Breaking down the presidential inauguration’s mobile infrastructure challenges

By Jonathan Crowl

This year’s presidential inauguration has been noted for the relatively small crowd assembled for the event in contrast with inaugurations of the past. However, that smaller population overlooks a much more formidable challenge: even with fewer in attendance, mobile data carriers have never been so hard-pressed to upgrade their data networks.

Credit those challenges to increasing data consumption and mobile activity by American consumers. With most US consumers now owning a smartphone and social media activity continuing to rise and proliferate across new platforms, large groups are demanding data more than ever before. For inauguration crowds bringing hundreds of thousands of people into a small geographic space, mobile carriers had to set out to upgrade their infrastructure months in advance.

The good news is that it worked. Carriers upgraded their towers and mobile infrastructure around Capitol Hill, and inaugural attendees were able to remain active on social media throughout the event. This sterling example of mobile innovation reflects the similar change that will eventually need to take place across the rest of the country.

A changing mobile landscape from sea to shining sea

The challenges of inaugural mobility are relatively new. In 2009, for Barack Obama’s first inauguration, only 10 percent of US consumers owned smartphones and there were far fewer data-guzzling apps and services, according to Wireless Week.

By 2013, that number had risen considerably to 35 percent. However, the average US citizen still wasn’t a smartphone owner. Compare that to 2017, when 72 percent of consumers are smartphone owners. Yet 2013 did offer some foreshadowing of what was to come. Although a smaller crowd gathered for Obama’s second inauguration, data usage increased 16-fold. And this was when the top phone on the market was the iPhone 5 and before many leading social media features of today were available to consumers. Those social innovations have played a major role in the continuing challenges faced by mobile carriers.

The new challenge of live streaming

If there’s one primary reason why data usage has skyrocketed since the 2013 inauguration, blame live-streaming. Since 2013, Snapchat has become one of the most-used social networks found online. Facebook has built live-streaming video into its platform, and Twitter has even live-streamed entire NFL broadcasts.

Consumers love live video, and they have all the equipment they need to create it. This constant data transfer is forcing mobile carriers to upgrade their infrastructure, and Washington, D.C. was one of the first places to get the treatment. According to The Hill, these upgrades to existing infrastructure increased the area’s data capabilities by 500 percent. Most of the upgrades made are permanent and serve as a template for similar innovations to occur across the country. This is important, because live-streaming video will only become more commonplace as more consumers acquire the technology to create it.

Looking ahead to future challenges

For the inauguration in 2021 and beyond, increasing data demands should be anticipated. The ability to supply adequate mobile coverage was supported by the relatively low turnout for this year’s presidential inauguration. If a future inauguration draws numbers comparable to Obama’s record-setting 2009 audience, which has been estimated at 1.8 million people, mobile communications providers may face unprecedented levels of data going back and forth as users live-stream, live tweet and continuously update their social media accounts.

Though live-streaming is the data-rich challenge providers have had to wrestle with this year, the 2021 inauguration could raise the bar even higher if immersive forms of content such as 360-degree video and virtual reality start to be produced and even live-streamed en masse.

It’s hard to know whether that’s a viable risk or how it might affect the mobile infrastructure of various carriers, if at all. However, given the record-setting data activity at this year’s inauguration, it seems reasonable to expect greater tests on the horizon.

Written By

Jonathan Crowl


Jonathan Crowl has served as a tech writer and reporter for a number of tech publications and corporations. Specializing in mobile technology and digital startups, he is based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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