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Explaining the “outages” at the Rally to Restore Sanity/Inspire Fear

Anyone who was able to go to Washington D.C. this pass weekend was most likely in attendance at the Comedy Central Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Inspire Fear. Personally, this was the single largest event I had ever been to, and what stunned me more than anything was the close proximity of so many people stretching the entire length of the National Mall. It was a moment in time that I will never forget. One of the details to the event, however, that will likely fade into memory quickly was the complete and total lack of cellphone reception shortly after the event began. It seemed to really upset some at the event, and understandably so, but it is worth understanding how unescapable such an outage is.

First, let’s take a look at some stats to confirm how many people were at this event. (thanks Mashable!)

  • Livestream: There were 570,000 live video streams of the event through or via phones. It was one of the biggest livestreaming events ever for MTV Networks. Most fans watched for an average of 37 minutes.
  • Sites: There were more than 800,000 visitors to Rally-related sites on Saturday alone across Comedy Central Digital.
  • Twitter: There were over 120,000 tweets on Saturday. Those tweets made up half of the total Twitter mentions for the rally.
  • Foursquare: An “Epic Swarm” event registered more than 50,000 checkins and 25,000 badge unlocks.
  • Apps: Within 48 hours, fans downloaded the rallies’ mobile apps 117,000 times in total (iPhone and Android).
  • Photos: More than 35,000 photos from the rally were uploaded within the mobile apps or tagged on Flickr.

On top of this, using the same “spy techniques” used to determine how many people were there from arial photos of other events, it’s estimated there were close to 275,000 people on the mall. Even if that number is close, it’s significant, and that number is way more than any cell carrier can handle on a single access point.

See, Cellphones, regardless of the network you are on, use a radio frequency to broadcast their service, and your phones broadcast on that same frequency to connect to said network. There are a bunch of access points across, say, a mile radius, and your phone connects to the closest access point to make a call. Essentially, there was 275,000 people all using the same access points for the four carriers, which would never work. You see, no matter what you do, radio frequency is an extremely finite resource. Anything over a certain volume of radio transmission and all you get is noise that can’t be translated by the network. When the signal to noise ratio reaches a level that can’t be translated, you can have 4 bars and HSPA+, but you will never get a call out. The same applies to all four carriers. Additionally, in situations like this, it is not uncommon for emergency personnel to be “whitelisted” by the network for emergency use. Basically, the carriers assign those phone numbers a tag on the network that makes sure that no matter what, that number can call out and receive calls. I think we can all agree that, while frustrating, it’s more important that they get to make calls over us.

This situation also speak to the future, as carriers begin to prepare high output, low latency networks designed to handle a much higher load. As was qualified by  a contact at Sprint, their WiMAX network continued to perform very well throughout the day. While it is certainly true that there are a very limited number of WiMAX customers in comparison to HSPA or EVDO networks, the low latency and higher output of a WiMAX network would also lend to the stability and functionality of Sprint’s network during the event. As the other carriers begin to release their own enhanced networks, issues like this will be less frequent for sure, but they will likely never stop altogether. In any kind of situation, it is expensive to insulate for the worst possible scenario. If the carriers developed their networks to constantly handle such enormous loads, no one could afford the monthly cost. The same could be said of the DC Metro system, which incurred more than tripple what their normal weekend traffic is in a single day.

I think this needs to stand as a reminder that a backup plan for such times is always something you should have. It’s difficult to say not to rely on our devices, given this writers complete dependence on his, but it is important that you not head to do something so significant without some kind of alternative means of communicating in the event of an emergency.

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