On Aug. 21, we’re going to experience a total solar eclipse — but if you were planning on relying on your phone for communication purposes while it’s happening, heads up: You might have some cell phone trouble during the eclipse. However, it’s not because of the eclipse itself; it’s because of the huge numbers of people that are expected to descend upon prime viewing locations. Did you go to the Women’s March or another recent, massive demonstration or event? It’s going to be kind of like that. And given how reliant many of us have become on having access to the internet and other communication access on the go, it’s something you’ll want to take into account when planning your eclipse-watching activities.
The big issue is the fact that the eclipse’s “path of totality” — the area in which there will actually be a full eclipse, with periods of complete darkness — lies largely in rural areas. The path of totality will start in Oregon before making its way across the country; it will cut through 14 states in total, finally finishing up in South Carolina. (For the curious, here’s an interactive map of the whole thing.)
These areas aren’t usually heavily populated, but because of the momentous occasion this eclipse is considered to be, many, many people are expected to travel to them in order to witness the event. Madras, Ore., for example — which has teamed up with NASA to create a viewing event called SolarFest — usually has a population of around 6,500; however, according to AT&T’s assistant vice president for antenna solutions, Paula Doublin, who recently spoke with GeekWire about the eclipse, “They’re getting ready for … 35,000 to 40,000 people.” Take an area where cell service often isn’t great to begin with, add a huge boost of people, and, well… you do the math.
The good news is, though, that cell phone carriers have been preparing for the event for a while; in some cases, such as AT&T, they’ve been putting plans into place for a year and a half, according to Mic. The Washington Post reports that AT&T will be setting up eight portable cell towers to help handle the extra traffic in a number of locations across the United States: Madras and Mitchell in Oregon; Columbia, Owensville, and Washington in Missouri; Carbondale in Illinois; Hopkinsville in Kentucky; and Glendo Reservoir in Wyoming will all be getting a boost. Sprint and Verizon Wireless told WaPo that, thanks to “recent network enhancements,” mobile or temporary cell towers aren’t quite as necessary for them anymore; even so, though, Sprint bringing in mobile towers to Madras and Mitchell, as well as in Rexburg in Idaho. Verizon, meanwhile, will be plunking them down in Bend, Ore. and in Madras, according to GeekWire. GeekWire also noted that T-Mobile will be “boosting capacity across the path of totality,” according to a spokesperson for the company, with a particular focus on Oregon.
Fun fact: These mobile units are typically referred to as COWs, COLTs, and RATs. The acronyms stand for “Cell on Wheels,” “Cell on LightTrucks,” and “Repeaters on a Trailer." They are also my favorite acronyms ever, because all I can think right now is, “FETCHEZ LA VACHE!”
Also worth noting is the fact that a lot of places are preparing for the eclipse as if it were a wide-scale disaster. Newsweek explains why:
Here’s why many folks are planning for a disaster: Oregon has a population of 4 million people, and the eclipse is expected to draw 1 million visitors to the state for a few days. In Missouri, preparations resemble that for a blizzard or “everything from St. Patrick’s Day parade to a World Series celebration,” says Chris Hernandez, city spokesman for Kansas City, Missouri, one of the larger metro areas in the path of the eclipse.
All of those visitors are expected to clog interstates,along with state and local roads, for days before and after the eclipse, much like the rush during emergency evacuations, says Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross. “Some of these places are never going to see traffic like this,” he says. In some areas, “the population will be double or triple.”
This is why it also makes sense to follow the FCC’s suggestions for communicating during emergency situations while you're gearing up for the eclipse: Limit your phone calls only to ones that are non-essential, wait 10 second before redialing if you don’t get through the first time, text if possible, and so on and so forth. I’d also recommend setting up a designated meeting spot so that if you get separated from your group and can’t get in touch by phone, you all know where to go to find each other.
Why is this particular eclipse such a Thing? Because it’s an incredibly rare event. According to NASA, this is the first time the contiguous United States has seen a total solar eclipse since 1979; it’s also the first total solar eclipse to have occurred solely in the United States since the country's founding (or, maybe more accurately, since the colonists arrived). Many of us will likely never see another total solar eclipse, so this is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Thanks to all this, plus advents in travel and technology in the years since the last one, it’s not exactly surprising that it’s expected to be the most-viewed eclipse in history. The full eclipse will only be visible in the path of totality, but don't worry if you're not in it; you'll still see something pretty cool: Pretty much everyone in the contiguous United States will witness at least a partial eclipse.
Oh, and even if you were just planning on using your phone to take pictures during the event — uh, don’t. Or if you do, make sure you’ve got a filter on the lens. The same way looking directly at a solar eclipse without eye protecting can damage your eyes, taking a picture without protection can damage your phone’s camera lens. NASA’s got some tips on how to view the eclipse safely, though, so definitely check those out; these apps might also be useful.