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Cellphone networks in overdrive to prepare for 'unprecedented' solar eclipse traffic

Photo: NASA / JAXA via MGN Online

When the last total solar eclipse crossed the United States in 1918, Americans were using telegrams, mail and even carrier pigeons to communicate.

On August 21, however, onlookers in the United States will take advantage of much more advanced technology to record the rare astronomical event.

With 95 percent of Americans owning a mobile device, cellphone providers are scrambling to ensure their networks are equipped to handle escalated traffic in the rural areas the eclipse will cross. These isolated locations are expected to welcome as many 7.4 million people, according to the Great American Eclipse, in an influx that will bring a flood of cellphone traffic to areas usually equipped to handle little or none.

In preparation, carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have taken steps to ensure their users experience minimal disruption in service; including expanded network capabilities, fine-tuned towers and even portable cell sites.

'A SUBSTANTIAL INCREASE'

As with other popular events (like concerts), cellphone networks anticipate a spike in traffic in regions along the eclipse's path of totality.

"Wherever large groups of people gather, we see a substantial increase in network data traffic," said Robert Jakubek, vice president of engineering and network operations at U.S. Cellular.

Text and data usage is expected to spike more than voice calls, Jakubek said. As a result, networks plan to prioritize these services; however, users may still see a slowdown in internet access on their mobile devices.

"While we don't anticipate problems with voice calls or texts, if there is a large number of people trying to livestream their experience in a specific area, it could impact data speeds for accessing certain apps," Jakubek said.

'AN UNPRECEDENTED EVENT'

In terms of geographic area, the total solar eclipse is "an unprecedented event" when it comes to people congregating in the same place at the same time, said Warren Salek, assistant vice president of radio access network engineering at AT&T.

"It's pretty exciting," Salek said. "This is one of the largest geographies we're ever going to cover for a single event."

While networks like AT&T often boost coverage for events like music festivals, the eclipse's "path of totality" will span a much larger area.

And unlike concerts, much of this acreage will be rural -- regions equipped to handle much less traffic than more developed areas.

CELL ON WHEELS

As a result, the country's largest networks plan to move portable cell towers along the path of totality to boost their users' coverage.

Cell on Wheels, also known as COWs, are deployed by companies like T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon to ensure cell service is not interrupted when areas experience an influx of traffic.

A cell site on a trailer, COWs take "a few hours" to set up, Salek said. Once the accompanying tower -- with antenna attached -- is raised, it's connected back into the network via a landline or a microwave connection and can boost coverage up to a mile away (depending on height and topography).

AT&T plans to begin deploying the sites in regions anticipating high concentrations of people this week. The structures will be critical in facilitating uninterrupted coverage in the rural areas -- like national parks -- where the eclipse will pass, Salek said.

"COWs are great solutions for adding capacity to a location that's going to experience a temporary high spike in network traffic," said Adrienne Norton, spokeswoman for Sprint.

Sprint will deploy COWs in two states; Oregon and Idaho.

AT&T plans to deploy nine sites in six states -- Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas -- which Salek says will boost the networks coverage by about 160 percent. AT&T will also have national and local teams on-site to monitor traffic and make restorations if needed.

A T-Mobile spokesperson said the network also plans to establish mobile sites, though declined to specify where.

Because U.S. Cellular specializes in "having a strong network in rural areas," they do not plan to utilize mobile sites, Jakubek said.

"We build towers where other carriers don't," Jakubek said. "Our experience gives us an advantage to plan and handle the load."

TIPS FOR USERS

Despite all these measures, users will likely experience some interruptions.

As a result, experts are offering up tips to ensure cellphone owners get the best service.

Here are some of the best:

  1. Manage data usage via network apps
  2. Disable app updates on devices
  3. Send SMS text messages instead of making voice calls
  4. Fully charge device batteries before leaving home
  5. Bring back-up charging devices (e.g., a portable battery)
  6. Download directions in advance
  7. Wait to share videos or photos until after the eclipse

ENJOY THE RIDE

Most importantly, cellphone users should use their phones to engage "as they would at any other event," Salek said.

"Last time we had a solar eclipse, smartphones weren't around then," Salek said. "I'm curious to see how people use the technology to experience something like this.

"We're going to see some cool posting on social media, people using their [phone] camera to take pictures, people sharing the event with those who aren't there. It's going to be interesting to see how people use their devices."

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