Rural towns in the eclipse's path are bracing for a flood of smartphone-toting visitors
Nestled in the southwest corner of Kentucky, about an hour west of Bowling Green, is the city of Hopkinsville. Ordinarily known for its historical landmarks and hot, humid summers, Hopkinsville is home to about 32,000 people on a normal day.
But "normal" is about to go out the window.
More than 100,000 visitors are expected to descend on Hopkinsville and the surrounding region for this month's historic solar eclipse. The city lies along what's known as the "path of totality," a swath of land stretching across the United States where, for a brief moment on Aug. 21, the moon will appear to completely block out the sun.
The crush of people who've journeyed to Hopkinsville for the celestial occasion will need food. They'll need shelter. And, in an era of Instagram, Snapchat and live-streaming, they'll almost certainly need cellphone service. But the latter could be a problem: Cell service basically doesn't exist, at least not at eclipse viewing sites such as Orchardale Farm, barely a 15-minute drive from town.
"You could typically get zero to one bar of service at these locations," said Brooke Jung, the eclipse coordinator for Hopkinsville.
Hopkinsville isn't the only place grappling with a need for sudden cell service in a rural area. On the other side of the country, Madras, Oregon, is a town of 6,500 that's bracing for an influx of anywhere from 85,000 to 150,000 visitors, according to Brian Crow, fair coordinator at the Jefferson County Fair Complex.
"As they say in Canada, it's going to be a little bit of a (expletive)show," Crow joked. "But the great thing about our community is that we've been planning for over two years."
When Crow first joined the planning effort last year, he made a point of asking about cellular service and the effect of having thousands of people vying for access to mobile data. All four nationwide carriers - AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint - are addressing the problem by rolling out surge capacity. Some are going to be cells on wheels, or COWs. Others are known as cells on light trucks, or COLTs. But whatever they're called, they're all designed to do one thing particularly well: Boost wireless capacity, in some cases by more than 300 percent.
Carriers expect localized spikes in cellular usage along the path of totality as the sun and moon move across the sky. That should help spread out the overall amount of demand coming from those areas. And even as places like Madras and Hopkinsville experience more demand than they are typically prepared for, the networks as a whole should absorb the surge as easily as they do in the event of, say, a major sporting event.
If cellphone users are really having trouble sending photos to friends and family over Internet-based messaging apps like WhatsApp or Snapchat, they can always fall back on text messaging, said Scott Mair, senior vice president of network planning and engineering at AT&T.
"The stress point is going to be at the individual cell site at the moment of viewing," he said. "That's why we've augmented the capacity there."
In addition to Hopkinsville and Madras, you can expect temporary cells to crop up at four sites in Missouri, one site in Idaho, one in Illinois and one in Wyoming. For many of these communities, the best part is that it won't cost them a thing. In Madras, it'll run the other way around: the telecom companies will be paying rent.
"It's in the best interest of the providers to be here," said Crow. "They want coverage for their customers."
The thousands of people who hope to catch the eclipse on their smartphones probably agree. But because the vast majority of them will go home after the event, the viewing sites won't be getting a permanent capacity boost. Instead, the COWs will be heading back to the barn.