Thousands without phone service in DC for Inauguration Day as bandwidth demand grows

Making a call from the National Mall was a dicey proposition for many inauguration visitors and workers Monday.

Although several carriers reported making both permanent and temporary upgrades to help what was initially estimated to be 600,000 to 800,000 people observing or working at the ceremonies, there was still more demand for bandwidth from hundreds of thousands people talking, texting, sending photos and videos and following the day's events online.

Even though the crowd was far less than the 1.8 million who attended President Barack Obama's first inauguration, industry officials expected that the demand for data would be five or six times greater than in 2009.

Providers did try to tweak their service to some extent, but the highlighted events, like the swearing-in and the Obamas' appearance during the subsequent parade, resulted in gridlock for many.

Calls did go through for some, but many also failed. One group of four journalists working near the U.S. Capitol building, site of Obama's swearing-in and inaugural address, each using a different mobile carrier, found that none could make a call in the late morning.

Even emergency workers expressed frustration. One police officer trying to reach a colleague without using a radio said, "The phone's not very good right now."

Noted Twitter user Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., had to hold off sending any observations until after the swearing-in was over. "So frustrating. No signal during ceremony. So I'll send my tweets now," she wrote.

Verizon officials said they monitored capacity throughout the day and made adjustments to maximize capacity, but didn't acknowledge any major disruptions.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said the company's "mobile broadband network is performing well, but when you have hundreds of thousands of people in a concentrated area attempting to access our network at the same time, some could experience intermittent congestion. That's why we suggest our customers use text messaging, take their photos and videos now and send them later, and use Wi-Fi."

He said the company had temporarily increased capacity on the Mall by 200 percent, including additional temporary antennas and amplifiers.

Electronic overload created a double whammy for thousands of visitors force to an overflow standing area around the Washington Monument.

Shortly after Obama was sworn in, the Jumbotron giant screens set up for people at the far end of the Mall began to flicker, and sound cut in and out.

Unable to hear what was being said or to follow the president's speech on their smart phones, some clustered around old-fashioned portable radios. Many others eventually gave up and left the area, starting an early exodus toward restaurants or subway stations.

David Kosub of Washington said he got close to the stage during the last inauguration, but decided not to fight the crowd this time. "As you can hear, the feed is not working very well. I guess that kind of stuff happens every now and again, but you would think that would get fixed."

As the broken music of the Marine band started playing after the ceremony, David Wagoner of Annandale, Va., was dancing. "The audio here was terrible, and that's another reason we were dancing, because we couldn't hear anything, and what can you do?"

(Reach Scripps Howard News Service reporter Lee Bowman at bowmanl@shns.com.)

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