Innovation

How AT&T built the data network for Trump's inauguration

This week nearly a million mobile phone users will attend inaugural events in Washington, D.C. Here's how AT&T spent two years and $15 million to prepare for the next president.

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Donald Trump's inauguration is expected to attract over 900,000 enthusiastic attendees, all of whom will be armed with a mobile phone. Photos and video of the event will resonate across the social web, and Washington, D.C. will grind to a congested crawl. Ironically the one thing that may flow smoothly at the ceremony, parade, and galas is mobile data.

Each inauguration attracts hundreds of thousands or millions of visitors to the D.C. metro area. Bill Clinton's swearing-in ceremony attracted 800,000 people, George W. Bush pulled 300,000, and Obama's 1.9 million attendees broke the 1.2 million record set by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. None of the historic events, however, had to wrestle with mobile connectivity challenges at the scale mobile networks contend with in 2016.

WATCH: 2017 Presidential inauguration (CBS News)

According to CBS News the total cost of the inauguration will run approximately $200 million, and the largest expenses will be security, infrastructure, and transportation. The inaugural committee has raised an additional $90 million in private donations from corporate sponsors. The average AirBNB rental runs $129, up $30 from the prior week's average rental price. The hotel and housing startup expects an additional 15,100 guests, a spike of 235 percent.

To support the spike mobile devices and data demand, AT&T deployed four Giant Eyeball Antennas and two high-capacity Drum Set Antennas on the National Mall. The Drum Set, according to the company, "provides 20x [more] LTE capacity than a traditional cell site and provides double the capacity of the Giant Eyeball Antenna." Seven high-capacity Cell on Wheels (CoW) units will trail crowds as users migrate from event to event. These installations, AT&T says, will increase LTE capacity along the National Mall by 400%.

SEE: Power checklist: Managing and troubleshooting mobile devices (Tech Pro Research report)

The company began preparation for the inauguration two years ago and invested over $15 million in D.C. network infrastructure. "We're using the process that we have developed for special large events in the past - like last year's Pope Visit to Philly, and big music festivals like Coachella," said AT&T's VP of Tech Planning & Engineering Scott Mair. "We started the planning process by working with the city to understand and learn the details like what, when, where, how many people are expected. We studied [the city] and after extensive testing, we chose the best areas to deploy the [technology] that would give our customers the best network experience."

Technology has evolved rapidly since the previous inauguration four years ago. During that inauguration, Mair said, the iPhone 5 and Google Glass were the event's top tech. In 2013, 35 percent of US adults owned smartphones. Today the number exceeds 72 percent. Snapchat was nascent in 2013, but today AT&T claims the mobile video messaging application is one of its largest data consumers.

AT&T claims the increase in popularity of mobile video streaming applications in particular has contributed to 150,000 percent network growth. "In 2013, during Obama's second Inauguration, although the crowd was smaller than 2009, data usage on our D.C. area network was more than 16 times larger than it was during Obama's first inauguration in 2009," Mair said. "We expect to see even more data usage this year as streaming video apps have gained in popularity."

SEE: Mobile Device Research: Security trends, attack rates, and vendor ratings for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and wearables (Tech Pro Research)

The infrastructure upgrade is a long term investment for AT&T. In addition to the short-term boosts, D.C. residents and visitors can expect Distributed Antenna Systems to increase network capacity at airports and hotels "for years to come," Mair said. He hopes Trump's inauguration will teach his team a few tricks they can use for future events. "Our network engineers are focused on speed and capacity so spectators can post selfies and photos... from the National Mall without getting stuck in a network traffic jam."

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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