Stranded Without the Web at a Wireless Conference

Some of the Industry's Biggest Evangelists Left Sans Service

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It is one of the biggest and most important wireless gatherings of the year. So you would think this wouldn't be an issue: In several cases there wasn't enough wireless capacity in Las Vegas this week to serve the thousands of CTIA attendees who are the industry's biggest evangelists.

While sitting in the convention hall, I was trying to access e-mail through a mobile web browser, which had failed to load for the past 12 hours. I was able to get some connectivity (the New York Times and Bloomberg iPhone apps refreshed without incident) but being cut off from e-mail felt like missing an organ.

As I repeatedly clicked to refresh the browser, the head of CTIA told me and several hundreds of others in the audience an unbelievable statistic: 94% of wireless customers report satisfaction with their service. Then the heads of T-Mobile and Verizon proceed too tell us how great their networks are and how they're putting additional money behind their network infrastructures to make them even better and faster.

So why did it feel like the carriers, captains of the industry, couldn't get their act together at their big party -- where presumably they would want to show the world they're at the on top of their game?

My questions were met with defensiveness. No one complained about access to wireless service, the conference organizer told me. They asked if I wanted to go to the back room to see all the extra equipment they've put in place to ensure no wireless user is left behind. The head of the conference organization and his assistant hoped to demonstrate that perhaps my 6-month-old phone was the problem, that someone else in the office who had the same phone could access the mobile internet just fine. For the record, standing there in the office, it worked. But I was 50 feet away from where I needed to be.

For its part, my service provider, AT&T, insisted there was no story. "My phone is working fine," a spokesman said. "The service is not spotty. We take great pains to make sure there's extra coverage. We're really prepared for this."

But an on-site tech-support worker -- an eight-year veteran of all mega trade shows in Vegas -- said he had heard complaints from people in the morning who couldn't get e-mail on their phones. Half of them complained about AT&T. He said his supervisor had to call a service provider he wouldn't name, and, almost like clockwork, service improved -- since yesterday early afternoon I've had no problem getting on the internet using my cellphone. The confirmed attendance, which conference organizers said is expected to be off 10% to 15% from last year, led providers to scale back their capacities, which they brought back up when demand overwhelmed the system.

Perhaps this being a wireless conference, they should just put up more capacity to pre-empt an overload? At a wireless show, one wireless user without service is one too many.

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