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If you use your smartphone to photograph a partial solar eclipse, you should cover the camera lens with a solar filter – even if it’s a makeshift one, as shown here. (NASA Photo / Sten Odenwald / Lou Mayo)

One month from today, Americans could well be in on the most photographed, most widely shared total solar eclipse in history – but it’s up to telecom providers to make sure it doesn’t turn into a total bust.

From Oregon to South Carolina, millions of eclipse-chasers will be in what’s likely to be unfamiliar territory, outside the usual hot spots for cell service, scrambling to put photos online or stream live video.

Cellphone carriers will be using their tools of the trade – including mobile communication towers, portable power generators and beefed-up backhaul connections – to keep up with the flood of data and phone calls.

“All of that’s in the playbook,” said Paula Doublin, AT&T’s assistant vice president for antenna solutions, distributed antenna systems and small cells. “We’re getting an opportunity to establish some new pages in the playbook this year.”

Preparing for the Aug. 21 eclipse sounds a lot like preparing for the Super Bowl: Thousands of extra people will be congregating in places where they don’t usually congregate, generating spikes of data traffic over a limited stretch of time.

All the major carriers, including AT&T as well as Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, will be deploying a menagerie of mobile installations to beef up cell service: COWs (“Cell on Wheels”), COLTs (“Cell on Light Trucks”) and RATs (“Repeaters on a Trailer”).

And there’ll be an added degree of difficulty: “What’s exciting to me is, we’re deploying the COWs and the COLTs in places where we’ve never deployed them before,” Doublin told GeekWire.

Take Madras, Ore., which is within the 70-mile-wide, coast-to-coast track of totality and is said to have the highest chance of sunny skies, based on historical data.

“On a normal day, it’s around 6,500 folks,” Doublin said. “But they’re getting ready for God knows how many … 35,000 to 40,000 people, based on some estimates we’ve seen out there.”

Thanks in part to a NASA-sanctioned event in Madras called SolarFest, state officials say up to 250,000 tourists could be visiting the three counties in central Oregon that take in Madras, Bend and Prineville.

Farther east, consider Hopkinsville, Ky., the town closest to the point of greatest eclipse. Hopkinsville’s population of 31,000 is projected to double, and AT&T’s algorithm says the area’s cell service capacity should be boosted 160 percent.

Doublin is gearing up to boost capacity even more. “We could get as much as 300 percent there,” she said. “That’s the thing about these festivals. You trust your algorithm, and judge from there.”

Comparing the eclipse activities to a music festival is, if anything, more apt that the Super Bowl analogy. Imagine gearing up for a modern-day Woodstock in someone’s pasture. Now imagine a dozen or more Woodstocks, running simultaneously from one side of the country to the other.

Fortunately, no single carrier has to handle all the added load. All the major carriers will be beefing up coverage at the expected high-density sites, including Madras and Hopkinsville.

For what it’s worth, AT&T’s list also includes Mitchell, Ore.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Glendo, Wyo.; Columbia, Owensville and Washington in Missouri; and Carbondale, Ill., where thousands of eclipse-watchers are expected to fill Southern Illinois University’s Saluki Stadium to watch the longest-lasting stretch of totality.

Verizon says it has built out its network to such an extent that the deployment of temporary network assets for major events has become “largely unnecessary.”

“That said, due to the very large crowds expected to gather in parts of Oregon, we are planning to deploy a cell on wheels in Bend, and another one near the gates of the Jefferson County Fairgrounds [in Madras] to increase capacity for SolarFest,” Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato, who focuses on the Pacific region, told GeekWire.

Sprint spokesman John Votava said his company is “currently evaluating locations where mobile cell sites and additional capacity might be needed.” Madras is already on the list – as is Silverton, Ore., where Sprint is sponsoring the Total Eclipse of the Garden festival.

Stacey DiNuzzo, a spokeswoman for T-Mobile based in Bellevue, Wash., said “we’ll be boosting capacity across the path of totality,” with Oregon high on the list.

Eclipse map
This map shows the track of totality passing over the United States on Aug. 21. Click on the image for a larger PDF version. (NASA Map)

Does this mean eclipse-chasers will be able to live-stream to their heart’s content? Don’t count on it. Travelers should follow the standard advice for situations in which bandwidth may be constrained, with a couple of extra twists:

  • Limit phone calls during prime time for the eclipse. Text messages and emails have a better chance of getting through during periods of network congestion.
  • If your call doesn’t get through the first time, wait 10 seconds before redialing.
  • Be sure your phone is well-charged, and have a car charger or portable battery handy for recharging.
  • Turn off cellular data usage for apps you don’t need, and disable app updates. Carriers’ smartphone apps can help you manage data usage.
  • Protect your eyes (and your smartphone’s camera) during the eclipse’s partial phase. NASA has a whole webpage full of tips for photographing the eclipse with your mobile device.

Don’t sweat it if you can’t get that eclipse video posted immediately to Facebook.

“People might want to think about perhaps not live-streaming, but capturing their experience and sharing it later when they’re on Wi-Fi,” Verizon’s Flato said.

Most importantly, don’t get so hung up on the technology that you miss enjoying the first coast-to-coast, all-American solar eclipse in 99 years.

AT&T’s Doublin plans to watch the total solar eclipse from a spot near her place in Cape Girardeau, Mo. – and she definitely isn’t planning to have a cellphone in her hand for the entire time.

“My best advice to people who are going to be lucky enough to see it is: Enjoy it, be careful with it, and use the devices that you have,” she told GeekWire. “I want to see this with my own eyes, so that’s how I’m going to do it.”

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