Can you hear me now? The most appropriate answer in the nation's capital on Tuesday appears to be "sometimes."
"I had to stand in the same place for 20 minutes just to have a conversation with my mother," said Christian Kingston, an 18-year-old college student who was among the hundreds of thousands of onlookers jamming the streets and the National Mall.
Kingston, an AT&T customer, said his coverage has been really spotty and that text messages have been arriving about an hour after they were sent.
Bernice Salik, who was visiting from Long Island, N.Y., said she could not connect with her sister who was in Washington, but had been able to call her husband back in New York.
"It seems like people are having a hard time reaching other people in Washington," said Salik, also an AT&T customer.
AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile USA on Tuesday reported congestion at some cell towers. T-Mobile spokesman Peter Dobrow said the carrier was shunting traffic away from congested cell towers to ones with free capacity.
Call volume was three to five times normal for Verizon Wireless, but the vast majority of calls were going through on the first try, even in the areas nearest the Capitol, said company spokesman John Johnson.
AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel last week said the carrier had been preparing for the inauguration since June, and spent $4 million to increase its capacity along the parade route. It boosted staffing by 60% and pulled in two so-called COWs, or Cell towers On Wheels, to handle calls. Two more COWs are in reserve.
Sprint Nextel Corp. had increased capacity by 40% for Sprint-branded phones and by 90% for Nextel-branded phones, popular with public safety officials and others. To match AT&T's COWs, it deployed COLTs, or Cell towers on Light Trucks.
Dobrow said T-Mobile's inauguration preparations exceeded those for any single-day event in the company's history.
Still, carriers had warned customers that calls could be dropped. Cellular data networks in particular may be overloaded by people trying to send pictures or downloading video of the inauguration.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a cellphone trade group, recommended the use of text messages rather than phone calls, and said shutterbugs could take pictures during the event, but should wait to send them until later.
Those on the Mall wishing to follow along with the televised proceedings on their Internet-enabled cellphones were set to be disappointed, since Internet video puts a large load on a cellular network. But a few phones sold by Verizon Wireless and AT&T can receive special TV broadcasts. A single TV tower can accommodate any number of receiving phones, making this an excellent medium for mass events like the inauguration.
AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge $15 per month for their TV services. In a few other countries, there are free broadcasts for cellphones. A consortium of U.S. broadcasters announced two weeks ago that they would start similar broadcasts this year, but existing phones won't be able to receive those signals.
Verizon Wireless is a joint venture between New York-based Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC.