Take a look down near the bottom on Cingular's giving special access codes
By Yuki Noguchi, Washington Post Staff Writer
Preparing wireless networks for an event like next month's
presidential inauguration has become as critical as erecting the
barricades and ordering the party platters.
Several hundred thousand VIPs, protesters, police officers and
onlookers are expected to make cellular calls on Jan. 20 from along
the parade route, convention halls and hotel lobbies in and around the
District. They'll also be sending pictures, messages and e-mail -- all
of which create a heavy volume of wireless traffic that eats up
To make sure everyone gets a share of the wireless signal, cell phone
companies -- like seasoned caterers -- must estimate attendance and
make sure there's enough to go around. When necessary, they're
For Greg Meacham of Nextel Communications Inc., preparations for such
events begin at least six months beforehand, when the U.S. Secret
Service calls to tell him about a pending "national security special
event." Over the past year in various cities, those included the two
major national political conventions and the Group of Eight summit in
"First, we evaluate the area for network coverage" and bolster the
network in high-traffic zones, said Meacham, vice president of federal
programs and homeland security for the Reston company.
For the inaugural events, Nextel will install temporary or permanent
equipment to boost coverage in such buildings as the MCI Center, Union
Station, the Convention Center and a number of big hotels to make sure
that subscribers will be able to complete calls or send their wireless
e-mails, he said. In case it needs emergency backup, Nextel also will
have three trucks with satellite-based temporary cell towers mounted
on them on standby in Dulles, he said.
Washington often hosts events that draw big crowds, so companies say
they've already built networks to handle spikes in traffic.
The Fourth of July typically draws 300,000 people to the National
Mall, according to Verizon Wireless's estimates. The dedication of the
National World War II Memorial in May drew about 250,000. And then
there are protest marches, the cherry blossoms and major traffic
accidents, all of which tend to dramatically increase calling.
The predictability of such events as the inauguration makes them
easier to plan for, said Tim Dykstra, Verizon Wireless's director of
system performance for the Washington-Baltimore area. Verizon Wireless
keeps usage logs of past events such as former president Ronald Reagan
(news - web sites)'s funeral, then it makes adjustments after each big
event, so it already has enough capacity to handle most events, he
Cingular Wireless LLC, which recently acquired AT&T Wireless Services
Inc., should be in good shape for the inauguration because it now has
double its previous network capacity and plenty of room for spillover
traffic, said Frank T. Iovino, the company's vice president and
general manager for the Washington-Baltimore area.
"They've got Washington pretty well covered," Frank Dzubeck, president
of Washington-based telecom consultancy Communications Network
Architects Inc., said of the cellular phone companies. Although there
are known dead spots close to the White House and CIA (news - web
sites) headquarters in Langley where wireless signals are blocked for
security reasons, he said, most callers even in the busiest areas
shouldn't have problems.
Dzubeck added that pressure on cellular systems in downtown Washington
should be eased because Inauguration Day will be a holiday for federal
In case of unexpected problems or emergencies, Cingular said it offers
some politicians and emergency workers wireless priority access --
they can dial secret codes that ensure their calls get priority even
when a network is jammed.
Nextel, which has a big customer base among police and emergency
workers, anticipates a quadrupling of traffic from such workers during
the inauguration, Meacham said. To support them, Nextel will also keep
some workers at the multi-agency police command center to coordinate
public safety communications in case of an emergency.
Often what happens at the command center is more mundane, he said:
Public safety personnel need help figuring out how to use their
BlackBerry devices, or they want extra phone batteries.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.
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