Cellphone providers brace for heavy inauguration use

Cellphone providers are gearing up to handle what is expected to be heavy network traffic during President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration weekend.

Thousands are descending on Washington Friday to attend the inauguration and anti-Trump protests, creating what is expected to be a crush of activity on cellphone networks in the area. 

When President Obama won reelection in 2012, just 35 percent of adults in the U.S. owned smartphones. That percentage has grown to 72 today, according to the Pew Research Center.

Meanwhile, data-heavy social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram that allow people to broadcast events have become ubiquitous.

All four of the largest cell service providers have committed to boosting their coverage in Washington during the week of the inauguration. All of the companies — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint— have deployed technology along the National Mall and elsewhere in the city to strengthen their networks in anticipation of spike in data usage.

Most of the networks are rolling out Cells on Wheels (COW) — portable cell antennas usually mounted on semi-trailers — which are parked all along the mall to boost the capacity for their customers’ data usage. The COW antennas are attached to tall poles on trailers and look like white cheese wheels. 

Verizon is also deploying its new Remote Electrical Tilt antennas that allow the network’s engineers to adjust its capacity to follow roving crowds. 

Some of the companies are also installing permanent network upgrades throughout the city, as well as temporary Wi-Fi hotspots. 

Comcast also announced this week that it was installing 6,800 free hotspots that will be accessible even to those who are not customers. Those hotspots will be open through Jan. 26. 

AT&T announced that it would be spending nearly $15 million on its network enhancements for the inauguration. The other three mobile network carriers declined to provide The Hill with the dollar amounts of their upgrades.

The Washington Post reported last month that city officials are preparing for about a million people to attend the inauguration, in addition to an unknown number of protesters. Activists have also organized a Woman’s March on Washington for Saturday in protest of Trump, which 200,000 people have registered to attend on its Facebook page.

Some of the activists staging the protests have fretted about having connectivity issues when trying to broadcast the demonstrations on social media.

Access Now, a digital human rights group, sent a letter to the major wireless carriers in December outlining their concerns that the networks would be overwhelmed and congested, thereby preventing protesters and journalists from documenting the demonstrations. 

“We urge you to be prepared for a range of threats to the rights of your users, and to ensure that your company provides adequate network coverage throughout the duration of the demonstrations,” the group wrote in the letter.

“Proactive preparation will help you enable access to rights, as well as enhance your reputation among users, over this important weekend.” 

The letter’s authors, Deji Olukotun and Peter Micek, told The Hill on Thursday that they were pleasantly surprised by the responses from the companies.

Though none of the networks explicitly referenced the protests or the Women’s March, they all promised that their coverage enhancements would remain in place at least through the weekend.

“The coverage and capacity enhancements as well as the technological advancements to help better serve the crowds — whether temporary or permanent — will be available to everyone using Verizon service in the area,” company spokeswoman Karen Schulz told The Hill earlier this month when asked if protesters would benefit from the upgrades during and after inauguration.

“The supplemental mobile solutions in place will remain there the day after the inauguration,” she added. 

Olukoton and Micek were also encouraged when AT&T responded to their letter by referencing their human rights policy, in which they promise to “promote the right of our users to hold and freely share opinions without interference, and to access the full range of ideas and information.”

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