Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Cellular network, meet social network

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Cram 50,000 people into a stadium with one of rock’s biggest names – or send thousands of revelers downtown for a hockey celebration – and you can bet most anyone with a smartphone will want to use it.

But many of the photos, texts and tweets Winnipeggers tried to send at last month’s blockbuster U2 concert didn’t go anywhere. The same thing happened when Bono wowed crowds in Edmonton and reports of similar issues emerged from the NHL rally that drew thousands of Winnipeggers to The Forks after news of the team’s return emerged.

Put simply, cellular networks got overwhelmed by the thousands of people trying to use them at once. It’s not a new problem in Manitoba, but with the rise in smartphone use and growing take-up of social media, the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better.

I ran the issue by a couple of local telecoms providers. Rogers spokeswoman Marina Guy said things were "slower than normal" when it came to texting and data use on the nights of the U2 show and the rally, something that can happen when usage spikes unexpectedly.

MTS spokeswoman Gillian Potvin said MTS tries to make sure towers can handle traffic during peak hours, and did add extra capacity during the U2 show. That didn’t happen for the NHL rally, given the short notice. Text messages and tweets don’t add too much to the load, she said, but photos are a much bigger drain on network capacity.

As you might expect, it makes a difference if people are tweeting, texting and photo-sending from the same location, versus spread across Winnipeg. An even distribution means more people can use the network at once, rather than overloading specific cell sites. Even when one or two sites are congested due to, say a concert, that likely won’t affect the broader network, said Potvin. (Rogers and MTS share a network across Manitoba, incidentally.)

There are some workarounds to ease network overload. Rogers uses systems called Cells on Wheels (COWs) to boost capacity during major events, like the Olympic Games in B.C., Guy said.

No word yet on whether any COWs might be in attendance for game one in Winnipeg, come fall – Guy wouldn’t speak to specifics, except to say Rogers is always looking to boost capacity in high-use areas -- but here’s hoping the networks can handle the smartphone frenzy the first time the city’s new NHL team takes to the ice.

-- Lindsey Wiebe / Manitoba Social

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