News & Politics

Phone Companies Are Installing Extra Cell Phone Coverage to Handle all Your Papal-Visit Sharing

A cell tower on wheels, or COW. Photograph courtesy AT&T.

Pope Francis‘s visit to DC next week is expected to bring the kind of traffic and heavy security typical of a presidential inauguration, and events of that magnitude often wreak just as much havoc on mobile phone service as they do commutes. To alleviate some of the inevitable network-frying, though, AT&T is installing temporary, mobile cell-phone towers around the sites the pontiff will visit over his three-day stay.

The devices—known as cells on wheels, or COWs—will be placed near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the White House, and the Capitol, AT&T spokeswoman Alexia Sikora says. The COWs will come in handy when tens or hundreds of thousands of spectators flock to these sites expecting to be able to tweet, photograph, and record the entire event. An estimated 25,000 worshippers are expected at the basilica next Wednesday afternoon, when Francis celebrates the first canonization Mass on US soil.

The COW by the basilica will expand cell capacity there by a factor of 15, and the COWs by the White House and Capitol will boost coverage in those places by as much as a factor of ten. The added coverage will be desperately needed—while government officials have been reluctant to release crowd estimates for the pontiff’s events, AT&T says it expects at least 200,000 people to jam the Mall for Francis’s parade Wednesday after he leaves the White House.

Still, Sikora says people should be thrifty in how much they actually share during the papal events. Even with the COWs, AT&T recommends people get to a wi-fi network before uploading their blurry, distant photos of Francis to Instagram and other visual-heavy social networks.

UPDATE, 5 PM: Not to be outdone, Verizon Wireless says it, too, is temporarily expanding its coverage areas while Pope Francis is in DC. It will be posting COWs of its own near Catholic University, the National Air and Space Museum, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument during the pope’s events next week. The company is also installing “mini-cells” to expand its network capacity in high-traffic areas in downtown DC. Verizon spokeswoman Melanie Ortel also says that the company is also arranging to have employees at its three downtown retail stores stay in the District overnight if the throngs of phone-wielding papal visitors need an assist.

And, in a case of “our papal plans are bigger than AT&T’s,” Ortel also says that Verizon will add a channel to its FiOS television service with a live broadcast of Francis’s public appearances.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.