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McClatchy-Tribune  06/29/2014 6:05 AM ET
Wireless companies strive to keep Hoopfest fans in the loop [The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. :: ]

June 29--All those people with cellphones taking photos or videos during Hoopfest will:

A. See frequent "service unavailable" icons on their screens.

B. Be unable to send any photos and have no idea why.

C. Have no trouble at all.

The companies that manage Spokane's wireless cellphone networks would like the answer to be the last choice -- all systems go.

But huge public events like Hoopfest are known to create major cellphone logjams.

A year ago on the Saturday of Hoopfest, Verizon Wireless handled 40,000 phone calls and 300,000 data connections between 11 a.m. and noon.

The traffic during Hoopfest keeps increasing yearly, as people increasingly use social media to communicate or stay in touch with dispersed friends and relatives in the area.

The main wireless companies say this year they're ready, having arranged for extra network hardware and weekend remote management to deal with possible data and voice crunches.

Verizon again has deployed its COW (cell on wheels) and COLT (cell on light truck) vehicles downtown. Those are, in effect, mounted, mobile cell towers to handle voice and data loads, a company spokesman said.

The other carriers are using their own approach. AT&T is adding both hardware and software tools to the Spokane network, spokesman Andy Colley said. Using a railway analogy, AT&T is using those tools to create additional rail lines to move traffic faster, Colley said.

T-Mobile is deploying another option, using a DAS (distributed antenna system) network to handle just the local-to-local phone traffic. In the rail analogy, that's like a temporary set of short-distance roads to carry all the local traffic. That keeps the local traffic off the main railway altogether.

One other option, not available a year ago, is the free Ptera WiFi Hotspot at Riverfront Park.

It was launched this month by Liberty Lake-based Ptera Wireless, working with the city of Spokane.

Users are able to sign into the Ptera network through a social app like Facebook or Twitter, or by registering an email address.

It provides 45 minutes of free use. Users can pay $4.95 for two more hours or $9.95 per day, company spokesman Adrian Folsom said.

"We may change that free period to longer than 45 minutes. That's one thing (the Hoopfest crowd activity) will do, give us more of an idea of how people will use the service," he said.

Folsom said Ptera is using a network several generations newer than the system used by the HotZone, the former free wireless connection that covered much of downtown Spokane.

The result is a more robust and adaptable system than the now-dead HotZone, he said.

What's not clear are the reliable upload and download speeds as customers start using the system. That's another advantage of seeing the first few weeks of usage, including what happens during Hoopfest.

"Rather than try to guess how much use it will get, we'll get it up and see what happens as people use it," he said.

 

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