All around the National Mall, what look like strange, giant meatballs or cheese wheels on a stick have been mysteriously cropping up. Fenced in and padlocked, these towering structures might easily be confused for spy equipment or extra security – perhaps not a bad guess for a city that’s among the world’s most heavily defended.
But in fact, they’re part of a massive effort by cellphone carriers to prepare for an estimated million or more people who will be descending on Washington for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Wireless companies are bracing for a torrent of data usage by smartphone-toting visitors who intend on sharing photos and videos of their experience online. And to support all that activity, the carriers are literally rolling out their most advanced cellular antennas, the meatball-shaped devices now dotting the nation’s capital.
These “cells on wheels,” or COWs for short, have been placed in key locations so as to boost coverage and capacity. Unlike a typical cell tower, these mobile antennas are designed to handle surges of traffic surrounding large, public events such as NASCAR races and music concerts. Each one is capable of blasting out a dozen or more radio beams that together will allow hundreds of thousands of people to tweet, Instagram and post to Facebook on Jan. 20 as easily as they were standing in their own living room.
The companies declined to share estimates on how many thousands of gigabytes’ worth of tweets and Facebook posts might traverse their networks next week. But to be safe, many have spent months boosting their mobile data capacity in the area by 400 percent or more. Some began their planning almost as soon as President Barack Obama’s last inauguration ended.
“This is going to be the most connected inauguration in history,” said Mark Funka, Verizon’s regional director of system performance.
This isn’t the first time carriers have put stopgap measures in place to handle the crush of additional traffic. Companies started doing it in earnest beginning in 2009, with President Obama’s first inauguration. At the time, the country’s data usage habits looked very different; only a third of Americans had a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. Most consumers had previously been on more basic phones, and so past inaugurations didn’t put as much pressure on carriers’ networks.
But those usage numbers have shifted dramatically during the past few years. Today, Pew estimates that nearly 80 percent of Americans are on smartphones, and 68 percent of the country is on Facebook.
All this means tremendous demand for wireless services, particularly for data. To keep up, carriers aren’t just using mobile cell sites for the inauguration. They’re also retrofitting existing cell towers with newer antennas that can tilt and adjust their angles to cover large crowds better. They’re using new bandwidth management techniques that are only possible with the latest flavors of LTE, such as something called “carrier aggregation.” That’s when a company melds together airwaves that operate at different frequencies to create, essentially, a larger highway for data.
“These options weren’t available to us four years ago,” said Brian Harrison, a technical communications manager at AT&T, “but they are today, which is great, because user habits have changed so much.”
Over the past year, Sprint has added three times the amount of bandwidth that’s normally available in the area. T-Mobile says it’s expanded its local network capacity by 10 times. AT&T is quintupling its LTE capacity and Verizon said it is enhancing it by six times.
In addition to boosting signals on the Mall, the carriers have upgraded facilities at locations likely to experience high traffic, such as Reagan National Airport, Union Station and area hotels. Signal capacity along the presidential parade route is also being buffed.
Although the COWs are temporary, much of the inauguration prep – like the retrofitted towers – will be permanent, meaning that D.C. residents and tourists will continue to benefit from the system upgrades long after the stands and crowds disappear. And when it comes to some of the carriers’ newest technologies, Washington will be the vanguard; some of this stuff has only begun to roll out to the rest of the country.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Brian Fung