UCSB and Isla Vista’s enormous volume of cellular phone traffic – which normally exceeds that of Los Angeles International Airport and the entire state of Hawaii – will likely cause communication problems this Halloween weekend as thousands of out-of-town partiers enter the area.
During Halloween 2003, Isla Vista’s thousands of cell phone toting partiers overwhelmed the area’s cellular phone capacity, making it difficult to for people in the area to place calls, including emergency calls to 9-1-1. According to local officials, the same situation can be expected this year because no special provisions have been made to increase the area’s cell coverage.
Paul Valenzuela, manager of communication services at UCSB, said that Isla Vista has very few cell towers and the system in the area is already pretty crowded during normal use. He said Storke Tower is a prime spot for cell antennas because it is high enough to cover a large area, including I.V. and Santa Barbara Airport.
“Verizon has a cell site in Storke Tower. Storke also has Cingular and AT&T,” Valenzuela said. “On the AT&T cell, there are more minutes of phone activity from UCSB when the students are here than there is in LAX or all of Hawaii.”
Such a large call volume is already approaching the system’s limit, but when 35,000 or more visitors arrive in I.V. for Halloween, Valenzuela said the added cell phone use will likely cause problems.
“There is clearly not enough capacity,” Valenzuela said. “If the sites are all tied up already and someone calls 9-1-1, they will not get through.”
Valenzuela said 9-1-1 calls are not given preference by the cellular network because there is currently no mechanism in place to give any calls priority over any others.
Sgt. Chris Pappas of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. said that this deficiency was a cause for concern during Halloween weekend last year.
“It is a problem. There’s no doubt about it,” Pappas said. “When you have 35 or 40 thousand people in a small area, it’s going to overload the system in many ways. [Emergency cell phone usage] was recognized as a potential issue.”
Cellular phones work by sending and receiving radio signals to a service providers’ tower. The voice or data that the phone sends to the tower’s antenna is forwarded to the provider’s network for routing to a landline or to another cell phone. Each tower is designed to handle a surrounding area of about ten square miles, known as a cell. To cover a large area, numerous cells are needed to create a continuous grid of coverage.
Because cell phones must send a radio signal out to the tower, the range of each cell is limited by the phone’s transmitter power. The cells are also limited by the total number of calls that can be handled simultaneously because each phone must use a portion of the available radio frequencies, called channels. If all of the available channels are already in use, the tower will refuse requests for additional calls. This channel limit applies to both incoming and outgoing cellular calls.
Police officers carry walkie-talkies that do not rely on cellular technology, Pappas said. When additional officers are brought in for Halloween, they also bring additional radios and communication equipment. Even though many officers have cell phones not officially issued by their department, they still carry traditional police communication gear, Pappas said.
In many circumstances, cellular phone companies will bring in additional temporary equipment to handle a large volume of calls. Ken Muche, public relations manager for Verizon Wireless, said that all kinds of various events would warrant additional capacity.
“If there is a particular athletic event, like the Olympics, or an event of state, like Reagan’s funeral, we are able to wheel out temporary equipment called C.O.W.s, or cells on wheels,” Muche said.
Muche said he was not aware that Isla Vista would be hosting a gathering of many thousands of people. He said that such an event would warrant further investigation in regards to deploying a C.O.W.
“I haven’t heard anything about planning for Halloween in Santa Barbara,” Muche said. “I think at that level [of attendance], you might see the boost that you would expect at a playoff game. That would probably get on our radar.”
Valenzuela said as far as he knows, no phone company has made plans to install a C.O.W. on UCSB campus for Halloween.
“The carriers would have to come see me to setup a C.O.W. on campus,” Valenzuela said. “They could also put one on private property somewhere else. I have had requests to set up new permanent sites, but not C.O.W.s for Halloween.”
On Tuesday, Cingular announced it has merged with AT&T. Lauren Garner, regional public relations manager for Cingular, said that the company will pool its newly acquired technological resources.
“We will be integrating the networks to allow the combined customers to use both networks,” Garner said. “We’ve added a lot of capacity, but we recognize that on Halloween night, there still might be some difficulty.”
Garner said that Cingular does not have any plans to install a C.O.W in I.V. for Halloween. She said that customers could save the system’s capacity by limiting phone use, and by using text messages in lieu of voice conversations.
Pappas said that he felt the sheer number of people would be difficult to manage even with an operating cell network.
“When so many people inundate an area in such a small time period, there will be many problems,” Pappas said.
Muche said Verizon is constantly improving its nationwide network, which is already larger than its competitors. These additions may improve the network’s coverage in the long run, Muche said, but for an event like Halloween in I.V. it may be too much at once.
“There’s only so much a network can handle,” Muche said.