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Wireless Carriers Deploy 'Cell on Wheels' To Boost Coverage In Eclipse Path

Sprint deployed this ''cell on wheels'' to boost capacity in Madras, Oregon, for the upcoming solar eclipse.
Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Sprint deployed this ''cell on wheels'' to boost capacity in Madras, Oregon, for the upcoming solar eclipse.

With hordes of eclipse chasers expected to pull out their phones to share the memorable experience next week, wireless carriers are deploying temporary mobile cell towers in Oregon and Idaho to boost capacity in the path of the solar eclipse.

But while the move is welcome, it may not be enough to prevent overloaded networks.

Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have each brought in a capacity booster to Madras in central Oregon—the center of eclipse mania. The temporary cell towers poke out of trailers on wheels and are secured with lots of guy wires.

Other places getting a temporary boost from a so-called "cell on wheels" include Bend (Verizon) and Mitchell (AT&T) also in central Oregon, Silverton (Sprint) and Salem (T-Mobile) in the Willamette Valley and Idaho Falls (AT&T), upper Snake River Valley (T-Mobile) and Rexburg, Idaho (Sprint).

"We’re continuing to evaluate other locations where mobile cell sites and additional capacity might be needed to ensure our customers have a great experience," Sprint spokesman John Votava wrote in an email Monday. "We are not anticipating any outages."

But the emergency services manager for the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office still warns visitors to be prepared for their cell phones not to work.

"It's important to recognize the limitations of rural areas," Nathan Garibay said by phone from the sheriff's office in Bend. 

"In instances of heavy congestion, customers are encouraged to send SMS text messages instead of voice calls," Votava said. 

City of Madras Public Works Director Jeff Hurd said he and his staff made sure to have backup radio channels for communication available, but he was still glad to see the temporary cell towers arrive. 

"My first reaction when I heard they were bringing them was, 'Oh, good!' That is a good thing," Hurd said. "We need those because everyone relies on cell phone services." 

The wireless industry has invented funny acronyms for mobile cell sites. The cell on wheels trailers are known as COWs, which sometimes are augmented by cell on light trucks, or COLTs. 

"While our COWs may not jump over the moon, they will keep you connected," AT&T Senior VP of Network Planning and Engineering Scott Mair wrote in a blog post Monday. "We expect that these deployments will boost capacity by an average of 160 percent.” 

Other times you may see COWs leave their barns are at heavily-attended football games or after natural disasters.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.