At the stroke of midnight, millions of people — twice as many as last year — will be typing on their phones instead of kissing a loved one.
Carriers say texts and voice calls are expected to triple from 11:59 to midnight New Year's Eve. And compared to last year's countdown, there will be twice as many texters and three times as many people sending photos.
Don't be surprised if that text message wishing Mom a happy New Year isn't delivered until well into 2011, or doesn't make it on the first try, especially if you're in a crowded area.
Put simply, the current technology isn't designed to flawlessly handle everyone sending a text message at the same time, despite continual improvements. It isn't easy to keep up with the growing demand for bandwidth in a smart-phone-armed society.
"If money was no object ... there still would be customers who would not get all their text messages precisely at 12:01 on New Year's Day," said Sprint spokesman John Taylor.
Carriers say they're prepared for the deluge of messages, but say it's more likely that delays will happen for messages that travel between different carriers, rather than between two people under the same network.
But in the case of an event bigger than the ball drop — such as a Super Bowl or hurricane — the carriers deploy extra mobile cell sites to handle the demand. That's not seen as being necessary for a 10-minute burst of messages.
Even if carriers had the money to build a data highway that would never have a voice or data traffic jam, they are limited in how much airwave real-estate they can use, called wireless spectrum.
Spectrums are frequencies assigned to radio, television, satellites, the military — and another chunk is assigned for phones. The slice of spectrum available for cell phones has grown 10 times larger since the 1970s, but there's still not enough, said Stu Lipoff, an engineering consultant and board member of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society.
"It turns out the demand and the need are growing faster than the available spectrum," Lipoff said.
Lipoff offers a tip: On New Year's Eve, users might have more luck sending a midnight greeting via photo message or e-mail versus a plain text message.
That's because plain text-only messages travel on a separate, smaller pathway than other phone voice and data services. So in theory, if everyone is backed up on the texting road, users could have an easier time sending a message on the larger voice and data super-highway.
But Lipoff has a better method of welcoming his family into the New Year:
"I can use the highest-bandwidth system I know, which is shouting across the room and giving everyone a hug."
NOT THE BUSIEST TIME OF YEAR:
Although it has the biggest instant swarm of demand, New Year's isn't the busiest messaging and calling day overall. That honor belongs to Mother's Day.
The international wireless trade group CTIA reported in June that about 4.9 billion text messages are sent a day in the U.S. Last year data services like texting, e-mailing and streaming video surpassed the amount of bandwidth used for voice calls.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.