D.C. service providers prepping for Pope-sized cell demands

WASHINGTON — When the popemobile passes through D.C.’s streets during Pope Francis’ visit later this month, area phone service providers will brace for a flood of cellphone activity.

Providers are working to expand and adjust capacity as the city gets ready to welcome the pope.

“This is massive,” says Terry Hayes, vice president for T-Mobile in the Northeast.

Hayes expects cell network demand in D.C. during the papal visit will exceed the needs of crowds attending a Super Bowl game or New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

“This is going to be that many people — over miles.” Hayes says, describing the size of the phone-using crowds. “There’ll be people in the events and then there’ll be people trying to get toward the events.”

Many area cell carriers are making adjustments to help accommodate potentially crushing demand for service.

“We’ve constructed a couple of temporary cell sites; we call them ‘cell on wheels,'” says Sprint Regional Vice President Scott Santi.  “We’ve also added additional radio capacity to all of our surrounding cell sites in the area the Pope will be traveling.”

T-Mobile also has added temporary antennas in the area so cell traffic can take multiple paths to towers.

“We’re splitting cell sites to make sure that congested areas have different sectors that are serving them,” Hayes says.

Sprint technicians will be on standby to fix potential glitches, and other cell carrier workers will be brought in from out of town for the Pope’s visit.

“They already have security clearance to get into the areas (behind security zones) where our cell sites are if we have to maintain them,” Santi says.

AT&T also is making adjustments related to the papal visit. While most of the technical aspects of the adjustments may be more involved than you care to hear about, one thing is certain: Systems are likely to be stressed.

“Having that many people in a small area, I don’t think any carrier is going to be able to completely, 100-percent satisfy all the requirements immediately,” Santi says.

Hayes says people should be prepared to make adjustments.

“Using Periscope or any of these video applications — that’s great when you have a few people on. Once you get a lot of people on — you want to move toward text and texting, messaging systems.”

When calls can’t get through, send a text instead.

Pope Francis arrives in Washington, D.C. in three weeks. His three-day visit begins on Sept. 22 and ends on Sept. 24. Find the full schedule here.

WTOP’s Max Smith contributed to this report.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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