Representatives from Baltimore's major cellular telephone providers say they are confident the expected surge of people trying to make phone calls at tomorrow's Preakness Stakes won't cause problems to their networks, but recent history isn't on their side.
Just two weeks ago, at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, a high number of customers trying to place calls simultaneously resulted in widespread failures to connect.
BellSouth Mobility, the region's largest provider, had placed C.O.W.s (Cellular on Wheels) around the track at Churchill Downs, but even the extra transmission towers couldn't handle the overload. Quite simply, there were not enough channels for everyone.
Glen Moyes, BellSouth's regional director of marketing, said the company knew that there would be problems at the track on Derby day, but did all it could to help handle the sudden rise in attempted connections. In the past three years, BellSouth has tripled its capacity at Churchill Downs, yet it was still insufficient. "It would be impossible to expect that everyone could make a hit on their calls that day," he said.
As upward of 90,000 people bear down on Pimlico this weekend, none of the major cellular providers in Baltimore - Verizon Wireless (formerly BellAtlantic), Cellular One nor SprintPCS - are planning on bringing a C.O.W. to the track."The capacity of the towers at [the area around Pimlico] is comparable to other major sporting venues in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.," said Rich Dolson, Verizon's director of system performance in Baltimore and Washington. "We have looked at past Preaknesses and use that as one of our indicators. We do not have anything out of the ordinary planned for Saturday."
Although the Baltimore providers recognize that the Preakness will be an event with a large quantity of cell phone users in one place, they are convinced that the basic networks already in place should provide sufficient capacity.
Elissa Lumley, a spokeswoman for Cellular One, said its main network was designed to handle the high volume of calls normally placed during the region's massive rush hour, and will be able to handle a spike in usage this weekend."The signal is strong and the capacity is large, so it shouldn't have any trouble carrying over from the weekdays," Lumley said.
Local providers are also quick to point out that while the Preakness is an important race and has always drawn tremendous crowds, it isn't an anomaly."This area sees big events all the time," said Larry McDonnell, a spokesman for Sprint PCS. "We have a very strong backbone and plenty of people available to help if there are any problems out there. If there is a problem, the person should just hit clear and wait a few seconds before trying again. It is probably only temporary."