When an estimated 1.8 million people congregated at the National Mall in Washington D.C. to witness Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, Snapchat was a mere glint in Evan Spiegel's eye, Facebook was more than five years away from rolling out live video capabilities, and the first 4G smartphone wouldn't be sold in the US for another 15 months.
But at President-elect Donald Trump's own inauguration ceremony on Friday, despite predictions of well under one million attendees, America's mobile carriers are bracing for a cellular logjam as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, YouTube, and more push 4G LTE cellular data demand to maximum. Selfies, status updates, and other social media posts will spike in the concentrated area around Capitol Hill.
There's good reason to think this will put unprecedented demand on mobile network operators, if recent high-capacity events are anything to go by. Festival attendees at 2016's Coachella in California, some 75,000 of them, burned through 29.2 terabytes of AT&T's mobile data alone. During Super Bowl 50, held at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., around 75,000 football fans used 15.9 terabytes of cellular data over one single day. Using these events as a guide, and predicting a vast majority of inauguration attendees will be Tweeting, Snapping, or Facebooking, the demand on cellular networks looks to be huge for Friday. Carriers are ready for the influx, they claim.
"This is the one that provides 20x more LTE capacity than a traditional cell site," AT&T's communications manager Seth Bloom (known as Seth the Blogger Guy) told Motherboard in an email, attaching a photograph of one of the carrier's Super COWs.
Bovine data peddlers they are not. COWs—Cells on Wheels—are mobile cell sites specialized for sporting events, concerts, and national emergencies. They're part of the hidden-in-plain-sight infrastructure crucial to keeping social media flowing in today's data-hungry age. You may have seen one or two if you've ever been to a giant football match like the Super Bowl, or a music festival such as Coachella, or wherever there are thousands and thousands of social media-savvy users wanting to connect.
AT&T is deploying seven Super COWs in Washington D.C., erecting them along the two-mile stretch of the National Mall. The COWs are fitted with AT&T's most up-to-date Drum Set Antenna, which dishes out multiple network 'beams', dividing network users to balance the cellular load. AT&T's Drum Set Antenna debuted at 2016's Coachella Festival, which in previous years also saw AT&T's Cheese Wheel Antenna and Giant Eyeball Antennas introduced—all technologies designed to cope with the massive demand for 4G network capacity.
AT&T claims to have invested $15 million in quintupling its network capacity in Washington D.C., using a mix of temporary and permanent solutions to prepare for the inauguration week. Alongside the Super COWs, Distributed Antenna Systems have been installed or upgraded, with 50 network engineers due on station during the ceremony.
T-Mobile says it has been preparing for the inauguration ceremony for a year now, permanently increasing its 4G LTE capacity in the areas surrounding the National Mall by almost tenfold. "We've juiced our coverage for customers in DC," said T-Mobile's chief technology officer Neville Ray in a statement.
Aside from adding new multi-beam antennas and other equipment, T-Mobile is also rolling outs its own COWs, which began deployment around Capitol Hill earlier this week.
As for Verizon, the network is betting on its own mix of permanent and temporary infrastructure bolstering. The network is boosting its capacity by fivefold, deploying Remote Electrical Tilt (RET) antennas that can be honed in on data hotspots, and Matsing Ball masts, which work in a similar way to AT&T's Drum Set Antennas, splitting up users into different slices to equally distribute the data demand.
"Verizon customers attending the Inauguration will have early access to these new technological advancements we are deploying widely throughout our network in 2017," said Nicola Palmer, network officer for Verizon Wireless, in a statement.
Sprint, despite being one of the smallest providers in the US, isn't letting down any of its 60 million-odd customers who may be at the inauguration. The company is making the most of carrier aggregation (a feature that bonds together bands of spectrum to create a wider lane that allows more data traffic to travel at higher rates) and boosting capacity in its 1.9 GHz cell sites around the National Mall and DC Metro stations.
Friday's inauguration is just as much of a test for wireless network providers as it is for traditional transport or city center infrastructure. AT&T said the 2013 inauguration had a smaller crowd than in 2009, but its Washington D.C. area network saw demand for data jump 16 times over Obama's first inauguration. Obviously, it expects another huge jump for this year.
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