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Internet / Politics

What it takes to make sure inauguration visitors can Snapchat the whole thing

Here's what Verizon and AT&T are doing to prepare for the data demand.

A Verizon truck seen in Chinatown on Wednesday. (Photo by Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)

An inauguration is and always has been, in virtually every sense, a huge logistical challenge for D.C. Roads must be blocked, scaffolding mounted, emergency services planned. But in at least this one area the logistics get more challenging every four years — communication technology.

See in January 2013, at Barack Obama’s second inauguration, just 51 percent of the American population owned a smartphone (according to Pew). By November 2016, at the research giant’s latest count, that number had risen to 77 percent.

And when many of these Americans converge in the District on Friday, whether they’re here to celebrate or protest, they’ll expect to be able to use those smartphones. They’ll want to call and text their friends, sure, but they’ll also want to Snapchat and Facebook Live and Instagram and whatever else the kids do these days.

And this, well, this is going to take a lot of mobile data capacity. And if you’ve ever been to a concert then you know that providers often struggle to meet the demand associated with the convergence of so many people in such a small area.

So what’s a phone company to do?

Both Verizon and AT&T, two major carriers, have been investing significantly in the city’s wireless network ahead of the festivities. As Karen Shultz, a spokesperson for Verizon put it, “the technology has evolved so radically in terms of what people use and expect.” And the companies are hoping to meet those expectations.

Thus, Verizon is using the inauguration as a testing ground (though not the first testing ground, Shultz assured Technical.ly) for some new innovations that will come into effect in the Verizon network more widely in 2017. For example, Remote Electrical Tilt antennas will allow the team to control the antenna angles in real time and Matsing ball technology allows the company to divide crowds into sections “like slices of a pie” where “each slice or sector can be adjusted individually to handle wireless traffic,” she said. Verizon engineers will be in the crowd on Friday, testing connectivity and adjusting as needed. All in all, Verizon’s data capacity will be up 500 percent during the event, the company claims.

It's AT&T's largest temporary deployment ever.

“We’ve really taken care of what we think will be the more technologically advanced inauguration in history,” Shultz said. “One thing Verizon can be really proud of is staying ahead of customer expectation.”

Over at AT&T, meanwhile, engineers are similarly working to increase local network capacity by 400 percent during the inauguration. According to a spokesperson, preparation has been underway for two years and the company has invested $15 million in the exercise. Technology that will be used includes 7 Super Cell on Wheels (quaintly called COWs) which will be placed on the mall to provide extra capacity. It’s AT&T’s largest temporary deployment ever.

But not all the new infrastructure will disappear when the weekend draws to a close. Both AT&T and Verizon have upgraded their permanent cell towers as well, the companies told Technical.ly. A perk for playing host, perhaps.

Headed to the Mall on Friday for the inauguration or Saturday for the women’s march? Test your data. We certainly will. Because meeting the needs of a big, roving crowd is a unique challenge, as Shultz admitted. But Verizon and AT&T, at least, have really really tried.

Companies: AT&T / Verizon

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