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Big (cellular) traffic jam expected at inaugural

December 29, 2008|WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — When President Obama takes the stage to deliver his inauguration address Jan. 20, no doubt many of the estimated 2 million people in the audience will hold their cellphones aloft to snap and send photos, call friends and family and send text messages like "omg, yes we did!"

Please don't, wireless network operators say.

For months, the carriers have been preparing for a predicted explosion of cellphone traffic during inauguration weekend. Wireless operators say they are boosting capacity but still expect some hiccups.

"You can add hundreds of thousands of lanes to a highway, but if millions of people go for a drive at the same time, you can still have a jam," said John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "There are just so many unknowns."

It will be the first inauguration in which cellphones are so ubiquitous.

Since the 2005 inauguration, the number of cellphone users in the nation has increased by 26%, to 262.7 million. And those users are not just talking: They are posting video to social networking sites such as Facebook, sending text messages, and snapping and sending photos.

"This is a unique situation that has never happened before -- to have this kind of population increase in one particular area at one particular time," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for wireless trade group CTIA.

Calls by emergency responders will have priority over subscribers and aren't expected to be delayed or dropped.

Mall visitors seeking emergency medical and law enforcement help shouldn't have trouble getting through either, carriers said, because calls placed to 911 from cellphones will also get priority.

For other users, the carriers offer the following tips:

* If you must use your cellphone for a nonemergency, text, don't call. Text messages take up less bandwidth than voice calls and may get through more easily.

* If you take pictures and video on cellphones, save the files and send them later. Such files are large and can clog the system.

* Coordinate a rendezvous point with friends and family in case cellphone signals are down.

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