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Inauguration Day prompts rush of social media, telecom prep

January 17, 2009 |  9:14 am
Some of the estimated 215,000 people who filled the Tiergarten park in Berlin to hear Barack Obama speak last July. Expect an even larger crowd at the inauguration. Credit: Associated Press

Heading to Washington, D.C., for Tuesday's presidential inauguration? Yeah, you and an estimated 2 million others. Good luck making a cellphone call.

Partygoers should have no shortage of things to do on Inauguration Day, but they may have trouble getting in touch with one another that day to organize. When so many people crowd into such a small area, the cellular tubes tend to get clogged.

The two largest wireless carriers say they're ready. Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless have extended their networks in the nation's capital, deploying portable cell sites (trucks that serve cellphone transmissions) throughout the city.

AT&T spent $4 million to beef up its coverage in the District of Columbia, focusing on 2G and 3G (second- and third-generation) data networks, said Debbie Lieberman, an AT&T spokeswoman. And Verizon Wireless has spent more than $1 billion since 2000 to increase capacity in the city, including adding coverage in the Metro subway system, said John Johnson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman.

Still, there's no guarantee that every call will go through.

"Any network is like a giant highway system," Johnson said. "We've added thousands and thousands of new lanes for the inauguration. But millions and millions of cars can still cause a traffic jam if they try to move in the same place at the same time."

The CTIA Wireless Assn., a trade group, issued some tips. The list advises you to save photos or videos to transmit them to friends later -- so as not to bog down the cell networks -- and have a backup meeting spot in case calls don't go through.

The most crucial tip, though, is to send text messages instead of call.

"In these big events, voice networks often go down because so many people make so many phone calls. But SMS gets through," said Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, referring to the short message service protocol used for text messages.

Twitter may prove to be the ideal ...

... tool for organizing group events. Hey, even the Obama Inaugural Committee has its own Twitter account.

But Twitter, whose longtime users are more than familiar with the infamous "fail whale" icon displayed when the service crashes, may not be immune from downtime. "We don't think that the inauguration is going to be as big as election day was," Stone said.

The company is preparing, though, by adding additional servers. "It's something we need to do anyway because we're growing very quickly," he said. "It's just nice to have these events. It's like, 'Hey, guys! We need to have this project done before Inauguration Day.' ... It's just a nice motivator for the team."

Other social media websites are preparing, too, for the potential of the Internet's series of tubes clogging. You see, the Internet isn't a big truck -- OK, enough with the Ted Stevens jokes.

For the CNN-Facebook live video stream of the event, technicians are building support for more than 1 million simultaneous viewers, a CNN spokesperson said. Facebook is separately adding servers to its own website to increase bandwidth, a company spokesperson said.

Hulu, the video site that also is live-streaming the inauguration, is preparing for large loads, said Christina Lee, a company spokeswoman. Qik is streaming camera-phone videos from visitors and is confident in its server infrastructure, said Jackie Danicki, the company's director of marketing.

But there's no telling what could happen.

Photobucket, an image-sharing website, is placing all of its Inauguration Day photos on a separate, dedicated server, said Alice Lankester, the company's vice president of marketing. "Photobucket deals with 7-10 million image uploads on a daily basis," she said. "We're ready for it!"

FriendFeed, a website that aggregates updates from various social media, is expecting an influx in activity as well. The company is in the process of rolling out new servers that will increase its capacity about three times, said Paul Buchheit, co-founder of the Mountain View, Calif., company.

"We always want to have a pretty big buffer, where we actually have maybe twice the capacity that we need at any given time," he said. "Even with our current system, we still have quite a bit of margin."

Reddit's new fail shot. Credit: Reddit

The social news websites aren't too concerned with Inauguration Day traffic. Digg founder and chief architect Kevin Rose said his company had no specific plans. And Reddit is equally unworried.

"Actually, we're expecting a bigger traffic spike on Wednesday as people come back to their computers loaded with stories to share from the day before," Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said in an e-mail. "Granted, there will be plenty of people watching the inauguration with a computer on their lap, but it won't be a surge significant enough to affect us."

But Reddit has thrown together a new "site is down" image (pictured at left) in case any problems arise.

-- Mark Milian and David Sarno