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As thousands arrive, Athens wrestles to avoid phone outages, communications blackouts

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Amid the roar of the crowd, the silence of the phones can be deafening.

As thousands of athletes, spectators, journalists, officials and more descend on the Greek capital ahead of the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies of the Summer Games, phone companies are scrambling to ensure that the lines of communication, while long, remain open.

"It's been a big undertaking," said Sofia Marinou, a spokesman for Cosmote, the mobile arm of Greek carrier Hellenic Telecommunications, OTE, Greece's former state-owned telecom. "We put extra effort into it and we've undertaken a lot of work."

Indeed, since 2000, OTE installed some 43,000 fixed lines throughout Olympic sites in and around Athens, as well as 3,000 ISDN connections in 60 different venues to accommodate the more than 21,500 journalists from around the world.

OTE spent about $372 million to sponsor and improve Greece's telecommunications infrastructure, install 750 miles of fiber optic cables for Olympic facilities, 6,000 high-speed computer connections and more than 5,000 broadband data connections. OTE also helped set up the lines for a secure network being used by police and security forces.

The number of masts for carrying cell phone signals from the city center to nearly everywhere in the world has more than tripled, as companies like Cosmote, Vodafone and TIM, a subsidiary of TIM Italia, positioned themselves for the crush of phone calls expected during the games.

"In the telecommunications industry, it truly is a nightmare scenario," said John Strand, a telecommunications consultant based in Copenhagen, Denmark, who has monitored the buildup of the communications networks in Greece and the capital.

"Greece is used to a lot of people coming to visit in the summer, but you have to look at the impact of the Olympics," he said, nothing that some 2.6 million tickets have been sold for the games, which end Aug. 29. "During the opening ceremonies and other events, there is going to be a a lot of people who want to make calls. Traffic is going to explode."

So far, there have been some breakdowns and reports of dead air and dropped calls. And it's not just cell phones. Internet connections have slowed to a crawl, only to speed back up.

Some calls can't get access to the cellular networks. Company spokespeople, reluctant to give their names, said it was because of surges in the number of people making calls.

Outside Carrefour, a supermarket cum retail store that sells everything from whole milk to bedroom suites, two shops offering mobile phones did a brisk business selling prepaid phones and top-up cards to journalists, spectators and others.

At Germanos, one of the clerks extolled the virtues of a Nokia 6600 to a pair of men sporting "Argentina" emblazoned on the back of their golf shirts.

"It works fine," the clerk said in a mixture of Spanish and English. "It does, but if you can't make a call, you wait five minutes and it will work fine."

On Tuesday, an Associated Press radio reporter spent 12 hours trying to call Athens from Washington, D.C., without success.

On Wednesday, ADSL service for parts of Athens, including some Olympic venues, and southern Greece, came to a halt for 30 minutes because of a system malfunction, a spokeswoman said.

At the end of July, nearly 50,000 telephones at Olympic sites and parts of Athens went dead for more than 10 hours when technicians tried to upgrade the system, an OTE spokeswoman said.

Company officials told AP that sites affected included the Olympic Village, a media village, and four other games facilities. A back up network kept about half the telephones working at the affected sites, the officials said.

Marinou said that OTE and Cosmote have contingency plans to increase, or boost the cellular network, which has been expanded to include 2G and 3G service for advanced users who want to download video of the games events or send photos of the Acropolis to friends back home.

That's a move Strand said would help alleviate overcrowding and, in the end, result in less grumbling.

"A lot of people during the Olympics will experience problems and quality of service," Strand said, but if capacity is boosted, they'll be happy, provided they can call home. "When you're a communication player in the Greek markets, that is something you have to justify in the long term."

Associated Press Radio reporter Lisa Meyer in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

AP-CS-08-12-04 0826EDT

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