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At Gasparilla, dead cellphone service is as ubiquitous as beads and rum drinks

TAMPA — Some consider it a Gasparilla rite of passage: You're lost, confused. You turn to your cellphone and try to call your missing comrades. But it won't connect.

You call again. The signal drops. You try to send a text. It fails.

You double-tap a map app. It's blank.

At Gasparilla, the smartphone struggle is real.

Follow along on all things Gasparilla at our live blog, and join in by using the hashtag #Gasparillagram (if you can get a signal, that is)

More than 200,000 people are expected to pack into the 5 miles of open streets surrounding Bayshore Boulevard for the main parade Saturday. That means more than 200,000 cellphones will be within blocks of each other, simultaneously trying to use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, check Google Maps and even do old-fashioned things like call and text.

Simply put, downtown's existing cell towers get slammed by the digital demand.

"It's kind of a compliment," said Darrell Stefany, president of EventFest, Inc., which runs Gasparilla. "It's one of the most photographed and unique festivals in the country."

ALL IN: A Gasparilla 2016 guide and insider tips

Two of the biggest wireless providers in Tampa Bay, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, are well aware of the surge in data demand Gasparilla brings.

Verizon places temporary towers along the parade route to bolster cellphone reception. AT&T officials said at the end of 2015 they increased the capacity at existing towers along the parade's route, something Verizon says it's done, too.

Experts say that for smartphones, it's the equivalent of being on a crowded highway: There's only so many lanes and everyone wants to get through.

"A lot of people together in a small geographic area .... and they all want to share their experiences with photos, texts and tweets," said Verizon spokeswoman Kate Jay, "it becomes a capacity issue."

Parade-goers say they noticed some improvement in service last year compared to past years. Others, still scarred from getting lost because they lost cell service in Gasparilla parades past, say they've learned not to rely on their phones during the annual pirate invasion.

Meghan Mangrum's worst Gasparilla was in 2014 as an undergrad at the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. She said her then-boyfriend from Orlando (a Gasparilla rookie) got lost in the pirate mob after a few too many sips of Ciroc Red Berry Vodka.

He also took off with her phone by mistake.

Mangrum, now 24 and a journalism graduate student at the University of Florida, was with a friend when her boyfriend vanished.

She used her friend's phone to try to reach him, but several calls and texts wouldn't go through. When the parade dispersed, Mangrum lost the friend, too.

"I was homeless," she said, "and phoneless."

Not long after, she spotted her boyfriend by a palm tree — holding her phone aloft in one hand and his own in another. He had a hopeless look on his face.

"You could tell he was using both phones to no avail," she said.

The two aren't together anymore. Mangrum swears Gasparilla isn't at fault.

She'll make the pilgrimage to Tampa again for the parade this year, but now knows to use the buddy system and have backup plans.

"If all else fails," she said, "meet at the car."

Eric Ortiz. 23, of Tampa, said it's not Gasparilla if he doesn't get lost because of a weak cell signal. He said his friends pick a street or landmark to meet, aware that relying on phones to find each other is a gamble.

Ortiz said he had a little more luck with his phone last year than years before. A few years ago, he said, he'd get a "no results found" screen when he tried to use a maps application. Last year he got part of the map to download.

NAVIGATING THE INVASION: Tampa has plan for preventing traffic snarls

What Verizon does to increase its networks capacity for Gasparilla — such as adding antennas to main cell sites and temporary towers on Bayshore Boulevard, south of Rome Avenue, and at Bayshore and Bay-To-Bay Boulevards — is comparable to what it has to do to boost service at the Daytona 500, which was attended by more than 140,000 in 2012.

Bill Androckitis, 33, of Tampa, notices that during Gasparilla cell service starts to wane mid-to-late morning, when the pirate invasion kicks off, and get worse the closer it gets to parade time.

The AT&T user said his texts may be delayed for hours. His calls typically go through, but the parade is too loud to actually hear anything.

Despite failed meet-ups with friends he couldn't text, Androckitis said he doesn't fault the cellphone companies.

"There's only so much you can do" Androckitis said, "when you have that many people show up."

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

Tips for surviving Gasparilla without cell service:

Time-stamp texts: Help family and friends by putting the time you sent the text in the message. That way they'll know if heavy cell traffic delayed the message by a few hours when they receive it.

Take screenshots of maps and parade information: If you know you may need a map of Bayshore Boulevard to get around, take a screenshot of one and save it to your phone. You'll be able to refer to it if your phone struggles to open mapping apps. You can do the same for parade information on the city's Gasparilla website: www.tampagov.net/node/108871.

Go to the parade with those you want to see: Parade-goers say meeting people once you've entered the pirate mob is near impossible. Travel with the group of people you intend enjoy the parade with. Don't be surprised, though, if you get separated.

Pick a meeting spot: Pick a street corner or landmark to meet anyone from your group who gets lost in the crowd. Others suggest picking a time for your krewe to meet back at the car to ensure, at least, everyone can get home together.

IF YOU GO: 101st GASPARILLA INVASION AND PARADE OF THE PIRATES

The Concerts: Live music starts at 10 a.m. today on stages at Curtis Hixon Park and at MacDill Park for Pirate Fest until 6 p.m.

The Invasion: The flotilla is set to arrive at the Tampa Convention Center between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The Parade: The parade of pirates starts at 2 p.m. on Bayshore Boulevard at Bay to Bay Boulevard. The parade runs from Bayshore to Brorein Street, turns east on Brorein, then north on Ashley Drive and ends at Cass Street at 5 p.m.

The Grand Marshal: Romula "Romy" Camargo, a Specials Forces soldier who was wounded in a 2008 firefight in Afghanistan and left paralyzed from the shoulders down, will lead a parade of more than 140 floats, marching bands and pirate krewes. Last year Camargo opened a local nonprofit center for veterans with spinal cord injuries called StayInStep.

Treasure Tips:

• Don't grab at members of the krewes or throw things at the pirates. Then you may not get anything.

• Put the kids up front. Trust us, it works.

• The best spots to get beads is at the start of the parade, not downtown.

• Families usually gather at the start of the parade.

• If high school students annoy you, avoid Willow Avenue.

• If you feel the same about college students, avoid the Davis Islands bridge.

• After parties start about 6:30 p.m. at clubs in Channelside and Ybor City.

Street Closures: The city started closing streets Friday night. The city of Tampa's website has links to maps showing the road closure schedule for downtown Tampa, the Gasparilla parade route, parking options and shuttle bus schedules. Check www.tampagov.net/parking.

Transportation Options: Extra streetcar, bus and trolley service will be offered. See goHART.org. You could also get an Uber, but because of a dispute between local drivers and the company, watch out for surge pricing.

Stay Safe: There will be multiple DUI checkpoints and police boats ready to make arrests. There will also be surveillance cameras and bomb-sniffing dogs along the route.

Officers will crack down on open container violations. Drinking is permitted in the designated wet zone, which is the parade route. No drinking is allowed while in the neighborhoods or while walking to the parade.

Boats are allowed in the area around the parade and invasion, but those that get too close to the Jose Gasparilla pirate ship or move erratically could get stopped for a boating under the influence check.

A new rule this year: no drones. Federal Aviation Administration safety guidelines prohibit the use of drones above large gatherings of people, such as at Gasparilla.

At Gasparilla, dead cellphone service is as ubiquitous as beads and rum drinks 01/29/16 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2016 5:33pm]
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