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Cell Phones Jam, Stabilize in Time of Panic

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - After a tragedy like what occurred at the Boston Marathon, people everywhere turn to their smartphones for comfort and information. Whether it's to call relative or to see what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter, the natural impulse is to use the phone. Unfortunately, that created other problems.

Only so many people can use their cell phones in one particular area at the same time. There is only so much "bandwidth" available in any location to simultaneously handle hundreds of thousands of phone calls and millions of bits of data requests.

That's why cell phones were of little use right after the explosions yesterday in Boston. Some uninformed person in Washington told a reporter that communications in the area had been suspended to make sure that cell phones couldn't be used to set-off other explosives. Not true.

A number of law enforcement as well as cellular industry sources told me that people in the bomb zone couldn't use their cell phones because too many people were trying to use them at the same time. Purely a case of overloaded lines.

Verizon (VZ - Get Report) and Sprint (S) say they were never asked by police to suspend cellular service in the area. The carriers were forced to block calls because "the number of calls exceeded capacity." Verizon asked customers to use email and texting instead of trying to make voice calls in and around Boston's Copley Square. AT&T (T - Get Report) and T-Mobile haven't commented on the situation.

This morning, cellular communications are reportedly "getting better" in Boston. There are still areas with "spotty" service but overall, conditions are improving as the large number of visitors attending yesterday's race leave the downtown area.

Cellular providers attempt to provide enough bandwidth in any given area to ensure they're able to handle a normal level of communications. the carriers try to make available a buffer in case the need arises. But when something occurs that causes panic leading people to grab their phone, cellular company are hard pressed to handle the surge.

As a society, it shows just how much we rely on cell phones and the technologies which make them possible. And, despite all that technological now-how, just how fragile those systems - and life itself - really are.

--Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.
Gary Krakow is TheStreet's senior technology correspondent.

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