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Obama-mania hits cell networks

AP file
Click for video: Million Hundessa, lead team technician for Sprint,
left, and Ken Deatrick, a radio frequency technician for Sprint, add
capacity to a cell site in Washington in preparation for the inauguration.
Click on the picture to watch Brian Williams' report for "NBC Nightly News."

A cell-phone-generated blizzard of voice calls, text messages and pictures swept through the nation's capital as President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration neared - sparking scattered reports of delays and blocked calls. Wireless service operators said the problems weren't any worse than they expected, and they repeated their advice for keeping the voice and data traffic running smoothly.

Cell-phone crush
By some estimates, millions of mobile-phone users have converged on the Washington area for Tuesday's inaugural ceremonies. To cope with the expected crush, service providers have been adding as much capacity as they can to the area's wireless networks, said Joe Farren, spokesman for CTIA, the wireless industry's trade association.

That includes bringing in portable cell-phone switching equipment on mobile trailers ("cell on wheels," or COWs) and trucks ("cell on light trucks," or COLTs).

Despite those measures, the wireless companies still expected some glitches to crop up. "If 3 or 4 million people show up, and they're all trying to get on the Internet to send pictures, there could be congestion," Farren said.

Based on his own experience over the weekend, NBCWashington.com's Matthew Stabley said beefing up the wireless networks may not have solved the problem entirely.

"Sunday night, my cell phone mysteriously lit up at about 11 p.m. with a voicemail message that'd been left two hours earlier. Just before midnight, several text messages sent throughout the evening appeared all at once. Then another text message took a half hour to receive. ..."

Representatives from Verizon Wireless and AT&T, the nation's two largest wireless carriers, said they had not heard of any problems other than the delays that had been anticipated.

"This is obviously an unprecedented situation, and we've been planning for it for months," said Mark Siegel, spokesman for AT&T Mobility. He said his company increased its staffing levels in the area by 60 percent and brought in backup generators as well as cell-on-wheels stations.

Even so, he said, "Think of this as an entrance ramp to a highway, and when that ramp gets really crowded, people could experience a delay. The laws of physics are at work here. It could be people have occasional difficulty placing a call or getting access to the Internet using their wireless devices."

Jeffrey Nelson of Verizon Wireless said he knew of no problems. "And I would know," he added. He said he lives a half-mile north of the White House.

Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis reported that her company's network "performed as expected," despite a dramatic rise in cell-phone traffic over the weekend.

"Specifically, on Sunday in the D.C. metro area, we successfully experienced more than double the amount of voice calls and text messages on our CDMA network in comparison to last Sunday," she said.

"There were some periods of minor call blocking, but this was expected considering the large number of people in the area and the varied nature that people use their phones for today - capturing and emailing videos and photos, using social media sites, and texting a large number of people at once."

How to beat the jam
CTIA's Farren has some standard advice to counter congestion if you're caught in a cell-phone traffic jam, on Inauguration Day or any other day: The first rule is "text, don't talk." Text messages take up only a few hundred bits of data, which means those messages can piggyback securely right on top of the more data-heavy voice traffic.

Farren said the photos and videos you capture on your cell phone should be saved for sending later, after the data jam eases. And if you have a mission-critical need for voice or data communications, think about identifying a backup plan that involves a land line, just in case the wireless networks are jammed.

Speaking of jamming, Secret Service agents do have the capability to jam wireless communications in the immediate vicinity of the president - that is, if they think there's a threat. But if you have trouble getting through from the parade route, it will probably be due to the congestion rather than national security.

Watching on the Web
Of course, you could also get in on the action from the comfort of your own home or office, thanks to the Internet. Obama's presidential campaign set a new standard for high-tech, high-touch politics, so it's no surprise that his inauguration has been cast in the same mold.

Plans are in the works for Webcasts of the ceremony as well as some of the inaugural balls around the nation's capital, but that's just one way to experience Tuesday's events from afar: The Presidential Inaugural Committee's Web site, PIC2009.org, is offering all the tools that helped put Obama in the White House, including a text-messaging channel and an online database that points you to the nearest TV-watching party.

The inaugural Web site looks a whole lot like the Obama team's other online properties, ranging from MyBarackObama to Change.gov. That's by design: The same outfit that handled those earlier political Web sites, Blue State Digital, is behind PIC2009 as well.

Working with Obama's operatives, Blue State Digital engineered a platform that collected millions of e-mail addresses, offered a map-based interface to point supporters to events, and kept the site's users up to date on the campaign's progress (and needs). The inaugural site is built the same way so that users know what to expect, and can easily navigate their way around the site's features, said Thomas Gensemer, managing partner for Blue State Digital.

The PIC2009 blog is updated daily, of course, not only with snippets of text but with YouTube videos and Flickr slideshows as well. If you need a quicker fix of PIC bits, you can check the inaugural Twitter feed or sign up to have text updates sent to your mobile phone. The Obama campaign's "house party finder" application has been adapted for the inauguration as well.

Party all night on the Net
The inaugural ceremonies will be widely Webcast - as they have been since the Clinton era. This year, you're likely to see video of Inauguration Day's parties as well. PIC2009 has promised Web video from the Neighborhood Ball, which is scheduled to be the first stop for Obama and his wife, Michelle.

Gensemer told me that the Web site would offer "roving-camera coverage" of the First Family's partygoing throughout the evening, but the current plan doesn't call for PIC2009 to provide real-time video of the action at the other inaugural balls. That will be left up to the party organizers on a case-by-case basis: For example, MTV.com is gearing up to Webcast the Youth Inaugural Ball. (If you know of other inaugural events on the Web, pass them along as a comment and I'll add them to the list.)

You can bet that someone at PIC2009 will be blogging the night away next Tuesday. The Web site just might be jammin' as hard as the bands at that MTV party, but Gensemer said he and his team were confident they could keep up with the traffic.

"We had the biggest event possible on Election Day, although this is going to be a close second," Gensemer said.

Another option is to go to the movies: Our cable brethren at MSNBC have partnered up with Screenvision to present movie-theater viewings of the inauguration in cities across the country. This New York Times item says MSNBC coverage will also air in 650 Starbucks coffee shops. For more information about the free theater tickets, check out this MSNBC Events Web site. We also have a rundown of inauguration broadcasts and balls.

Have you encountered cell-phone snags? Pass your report along as a comment below.

This is an updated version of a posting that was first published at 3:59 p.m. ET Jan. 13, with additional reporting by Suzanne Choney, a contributing writer/editor for msnbc.com.