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Flood of cellular phones to tax Games airwaves

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In the aftermath of a tornado that ripped through Salt Lake City in August 1999, mobile phone users hit cellular gridlock. Getting through was frustratingly hit and miss, much more miss than hit.

A different kind of storm will overtake the city in less than a month. And with the 2002 Winter Games will come wireless phones. Thousands of them.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee alone will put 10,000 cell and PCS (personal cellular systems) phones into the hands of staffers and volunteers and lease them to journalists, some 80 national Olympic committees and Olympic sponsors.

Then there are all the mobile phones already in circulation.

About four in 10 Americans subscribe to a wireless service, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association based in Washington, D.C. Only one in 10 owned a cell phone when Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Games, and many visitors left them home due to high roaming rates.

That quadrupling could cause problems for Salt Lake City that other Olympic hosts haven't faced, said Rick Barlow, who directed Olympic planning for US WEST Wireless before moving to Cricket Comfortable Wireless as general manager.

"It's going to be like extra traffic on I-15," he said.

In addition to the SLOC phones, it's a safe bet that thousands of athletes, visitors, locals, officials and others will have their own mobiles pressed to their ears at one time or another. Or perhaps at the same time in the event of something big whether it's an emergency or an unexpected gold medal.

Barlow, a 25-year veteran of the telecommunications industry, said users can expect outgoing or incoming calls to be blocked at times during the Games. "There's a fixed amount of channels or capacity, if you will, on a wireless network."

Service providers designed the network with an expectation of 2 percent blockage, said Sharon Kingman, SLOC telecommunications managing director. They system is "working perfectly" if two out of 100 calls don't go through. Callers, she said, can expect to connect on a second try.

Past Olympic experience shows the hour before the opening ceremonies has the busiest cell traffic of the Games, Kingman said. Spectators, she said, typically try to find each other or call someone to say, "Guess where I am."

The 2002 telecommunications buildup has been in the works for several years. Olympics sponsors AT&T and Qwest spent millions to beef up coverage, especially along transportation corridors.

"We are a before-the-Games function, then we just hold our breath," Kingman said.

AT&T Wireless built 28 new cell sites along the Wasatch Front and trotted out 35 COWs or cell sites on wheels to meet the expected high demand. The hardware doubles the company's wireless, voice and data capacity along the Wasatch Front, said AT&T spokeswoman Cindy Larsen.

"I feel very confident that our system will be running optimally for the Olympics," she said.

Qwest quadrupled its capacity and believes it has "more than ample" capacity, said Bonnie Anderson, Qwest vice president for the Utah local network. Blockage, she said, will be minimal.

Minute-by-minute system monitoring allows adjustments for high volume to be made on the fly, Anderson said.

Barlow said he expects the cellular industry will shine for the Games and the masses will be able to make and receive calls as usual. But, he said, "the truth is no one knows for sure."

E-MAIL: romboy@desnews.com