Dear Lifehacker, I was at the football last weekend (go Swans!) on election night, and was trying to get election updates through my iPhone. Despite having full signal strength, I couldn't access the web or send messages all night until I left. Could the tower have been overloaded with people doing the same thing? I've heard of a similar thing happening at the end of the City to Surf. Also, is there any good way around the problem? I'm with Optus, so maybe Telstra wouldn't have as big an issue. Thanks, Disconnected
Picture by thepen
You've pretty much hit the nail on the head -- if there are a large number of people all in one place, they can swamp the available network, making it difficult or impossible to make calls, send text messages or browse the Internet. There's simply not always enough capacity to go around, so your chances of getting online to browse sometimes drop dramatically. (In simplistic terms, it's also one of the arguments raised against using wireless networks as the main source of broadband for Australia -- the more people in an area, the less speed they'll each get.)
This is very common at large concerts and sporting events, but can even happen over a wider area: when I travel to Las Vegas for CES each year, I work on the assumption that all phone networks will be hopeless most of them time. More than 100,000 people all trying to use their mobiles does not work out well.
If you're using a provider that has its own independent infrastructure, then you might get lucky and connect up sometimes -- but in a typical football crowd, even the smallest network provider (3) will probably have thousands of users. And ultimately it makes more sense to pick a phone that works where you are most of the time than at occasional special events.
I'm not aware of any good way of working around this problem: for communication purposes, text messages are a good choice (since they don't require a continuing connection), but that doesn't help with trying to get online. Sometimes, you just have to accept that you're at the football and worry about the election later (which would have been a pretty good move last Saturday, given that a week later we're still waiting to see what happens).