The one and only time I was in Washington, DC for an inauguration, it was 1997, and cell phones were not nearly as pervasive as they are now. They didn’t have photo capabilities, and “social media” meant hanging around the TV watching the nightly news with your roommates. But in 2013, every single significant event, from the AFC Championship game to a town hall presidential debate, must be documented and dissected by every attendee with a smartphone – which, of course, means just about everyone.
The problem with any large gathering where people are all trying to tweet, send SMS messages and upload photos at the same time, is that signals can get dicey. I have had trouble sending text messages from NFL games and have spent four days at New York Comic Con unable to upload a single image of me with the creator of The Walking Dead. Carriers should be aware that events like today’s Presidential Inauguration will tax their networks to the limit. But, apparently, they were unable to deliver top notch service for attendees today, despite several reports.
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Hundreds and thousands of ordinary citizens and fans of democracy stood around the National Mall today hoping to share pictures of the festivities or live tweet about the event, but many were frustrated by slow, inadequate or non-existent service. Even members of Congress themselves were not exempt from the delays and hassles. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee (the group that oversees wireless companies), tweeted, “So frustrating. No signal during ceremony. So I’ll send my tweets now. Apologies they weren’t in real-time.”
Of course the carriers told a slightly different story. Some stated that there were issues. Verizon (News - Alert) told the website POLITICO that, “We’re monitoring usage throughout the area and we’re making adjustments to maximize the capacity of our sites. We’ll continue to do so, as usage shifts occur throughout the day in these areas.”
On the other hand, AT&T (News - Alert) claimed that its network was performing well but that some people could experience “intermittent congestion.” It recommended sending pictures and videos later using Wi-Fi. Not exactly the real-time experience most of us are used to these days.
Sprint (News - Alert) was, perhaps, a bit more honest. "There is a very small number of cell sites around the National Mall that are currently extremely high call volumes, and customers within that small radius might be experiencing delays in making and receiving calls, but overall wireless coverage in the D.C. area has been performing well during the inaugural events thanks to the enhancements we’ve made in the preceding months,” a spokesperson told POLITICO.Part of the fun of modern technology is feeling connected to a large event – and each other – in real-time, and it is a shame that congestion ruined that experience for some. Perhaps the carriers will have it all figured out by the next inauguration four years from now. On the other hand, by that time we may all have pico cells grafted into our brains, so connectivity might not be an issue. Perhaps this is a bill the next Congress can consider.