you said - don't test it at all, and just hope there's no emergency.

  • To appear on ~1M mobile phone bills.

  • My experience (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gEvil (beta) (945888) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:43PM (#26549455)
    I was down on the Mall yesterday and tried to make a few calls to someone who got separated from our group. Nothing was going through. I then decided to send a text message to her. She got it close to an hour later (after we'd already met up again). Apparently it was completely hit or miss as to whether your call or text got through.
    • Re:My experience (Score:5, Informative)

      by panoptical2 (1344319) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @01:56PM (#26549707)
      If the phone infrastructure is down, then texting is actually less reliable. I think Slashdot posted an earlier story [slashdot.org] about how texts actually piggyback onto the spare bandwidth of the network's phone infrastructure; the texts do not travel on a separate network. This goes to explain why your text wasn't received until almost an hour later...
      • That would make sense. After speaking with a few other people who were also down there (the joy of living 2 miles away from the Mall), their phone calls were also completely spotty all morning. Some got through fine. Others went straight to the recipient's voicemail. Some just sat there on the "calling" window with no connection. It seems that it didn't really matter which combination of carriers were involved.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by AndersOSU (873247)

        NPR was running a story on the cell phone aspect of the inauguration yesterday morning. They reported the carriers were encouraging people to text instead of call (which I'm sure was only to save bandwidth and had nothing to do with the massively inflated cost per text - which /. has also covered) I will say though that my girlfriend was texting back and forth from the mall a lot, while she had to press send a couple of times for some messages, once they were through, they were delivered in a timely fashi

      • by 222 (551054)
        Correct. SMS uses the call control channel for data transmission, which is why you can text without having a data plan enabled on your phone.

        You were also correct in assuming that massive calls = lots of call control signaling = not much room left for SMS.
      • Re:My experience (Score:4, Informative)

        by oasisbob (460665) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @07:12PM (#26554337)

        the texts do not travel on a separate network

        From the phone to the tower, that is correct. However, once your carrier receives the text, it is routed entirely differently.

        From what I heard, the reason texts were delayed for so long has nothing to do with the control channel being full, but rather the total text volume being switched between carriers.

        i.e., the text isn't stuck on your mobile phone, it's stuck in a message queue in a datacenter somewhere.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I was on the Mall in DC, and AT&T's data network was completely down through most, if not all, of the day. Since they have to dedicate channels to data, I'm sure they decided to abandon data completely. Another example of how current data carriers don't take their data networks seriously. They're *obviously* not as important as voice...

    • by Benthos (35080)

      I was on the Mall in DC as well, and found the same thing with AT&T. Although I had very spotty voice services, I was receiving texts over 2 hours after they were sent and had no larger data transfer capabilities.

    • Another example of how current data carriers don't take their data networks seriously. They're *obviously* not as important as voice...

      Man, do I second that. Occasionally I'll get text messages from nagios hours after it detected a problem. That's complete bullshit. If they're going to gouge everyone for SMS messaging, they better have some outstandingly low latency for it. Seems like to me this is something that could spur a class-action lawsuit..

  • Well, yea...I mean there brough in like extra cell towers for the local area.
  • the real problem (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ILuvRamen (1026668)
    They couldn't fit that giant crowd of people from the Verizon commercials (or whatever company that is) into the area that was already overpacked. That was the real problem. Btw as for the people who keep saying the cell towers on wheels solved all the problems, I dunno what moron thought that was going to help but there's only so much bandwidth available in the air regardless of the number of towers and you can't have them stomping on each other.
    • First, I am not a cellular tech weenie, and I did not stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I have had to learn some of this stuff over the years in self-defense, and what I understand is that to increase the call capacity in an area there are three main things that can be done. One, use sectorized antennas; two, add towers and turn their power down to create a larger number of smaller cells; three, add to the number of links to the terrestrial network.

      I don't have a car analogy, but think of it like th

    • by tomz16 (992375)

      Btw as for the people who keep saying the cell towers on wheels solved all the problems, I dunno what moron thought that was going to help but there's only so much bandwidth available in the air regardless of the number of towers and you can't have them stomping on each other.

      Apparently those "morons" that actually work as cellular engineers. You roll in the cell sites on wheels (COWs), drop the output power of neighboring cells, and voila increased capacity!

      But hey, I guess it's just easier to call someone a name whenever you don't understand how something works.

  • by antdude (79039) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @02:26PM (#26550217) Homepage Journal

    If this was an emergency like on 9/11/2001, then this would had been very bad.

    • People need to learn that during a 9/11 they should not use phone services (cell or landline) except for vital comms. Cut the twitter, OMG! video to friends and all that crap. Leave the airwaves for those that need it. Same deal for cars etc. Stay away and leave the roads for emergency vehicles.
    • by ooglek (98453)

      Untrue -- Government officials and emergency personnel have a special code they can use to dial numbers on their cell phone, giving them priority access to the cell towers.

      http://wps.ncs.gov/use.html [ncs.gov]

      Dial *272 and then the number you want to call. If your phone is flagged as allowed to use WPS, then your call will be accepted and given priority over all other calls. I believe there are differing levels of access, so a local volunteer fireman might have a lower priority than say Secretary of State Clinton.

  • I'm curious to see numbers on Facebook's traffic during/after the inauguration. It seemed like I was getting a ton of "So-and-So has updated Something-or-Another" during the hours immediately after.
    • by tomz16 (992375)

      I bet a nice chunk of this was due to people watching the CNN live feed at work. CNN partnered with facebook so that the live video feed page had your friends' facebook status, and gave you the opportunity to update your own status while watching the inauguration.

  • Who cares? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    College football games get big enough crowds to overload cell networks. Is it really surprising the inauguration did? Can we get some informative articles please.

  • No surprise that T-Mobile had so much trouble. I've heard they're OK elsewhere, but in the DC area their coverage is horrible. Pity too because they have the best phones... First the sidekick and now android.

  • I use Sprint and was about 250m from the Washington Monument. While I had full bars the entire morning, texts were hit or miss - sometimes they went through, othertimes they did not. Calling was impossible. I tried calling twice and neither ever actually got through.

    A friend with AT&T was able to get texting to work, but was not able to call nor to send a picture message.

    All in all? I would not say they "survived".

    Only in the sense that I can use my Sprint phone today, I suppose.

    • by ooglek (98453)

      I too was about 250m from the Washington Monument, and trying and failing on the Sprint network. I had full bars, but was only able to send 3 text messages between my 10am arrival and 2pm departure. Most got rejected with Network Busy.

      Calls and data never worked during that period while on the Mall.

      A friend who had Verizon did not have any trouble making calls or texting.

      On NANOG, a Verizon employee described that they spent 6 months planning capacity and rolling out COW's (Cell On Wheels) and had gotten

      • by ooglek (98453)

        Looks like Sprint claimed to have deployed extra capacity. Just not enough:

        http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/12/16/inauguration.phones/index.html [cnn.com]

        " To handle the increased traffic, Sprint is planning to deploy resources usually reserved for hurricanes: COWs and COLTs.

        The acronyms stand for Cell On Wheels and Cell On Light Truck. The vehicles use satellite and microwave technology and act as mobile cell towers. They are typically deployed to disaster sites when towers get knocked out.

        For the inauguration, Sprint

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